Mr Podhajecki and the Airfix Kid

Posted on February 6, 2013

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I sometimes think that the students who arrive at secondary schools are a bit like the Airfix kits that my brother used to love and be so brilliant at (we had them hanging from the ceiling in dogfighter poses). Some are fully fashioned, needing only the careful application of the stickers and paint to make them perfect. Others are partially constructed, in need of completion but with all the missing pieces still bound together helpfully. Then there are those who have been badly put together by inexpert hands, their pieces ill-fitting but their overall shape fairly coherent.

The plastic parts of the Airfix kit are the various elements of the child’s understanding of their world, whilst the glue is the socially cohesive bonds with other children and adults that help hold the disparate elements together. The paint and stickers are the elements of ‘finish’ provided by post-elementary education, experiences and qualifications. In all of these instances the metaphor holds: the vast majority of children are either complete or incomplete in ways that we can relatively easily deal with.

In the early years of secondary school I was a different kind of Airfix Kid, the kind you find maybe two or three of in each cohort of students. In the first instance the glue had come apart spectacularly the night my brother died and all the pieces had separated. But then, to compound the problems, the pieces left behind had been remorselessly kicked around and trampled by the brutal boots of the bullies.

By the time I arrived in Mr Podhajecki’s (pronounced Pod-a-yes-key) English classroom in the third year of secondary school I was the most pitiful looking Airfix Kid you could hope to find: A bag of parts with no glue, no picture to work towards and no instructions to follow. Forget about the paint and stickers because there’s no point putting lipstick on a pig (Ooooh, a metaphor within a metaphor there).

Fast forward the three years that I was under the tutelage of Mr Podhajecki and the Airfix Kid was rebuilt, not perfectly but bloody miraculously in the circumstances. The pieces were as well-aligned as an untrained eye could see, and they made sense in their configuration. I still don’t know if the pieces were put back together in the way they were originally intended to be, but if Mr Podhajecki (appropriately the son of a Polish pilot from the second world war) had had to bodge the job then he had done it very well. As perfectly imperfect as I am, I am me.

That’s the preamble. This post isn’t about me. It’s about Mr Podhajecki. Or rather it’s about Pod as he was always, and will always be, known to me.

Actually, scrub that. This post isn’t about Pod at all. It is about every former teacher that every current teacher carries with them into their classrooms. It’s about how a Padawan can become a Yoda, or how an Airfix Kid can become a Pod.

So, in the spirit of my contribution to this first #WonderAcademy virtual TeachMeet, here are the things that I learnt from my most amazing teacher that I try to carry with me into my teaching (and hopefully school leadership), along with some examples that will explain more about how he came to put me back together again.

Picking up the pieces
Great teachers know when something is wrong with the students they teach, pastorally or academically, and act upon it immediately even if that is only through a smile, a kind word or a question. They have a sixth sense for students who are struggling with something and take time to reassure the student that everything will be okay (or at least as okay as it can be). They make school safer for them.

One of the first things Pod did for the Airfix Kid was make me smile. There’s a lot to be said for that. Sometimes pubescent students forget how to smile, particularly (but not exclusively) those who have suffered trauma, and a teacher who makes them feel safe enough – gathered up enough – to smile is often making a bigger difference than s/he could ever know.

Seeing what is missing
But making a student feel valued isn’t enough in itself. It will work once or twice, but memorable teachers are also able to carry out an audit of the child (especially the broken ones) and pinpoint pretty accurately what it is that is missing. They do this by looking, listening, asking questions: diagnosing as a doctor or mechanic might.

Pod was the first teacher to ask me about my feelings about my brother and about how it affected things at home. Others had expressed sympathy or regaled me with tales of his genius but only one ever asked the right questions. Only one ever listened fully to the answers. And that’s why he knew what needed fixing.

Seeing what isn’t missing
Just as importantly as identifying the deficits within students, fondly-remembered teachers also identify the areas of surplus. In fact this is usually one of the most important factors because too often students don’t know what they are good at, or don’t want to believe it, or don’t know how to act upon it. We all need to be valued for what we are uniquely good at.

Aged 13 my undiscovered talent was an awareness of and interest in politics and an instinctive and burning desire to make the world better. I have no idea how Pod spotted this in me, but spot it he did. I can only think that when he listened to me in a discussion activity or when he marked my written work he didn’t just assess me: he heard and he saw, and he understood me.

Knowing what goes where
Teachers who make a difference don’t just identify the pieces that are needed to complete an Airfix Kid. They also know where to put them or where they should be located to make children complete, or at least to give the impression of completeness to the outside world and to the inside world. They seem to have a clear picture in their heads of what the child can be.

Pod, the last time I saw him, said that he always knew I would become a teacher. And I believed him, even though I was a fully qualified teacher before even I knew I wanted to become one. It may have been that he saw some of himself in me I suppose. I’d be happy if that were the case but I’d never have asked and he’d never have told me.

Rewriting the instructions
Airfix Kids, whether broken or unbroken, have no instructions. After all, who keeps instructions for supposedly completed children? Life-changing teachers help students rewrite their instructions, and sometimes this is more important for the seemingly unbroken models than the clearly broken ones.

This is the bit that Pod was really good at. He showed me that being a man didn’t mean bottling things up. He showed me that being popular wasn’t the biggest prize of all, and that popularity could be achieved without conformity to the norm. Most of all though he showed me that I didn’t deserve to be bullied and that I didn’t need to be so sad. I still have those rewritten instructions memorised.

Connecting the disconnected
So far all of the features of these long-since-remembered teachers are observational and cognitive but it is through their actions that they have most impact. And it is through their actions that those of us lucky to have met them come to know the things I have described so far. To understand when children need your help is one thing, but to give them that help is another thing altogether.

Before I say anymore I need to stress that Pod was no soft heart, no simpering carer of a teacher. Pod was the hardest-nosed English teacher I ever had: a task-master who put his teaching above everything. As he connected the pieces of me in those three years he did almost every bit of it through his subject expertise and his classroom management, which was the archetype of firm but fair. I never had a single counselling session with him.

Providing the adhesive
As I said earlier the main reason why seemingly completed Airfix Kids come apart is because the glue that bonds fails spectacularly. The teachers who inspire us for years-to-come do so because they provide a stronger glue, not by replacing that of our families but by applying the adhesive qualities of their humanity, their subject knowledge and their leadership of their classrooms.

Pod’s glue was literature and language. From Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie to Ted Hughes’ Thought Fox. From debates about capital punishment to properly creative writing. From Animal Farm to political speech-writing. But more special than all of that was the wider reading he introduced me to, including my leaving gift of a copy of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: a more perfect gift I cannot remember receiving. That’s beyond superglue. That’s ultraglue and it still sticks tightly even now.

Holding the pieces firmly
Awesome teachers (one for antipodean appreciators there) know that applying the glue is not enough and that they need to bring the pieces together in alignment. Badly handled ultraglue can damage everybody. It is the point in the process when a nurturing eye and a sensitive touch is most needed.

Having unleashed on me the kind of learning that he did Pod made sure it was safe, checking me in two very different ways. Supportively he checked that the work we did was not making the still dammed-up emotions (not ready to be undammed for a few more years) any worse. More importantly he checked my growing confidence, challenging me to think better, do better, be better and not accept that being unbroken was enough and would do. That was the most important lesson he taught me, and boy did he teach me it.

Applying finishing touches
It is one thing to teach children how to love your subject, but the best teachers who want to be certain of their impact on students also know that they also have to be successful in that subject, however success may be defined and measured. Passing exams is, of course, the obvious one but so is using the knowledge and skills gained beyond the walls of the classroom. So too is doing the best you can and so is following up an interest in later studies and future careers. These are the stickers and paintjobs that bring a true sense of completion to Airfix Kids.

Pod helped me to pass exams, but not particularly brilliantly given my ability: Two Bs and GCSE and a D at A-Level aren’t earth-shakingly good. But he made me politically aware and linguistically adept enough to make me confident enough to speak at anti-Poll Tax demos as a sixth former, and to stand for NUS President as a student, and to stand up for colleagues to this very day. Most of all, though, he influenced me to become a teacher and to become a teacher with some of the qualities he possessed in my time as his Padawan. And although he never ventured near management in his career he influenced me to become a school leader too and to become a school leader with some of the qualities he possessed. I owe him an awful lot for the paint job he gave me, above and beyond those GCSE passes.

Knowing when the job is done
As a teacher I have learned that sometimes the hardest part of working with Airfix Kids, especially of the broken variety, is letting them go. Often you know that their rehabilitation isn’t complete or their world isn’t perfect. But the truly fantastic teachers aren’t attempting to massage their own egos or become superheroes or build a ‘legacy’ for all to remember them by. They are usually just looking to teach their subjects to children they like and they know that doing so with a heart is the best they can hope to offer.

Apart from the book he gave me Pod let me go with minimal fuss. No big speeches. No hugs. No promise of future meetings: I only saw him once more and that was by chance in the town centre many years later. But he did leave me with a couple of good GCSEs and a love of English that would sustain me through A-Levels, a Degree, a PGCE and an 18 year career as an English teacher. He also left me with the confidence to speak in front of people, but the humility to know that I had to say something interesting and useful if I wanted them to listen. He left me with a love of reading and all the many universes that brings to my life. He left me with a zest (and hopefully a talent) for writing that I have rediscovered in writing posts just like this one. In short he left me with the skills, attitude and knowledge to be a more successful adult than I had been a child.

And there was one thing more about the way in which he left me that taught me one final lesson. I had decided to stay at my school after GCSEs whereas he had decided to leave in order to take up a job teaching English to profoundly deaf children at a special school. I asked him, in a fit of pique, why he was not staying on to teach us at A-Level and I was more than a little unfair about the nature of his move from mainstream to special education. He immediately forgave me my stupidity when he could have been quite harsh with me. Instead (and I remember this so vividly as I write) he looked at me with that same old smile bubbling under his walrus-like moustache and that same old glint in his eye and said “One day you’ll understand”. And I do. I really do.

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Posted in: Personal, Teaching