By Melinda Collins
Teachers can, and do, change lives. It’s a complex and demanding position requiring a great deal from its demonstrators. A teacher dons the mantle of communicator, evaluator, manager, disciplinarian, therapist and team leader. But it is passion which makes a good teacher great.
While William Taylor, one of New Zealand’s most prolific writers, began his literary journey in the confines of the classroom, he disputes being “passionate” about teaching.
Although, it is more the usage of the word he takes issue to than the concept itself. “You’ll never catch me using the word ‘passion’ the way it is used today. I don’t ever think I ever had a passion for teaching any more than I later had a passion for writing. Great enthusiasm, boundless enthusiasm – sure. Passion? I don’t think so.”
So, what did he bring to the teaching arena? “An open mind, an acceptance of all kids and the ability to develop approaches, particularly in the reading and language field, that were of benefit to kids of all abilities.
“While enthusiasm itself is not really enough, a dollop of it sure helps. I was certainly an enthusiastic young teacher.”
But as our conversation develops, delivered eloquently on his part, it is not hard to see why the teacher turned author chose to play out his early career in the classroom – that aforementioned passion is worn on his sleeve.
Trained as a primary teacher at Christchurch Teacher’s College, Taylor taught from 1959 to 1985, finishing his teaching career as Principal of Ohakune School, before his foray into the writing arena.
His delve into the world of teaching happened very much by chance. Taylor left school at 16 and while working in a bank, discovered a poster advertising for teachers. The mid 1950s were desperate times for schools as Baby Boomers flooded in.
“Virtually anyone who walked through the door, particularly the few wearing trousers and who were morally, medically and moderately educationally fit would fill the bill.”
He was in and just two years later, qualified. “These days it appears to take the best part of a half century to certificate and register a teacher. In 1957 it took just two years. Whether or not we were sufficiently or suitably trained to be plonked in front of a class of thirty, forty or fifty kids is a moot point. “In no time at all I had fallen in love with the job.”
But it was his autonomous nature which ensured success. “No one could have taught me how to teach – I had to find out by myself. Later on, no one could have taught me how to write. Whatever skills I have in that respect I have developed by trial and error, and by getting on with the job.
“I have always maintained that the more you write, the better you write. Well, so it was back in the days of my teaching. The longer I taught, the better I taught.”
But it was his first few years which developed the principles which would guide his teaching career. “You learn something when you see a need to learn it. You learn even better through actually doing it rather than being told about it.
“Build upon what the child can do, rather than forever harping away at what they can’t do. Yes, competition is OK, but so is co-operation.”
Between 1968 and 1973 Taylor wrote half a dozen novels for adults. “Why? Well, quite simply I seemed to have run out of anything else better to do, and it seemed like a reasonable idea at the time.” And later came his foray into children’s writing.
Taylor retains a close association with education, coupling his writing with extensive travel, speaking at schools, libraries and festivals. So one would think he would have strong convictions on how things have changed since his teaching days.
“One thing I’ll never be caught saying is ‘things were better in my day’. Those far off, golden olden days may have been different, they may have been great, but they certainly weren’t better. I live in the here and now.”
However, he does have a stance on the new standards. “I take a rather acid view of the new standards, I just don’t think they meet the needs of children as I would like to see the needs served.
“One thing I took from my years of teacher training was an old adage, that testing isn’t teaching. And I believe that as much today as when I first heard it.”
Strong conviction is in his nature. “I have always felt that I had an obligation to ‘tell it how it is’. I may be a weaver of stories and tales and a re-teller of old fables, but for all that, I am honest.”
While much has changed since Taylor’s venture into the world of education, one thing remains true, and that is his commitment to the profession.
“Of enormous importance in making me ‘who I am’ are the children I have taught and the children for whom I have written a respectable pile of books. I have done what I can to do my best for them.
“One thing I hoped for when I taught my first class in 1959, and continue to hope for, is that we (teachers) equip our children to the best of our abilities to face the world in which we grow, and will continue to grow.”
In his warm and witty memoir Telling Tales, Taylor writes engagingly about life as a writer, teacher and solo father, Principal of Ohakune School and Mayor of Ohakune, published by Harper Collins released in May.