04 July 2014

An evil headmaster

I reproduce below an account by one of my associates of an experience they had with the headmaster of their primary school. The account illustrates what is seldom acknowledged: that teachers, especially those employed in the state sector, may have destructive motivation towards some (or all) of their pupils, particularly those of high ability.

“Mr ‘X’ was the headmaster of the primary school I attended. When I was nine, he was in charge of the relatively small class of pupils deemed as possibles for passing the 11-plus exam. There was a parallel, and larger, lower-ability class. Although I was not aware of any formal policy on this, there were clear signs that this second class were regarded as no-hopers for the 11-plus exam. For example, the first class were occasionally given hints about how to do well in the exam, which was not done for the second class.

At that time, pupils of age 9 at the school entered either the 11-plus class or the parallel class, and left the school at 11 to go to secondary school – normally a grammar school if they had passed the 11-plus, or a secondary modern school if they had not.

At nine, I was among those selected to enter the ‘top’ class (as I, not the school, called it). I was at that time a bouncy, sociable and self-confident person. I was also conscientious, and felt identified with working hard and doing my best.

However, after entering the top class it soon emerged that I had not completely learnt my multiplication tables by heart, as I was apparently supposed to have done. This gave Mr X an excuse to punish me. As a result of my relative weakness in multiplication, I scored badly in the mental arithmetic tests Mr X gave regularly, and he began threatening me with the idea that I might be relegated to the ‘lower’ class. I was too full of shame and panic to tell my parents about these threats.

In due course I was relegated to the lower class, which happened towards the end of the first term. I did not tell my parents immediately that it had happened, because I felt ashamed. Mr X made no attempt to teach me the tables himself, nor did he contact my parents to encourage them to do so.

Mr X generally treated me as if I were a criminal or similar moral reprobate. He appeared to attribute my not having learnt the multiplication tables to laziness and frivolity, and hinted that my defect might consist in something even worse. When I thought about it later, I realised that (at the time) I felt that I had not known how wicked I was until Mr X had told me.

Eventually I had to tell my parents about the situation, and they reacted as I feared they would. They assured me that they ‘loved’ me but took it for granted that my being relegated to the lower class by Mr X meant that I was deficient in arithmetic, and that I would not pass the 11-plus. They started to console themselves with the idea that even if I went to a secondary modern school, I might still have a chance to take O-levels, like the children who got into grammar school.

Being in the ‘lower’ class damaged my self-confidence and did not improve my prowess at mental arithmetic. In neither the ‘top’ class nor the ‘lower’ class were the multiplication tables actually taught. I felt cowed.

One thing I remember vividly is that I had been in the school choir, which Mr X was in charge of, and that I had greatly enjoyed it. However, it appears I was penalised for my ‘sins’ by being excluded from choir events as well. That school year, the school choir performed with a number of other choirs at a concert in a nearby town, and one of my brothers was on stage as a member of the choir, but I was not. Instead, I was in the audience with my parents and younger siblings (they were too young to be in the choir).

At the end of that school year, I only managed to come third in the ‘lower’ class, even though I had previously come top of my year. I am sure this was because I felt demoralised and unable to identify with myself.

At the start of the next school year, Mr X graciously allowed me back into the ‘top’ class. I was relieved that I was back in the ‘land of the living’, i.e. in the same class as other obviously intelligent children, but my confidence had been damaged and I continued to think of myself as naturally lazy and frivolous.

All the pupils who turned 11 in that school year, including me, took the 11-plus. I made my best attempt at it. By that time I had learnt the multiplication tables by myself, at home. I didn’t feel I was doing particularly well at school (we didn’t get much feedback about how we were doing, until the end of a year) and so I fully expected not to pass the 11-plus. Nevertheless I did pass it, along with a few others in the top class. Also, at the end of the year it was announced, to my surprise, that I had come first in class, in terms of marks for schoolwork during the year.

I expect Mr X was fuming as he signed my book prize for coming first, as he evidently hated me. During the ‘demotion’ episode he had treated me as if I had somehow injured him, and as if he had to try to take revenge.

Although I could be said to have left that school on a relatively high note, my self-confidence did not return until many years later. I remained disconnected from my schoolwork throughout most of my time at the secondary school, and only achieved mediocre results in my O- and A-levels.

Thirty years later, I was only reminded that I had in fact come first at the end of the last year of primary school when I visited my parents, noticed the prize book there, and opened it to see the inscription signed by Mr X.

In retrospect, I expect Mr X had first noticed me when I went with my mother, at the age of four and half, to meet him for an interview about my attending the school in due course. At that time I could already read. While my mother was talking to Mr X, I took a great interest in the school noticeboards which I found in the corridors. Mr X asked me about what I could see, so I told him what I had read. I came to his attention again when I came top of my school year at the age of eight, and he was no doubt reminded to keep an eye on me.

By the time I was nine I was on the board of distinguished readers, an elite group of about ten pupils. One bad thing Mr X did not do when I was put down a year, though he had the capacity to, was to wipe my name off that list. But it was not my ability that he had called into question; it was my character. This may have done me more harm than if he had merely implied I was stupid.

My tentative interpretation of what happened is that Mr X was hostile to me because I was clever. Hence his desire to punish me by making me appear stupid. I think this reaction to ability, and desire to do someone down, is more common among teachers than is generally realised. The concept of the sadistic teacher is relatively commonplace, but the idea that hostility is particularly aroused by the able is less so. Of course this characteristic can be found among private school teachers as well as those working in the state sector. However, in the private sector there is at least a modicum of competitive pressure to keep anti-ability motivation suppressed.

Parents may not always care about the effects of a school as much as one might hope. However, they care more if they are paying, and are liable to transfer their children to another school if they think their money would be better spent elsewhere. By contrast, there is little pressure on state school teachers not to behave destructively. The parents aren’t paying and they typically have little power to change schools. Even if they do change, the school being rejected doesn’t suffer financially, so it has little reason to avoid teachers who behave like this, or to give them an incentive not to do so.”