Tom Starkey – It’s Never Too Late To Learn

  • Tom Starkey – It’s Never Too Late To Learn

There is a time when the torch must be passed. When the acquired knowledge of a career is distilled and transmitted to the the the up-and-comers, the keen, the unjaded. The wise look to the young to share what they have learned, and the young gratefully receive that learning, safe in the knowledge that they will be able to use it to carry the torch, illuminating the future as they go.

That time was not in my third year of teaching when I was asked to help mentor a PGCE student. Or any other time in my career, to be fair.

I am (as my students can angrily attest) almost pathologically disorganised. The prospect of being responsible for anyone other than myself vexed me greatly. Why was I being chosen? I could barely get myself dressed and out of the house on a morning and now they wanted me to look after some rookie? I was too busy damn it! I was working too many cases to have to babysit some snot-nose kid! I stormed into my HoD’s room with the express intention of telling her no and slamming my badge and gun down on the table if she insisted. Three and a half minutes later I stormed out again after having agreed to every single thing she had told me to do. She was awfully, awfully scary.

So I became a mentor. I mentored. I mentored the hell out this bright-eyed stripling with beautiful ideas about all the good he could do as a teacher of English. His whole being shone with the possibilities of his epic soon-to-be profession. He was keen, able, hard-working, intelligent and kept up a sense of humour at all times.

So, so annoying

My own training was a harsh trial by fire. Tough schools and a course heavily weighted towards pedagogy and theory that was about as much use as liquid shoelaces had led me to the very edge of my tether and beyond. I was ready to show this noob the harsh realities, to introduce him to the horrors, harden him for what was to come. But this guy (and I took this as a personal affront) this guy was COPING. The worst classes on his timetable were producing some great stuff, he was able to function even with the inevitable lack of sleep sacrificed to the twin altars of marking and planning and the TAs absolutely adored him – that in itself was something of an epic triumph as they didn’t share their favours with just anyone… well, not with me, that’s for sure.

He was golden. Granted, he was making my task a fairly easy one but my vision of the grizzled veteran bestowing what he knew of the corridors and classroom with a world-weary frown were being replaced by a different trope – that of the the young up-and-comer who steps in, effortlessly shakes things up and leaves the old codger looking hopelessly out of touch. I was a tad put out.

After a fair bit of moping I decided I had to do something about it. It really couldn’t be allowed to go on. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I pushed him down the stairs or something aren’t you? C’mon now, what on earth’s the matter with you? No. There were no unexplained accidents resulting in his removal. Instead I rearranged my timetable to shadow him for a couple of days. I swallowed a bit of pride as it looked like I could learn a few things from the new kid (much as it stuck in my craw).

And I was right. He was an amazing practitioner, one of the best I’ve seen. I had begun thinking that I’d have to mould and shape him into something that closely resembled a half-decent teacher but instead he was taking me to class. I still use some of the techniques I observed in those lessons in my own, years later. Sometimes you’ve just got to accept the fact that there are things that you can learn. Sometimes the teacher has to sit with an open mind ready to take on board something new even if those that they’re learning it from seem to be about 11 and a half. I’m proud, but I’m not daft. If there’s a chance to get better at something I take it.

Saying that, I did tell him I was observing him as I had noticed a couple of minor problems in his delivery. You’ve gotta keep these young ‘uns on their toes, you know?


Tom Starkey is a teacher in an FE college in the north of England. He blogs at @tstarkey1212