School Blues

One of the best books I have read is Daniel Pennac’s School Blues, winner of the Prix Reaudot.

It was published about 10 years ago now and might have slipped off the radar but it is one I go back to for lots of re-reads.

Why? It’s full of insights and his use of language is delicious. This French educator knows his stuff.

There are many stand-out pages and there is plenty to point at but inside one of his chapters you will find his own recollections of teachers that shaped him and what they had in common.

Daniel talks enthusiastically about one teacher in particular and says, “All it takes is one teacher – just one – to save us from ourselves and makes us forget all the others.”

Mr Bal, his maths teacher, is someone we may recognise either in ourselves or in others but if this is so then we should consider ourselves extremely fortunate.

What made him special? Mr Bal possessed passion for his subject.

He managed to enthrall his students because he was in love with his subject.

Maths “seemed to possess him, making him unusually vital, calm and kind. A strange goodness born of knowledge, of the natural desire to share with us the subject that delighted his mind, and which he could never have imagined our finding repulsive, or even strange.”

The passion for communicating your subject is vital if you want to immerse students and it is so often lacking even by subject specialists.

Daniel describes Mr Bal as an artist at conveying his subject and his lessons were “feats of communication”.

But more than that, Mr Bal had mastered his knowledge “to the point where it almost passed for spontaneous creation. Their ease transformed each lesson into an event to be remembered.”

Beyond this even, Daniel recalls that it wasn’t just their knowledge sharing that excited but their desire for knowledge itself.

Do you know any teachers that fall into this category? How many teachers can manage this level of natural mastery and a seemingly effortless knack of inspiring others to turn up to their lessons with hunger in their bellies?

Daniel remembers Mr Bal as a mathematical Buddha who who could connect and rekindle a desire for learning, celebrating progress, displayed endless patience, never took failures personally and never gave up.

Are there many Mr Bal’s left in the profession?

Further references:

School Blues: Daniel Pennac in interview with Quentin Blake. See also Micahel Rosen’s review here.

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