Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Good Teacher

In my last few years of primary school in Dublin we had a most inspiring young teacher. It's worth naming him because I'm only going to say good things. He was Seán P. Ó Hógain, from Limerick I recall, and I'd guess he might today be aged in his sixties.

Seán P was first introduced to the class by the school Headmaster who also treated Seán P to a lengthy dissertation on how our class had many temporary teachers in the last year and how we were way behind in what needed to be covered etc. When the Headmaster departed there followed our usual nervous silence with a new teacher in the room. Would he be tough, loud, threatening? Our bodies were rigid and our senses were on stalks like small animals studying a larger potential predator.

But something strange started to emerge. Seán P. was talking to us as if we were friends, even threw in some humour. It was not childish though, it was as if he respected us as almost young adults. We didn't quite know how to react, was it a trick, would he suddenly turn nasty? This was 1966, as 11 year old lads we were not used to teacher's being nice. Our reaction to a teacher being soft would be to go a bit out of control, be unruly. But this was different. He was being very direct with us, probing us, challenging us, it demanded thought. Seán P seemed to be able to think a bit like us. But he also turned out to be radically better at teaching than anyone we had before.

Seán P helped the class appreciate complex parts of Shakespeare's plays such as Julius Caesar, Hamlet, big poems like Tennyson's Ulysses, complex literature etc. Lord of the Flies was a book he read to us in class and encouraged us all to read it, which we did. Everyone I spoke to could relate to it and think deeper - it was based on school boys our own age. He also did a brilliant analysis of the "Friends, Romans, Countrymen..." speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and how Mark Anthony gradually aroused the crowd to the opposite view.

It was all light years off the curriculum stuff and I recall once a school inspector admonishing Seán P in the class for covering material which was far too difficult for our age group. But our teacher had a great bond with the class and patiently deciphered complex material to help us both understand and - more importantly - enjoy it.

As his name suggests, Seán P also had a strong interest in the Irish language. He tried to make Irish cool I suppose - in the way TG4 are doing today. It didn't fully work for me, I was always very cosmopolitan and felt Irish was a drag. However I did learn Irish better via Seán P. He also went through a phase of teaching us history through Irish. Very democratically, he actually got the class to vote on this - amazingly we agreed, a sign of his credibility in class. After about 6 months of learning history though Irish he gave up on it as we were not grasping history enough through our limited powers in Irish language. But he was never afraid of trying new ideas.

A notable feature of Seán P was his sense of humour. He was so funny at times. He could help you remember anything by seeing the funny side of it. Even various Irish battles in the middle ages he could give a wickedly funny insight into how the factions might be thinking.

In religion Seán P covered a famous book called "God is for real, man". It was a book published to help modern American inner city dudes understand the message of Christianity. It was hilarious - especially in the way Seán P amplified it - but we remembered every single parable!

I remember a sobering debate Seán P brought up regarding proof for God existing. He claimed to our mild shock at the time that there was no proof at all. This created an interesting tail-wagging-the-dog spectacle of many in the class putting together arguments to prove to the teacher that God did exist. He was playing devils advocate so well that he had everyone's active attention. Seán P was able refute all of our feeble attempts at proof. He ended it all by saying that he believed in God himself but that we should realise it's not provable. In those times if the headmaster or the priests had been fully aware of this debate he would have been in trouble.

Other things Seán P covered were appreciation of modern art, encouraging us at stamp collecting, science experiments in class etc. It was stuff never covered in primary school in the 1960s, he was way before his time.

Seán P helped me in many ways. He taught me to think for myself and question things. He gave me an initial appreciation of the arts and literature which I never lost in spite of moving in a more science and technology career direction (which he also helped with through his good handling of science). Seán P. was also the teacher who got our class going on learning Chess - see my blog of same - and I've described how that had both a direct and indirect groundbreaking affect on me.

If Seán P is still on the planet - a big thanks from me - and I'm sure I speak for the entire class, we all liked him!


VM said...

It is always a consoling thing to remember one's favourite teacher!

missmellifluous said...

What an inspiring and innovative teacher! You always tell your stories so well, John of Dublin. Thank you for sharing this one.

I wonder what Seán P. Ó Hógain is doing now...

Oh, by the way, I had a little boy in my class the other day who started speaking to me in Irish. I was completely surprised as it is a rare thing to hear Irish in Sydney classrooms. I couldn't hide my surprise as I said, "__________, you're speaking Irish!"

He promptly apologised saying, "I'm sorry , Miss, the only words I know are swear words. I didn't mean it. It's all my Grandfather taught me."

Of course he didn't get in trouble. I had been encouraging the students to speak the various languages they knew and young _______ was simply responding enthusiastically to the challenge. I encouraged him to go home and learn some new, more appropriate words from his Grandfather.

John of Dublin said...

Thanks VM and Missmellifluous.