I was wandering round an outdoor clothing shop, trying, as usual, to look rugged and well acquainted with mountains, when my attention was claimed by the writing on the wall – literally.
There was a quotation from snowboarder, Emilio Previtali: In every life, there are only a few epic minutes.
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As sometimes happens, the thought remained in my head; in fact, it nagged away like a drawing pin stuck to the heel of my shoe, clicking all the way home.
What were my epic minutes?
There have been a number – spread across family, sports events, concerts, and travel - and then I thought of the classroom.
This isn’t the best time of the year for teachers. Tired at the end of the longest term, they are trammelled, in the face of looming holidays, by university application forms, prelim exams, course deadlines, Christmas shows and rehearsals. Then there’s the family festivities to organise.
And yet, there still exists the possibility that when they walk into a classroom they could be providing a pupil with one of their ‘epic minutes’.
It’s a scary prospect, but a wonderful component of the job that teachers do: the potential to provide lifelong inspiration. Even more remarkable is the fact that you can’t plan it, and you may even be blissfully unaware it has happened. You can only give your best effort in the classroom and trust there will be a connection, a spark, an ‘epic’ moment from time to time.
As a pupil, I had some epic minutes in a double English period on a Thursday afternoon in October 1968. The teacher, Ernie Spencer, decided to cover “The Send Off” by War Poet, Wilfred Owen. It’s a fine poem and he was a good teacher, but, for some reason, during those two periods, everything clicked. Suddenly I ‘got’ poetry. I came out of that class enthused; I had a whole different take on literature, and I suspect, somewhere deep within, it was when I first thought I might be a teacher of English.
He was just a teacher on an ordinary day, and he can’t have known the effect his lesson plan would have on the life of one of his pupils. I wonder if most ‘epic minutes’ are private to those who experience them – and maybe go unrecognised till much later. How would you ‘measure the impact’ of such moments in classroom observation or curriculum planning?
Happily, through good fortune, I had the chance to revisit those particular minutes. A quarter of a century later, Ernie came to our school as an HMI, and observed one of my classes. I couldn’t resist a re-run of that original lesson on “The Send Off”.
At the end, I was happy to say to the class: “If you enjoy my teaching, or if you don’t, you can put the blame on that man at the back!”
Hopefully, then, tired teachers limping towards Christmas will remember that, apart from all the paperwork, the planning, and the hassle, they are in a job which retains the potential to make that much difference, to change lives or attitudes.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m away to ponder what my life might have been like had I been absent that October afternoon……