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Teaching black kids in London in the ’70s


I STARTED TEACHING after Enoch Powell’s divisive speech, during the rise of the skinheads and at a time of still blatant and overt racism.

I was a new graduate from teachers’ school and accepted the only job offer I had – to teach at a multi-ethnic high school in London.

It wasn’t a particularly bad area and had a fair mix of students. But the school did segregate by performance: three grades for each form – A, B and C – the A’s being the best, the C’s the worst.

I was given the job of teaching English to form 4C (the worst performing 14-15 year olds).  The class was 90% kids of black Caribbean origin, who had of course grown up in England.

I met many of their folks on ‘parent evening’ and understood they wanted the best for their kids, but knew they were up against the odds. They were sympathetic and helpful and hopeful that I could make a difference for their kids.

I quickly realised I was in for a hiding, and the only way was to try and get through to the kids. So I did a quick immersion course in black culture and tried to make my classes as relevant as possible.

We had to study some Shakespeare, so I chose Othello – and took my class to see a performance at Stratford. I illustrated it with comments from their experiences of prejudice against black people – and we found a contemporary-English version to read side-by-side with the original so we could talk about how language had changed.

For literature I chose amongst other books To Kill a Mockingbird and managed to hire the Gregory Peck film to show. We discussed it at length in class.

Then I thought we’d explore black music lyrics, and we had some lessons on Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix etc. This brought the ire of the school authorities down on me – as the music was too loud.

The school received a complaint from a white boy’s parents that I was teaching “too much black-stuff” but too their credit the school supported me.

Then came the social events. We had an annual cricket match – school versus parents. I happened to know that a father of one of my black students has tested for the West Indies team as a fast bowler, so encouraged him to join. The parents thrashed the teachers – largely because my ringer bowled out seven of them!

Then came the end-of-school picnic day out. I realised at the last minute that no-one had made an outing affordable or interesting to my students, so none was going. So I hired a mini-bus and said we’ll have a day at Clacton – it’ll only cost five pounds – ask your parents! You can do what you like! Fun-fairs, peep-shows, parades, circus etc – like a day at the Show.

They all came and we had a great time.

That was my last year there. On leaving, my 4C kids saved up between them and gave me a present. It was a lovely silver pen inscribed with the words “To Sir With Love”.

I still have it.

Ten years later I was walking though Wembley when I heard a cry from a construction site. It was a 25-year old black building labourer yelling out, “Sir!, Sir!”. He ran up to me and said – “Hey I’m Ivan – I was one of your students in 4C at high school, remember me?” Yes I did. He was one of the worst. But he had remembered.

He said “I’ll never forget what you did for us kids. Thank you”

That one small moment crystallised all that can be good about teaching.

Young Ivan wanted to learn to drive, but his family didn’t have a car, so I taught him after school in mine (an old Anglia). He managed to crash it into a lamp post and felt so sorry he saved up and gave me 10 pounds for the repairs.

His parents invited me around for dinner to say sorry.

The other teachers called him “Ivan the Terrible”, but I liked him.

When I left that school I asked the Head for a reference. He wrote “one of his faults as a teacher is that he feels too sympathetic for his students.”

I was rather proud of that.

Closest I’ve got to that feeling is teaching in PNG – but that’s another story.


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Peter Kranz

Linda - there were some amazing sites close to Cranford which I use to visit in my leisure hours. (I was working night shifts for Adult Education.) Most wonderful being St Dunstan's church, in the park which dates from the 15th century.

The oldest bell in the church was cast in 1338 and is said to have chimed on every occasion of national importance since 1340.

And we haven't even mentioned 'Cranford' by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Unfortunately it is not related to Cranford, Hounslow. But it would have been interesting if it was.

Linda Saul

Peter (chuckle) - I clearly remember we were under the flight path and the whole classroom building vibrated when planes went over. Our teachers too had to stop talking a lot!

I believe Heston aerodrome and Heathrow were originally part of Hounslow Heath, Dick Turpin the highwayman's haunt. The Bath Road was a Roman Road running straight through the Heath. Interesting stuff!

Peter Kranz

I suppose I have something of an obsession with history. Maybe because of the people I have been priveliged to meet - quite by accident.

As well as the old cleaner at Crandford whose husband had stood behind Chamerlain, there's was an old caretaker where may Dad worked who had served as a sailor on the North Sea convoys in the RN to Russia in 1943-4.

He said to me "Peter, one night we lost ten ships. The subs were all around us, and we couldn't stop to pick up the survivors or we could have been next target. You never want to got through that."

I'll never forget that.

I also met Catherine Bramwell Booth, whom my wife was nursing at the time. Her opening remark on meeting me was "you're not one of those Evolutionists, I trust?"

Then there was the old Spitfire pilot friend who served in Burma and has family in Corowa.

And the bomb craters in my parents back-garden which always puzzled me, until my Dad-in-law said - "they were trying to hit Leavseden aerodrome (around 3 kms away), but they fell short."

Peter Kranz

Linda - the school I was writing about was in Watford, North London. But I also taught at Cranford in Hounslow (as far as I know the only school in England to be fitted with double glazing, as it was right under the flightpath of Heathrow airport - despite this we often had to stop classes when a plane was taking off).

A bit of history. One of our old cleaning ladies at Cranford had a husband who appears in the back of the famous newsreel showing Chamberlain walking down the steps of a plane waving a piece of paper and declaring 'peace in our time' signed by Herr Hitler.

The airfield was Heston Aerodrome - long since diasappeard, but important during WW2. It was the base for RAF reconnaisance flights which pioneered the use of high-resolution aerial photography developed by Sydney Cotton, an Australian - and Queenslander to boot!

Can't keep down a good banana bender.

Linda Saul

I attended Heston Secondary School 1961-67. By Forms 5 and 6, I was a white minority in the classroom. It was so interesting amongst the ethnic mix of Caribbeans, Kenyans, Hindu and Pakistani.

I guess I was lucky since my parents thought of our area, Hounslow, in the same light so we didn't move away like many.

I subsequently moved on in life to be a minority amongst Maori friends in NZ, Tuvaluan and Kiribati work colleagues on Nauru and wife of 30 years to my late husband from Milne Bay.

Yes, we spent alternate extended periods bringing up our children both back in the village and in town until the time came for each to attend their last years of high school in Australia.

Reginald Renagi

Peter - A really nice story that reminds me of the movie, "To Sir, With Love", starring Sydney Poitier and singer Lulu.

I watched the movie a few times during my high school years because Sydney Poitier was my first favourite black actor then, and my girl-friend (now my other half), like the other girls in the cinema, loved Lulu's singing of the movie's theme song.

Peter Kranz

Thanks Barbara. I'm sure there are many ex-teachers here with experiences in PNG worth relating - KJ for one!

I taught occasionally at UPNG and was always amazed at how polite and attentive the students were (unlike the UK or Australia).

I remember my first class when I stood up and said "Good morning everyone" and was astounded when they all stood up and said in unison, "Good morning, Mr Kranz."

Mind you we did have a few riots to get through in my first year. However even during this the students were polite and even quietly advised me to stay away from certain areas when trouble was brewing. "We don't want you to get hurt sir".

During my first week as head teacher of Gagl primary school (about 5-6 km into the hills behind Kerowagi), I was settling down to a night's reading by the kero lamp in my capacious 3-bedroom 'donga' when a fearful commotion broke out just beyond the school grounds.

A few minutes later there was a loud knocking on the front door. It was my manki masta Di Siune accompanied by the bloodied figure of a young man I recognised as one of my Standard 6 'schoolboys', who at 21 was the same age as I. He had some superficial wounds which we tended to.

It turned out that the land surrounding the school was 'contestable', and the subject of periodic warfare between two rival clans.

The next day in a state of dudgeon closely approximating high, I called for the clan leaders to front up at the school for a dressing down.

They duly arrived and, quick as a flash, one of them got in first and said the two groups had already put their heads together on the matter.

Both leaders apologised that the school grounds had been impinged, assured me that this would never happen again and affirmed that the school was treasured by every man, woman and child who wanted to do nothing that might jeopardise its status.

They were as good as their word. In the rest of my year at Gagl, I experienced no further incidents, found the people assiduous in their efforts to improve the school and its grounds, and conscientious in keeping the students focussed on their learning.

I retain very warm feelings for those magnificent people and their wonderful attitude towards education - KJ

Barbara Short

Lovely story, Peter. The recent riots have been reminding me of some of the problems that I came across when I taught in London.

I did relief teaching in the Secondary Modern high schools in the Borough of Ealing, London, during 1965-66 and much of it reminded me of the film "To Sir With Love".

I remember having a class which was half West Indian and half Pakistani. Fortunately we had an excellent Head and he lent me his top students to do one-to-one reading lessons.

At Walford Secondary Modern I had the "bottom" Year 7s as my special home class and found most could hardly read or write. I was given many periods with them.

Had a great time working with them and on Parent and Teacher night I was swamped with all their parents wanting to talk to me. They appreciated "someone who cared"! I just hope I helped a few along their way.

Of course they got plenty of Australian literature which I found in Ealing Library!

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