Acronyms have to be taken seriously. Acronyms mean business.
It used to be different. Acronyms were once discreet ways of referring to matters that weren’t talked about openly. ‘STs’, for instance, were sanitary towels (also known as ‘bunnies’). ‘MD’, spoken in a hushed tone, meant ‘mentally defective’. ‘FHB’, with a warning inflection, meant when there were guests to dinner, they got first option on seconds (also known as ‘secs’). It stood for Family Hold Back.
Then there was WC for water closet. There must be more strange terms for a toilet (which is in itself a strange term) than any other object in our lives. Some are short (WC, loo, bog), others lengthy. ‘Public Convenience’, for example, is such an elegant term. A notice on the door of one of the toilets in our local supermarket currently reads ‘Out of order. We are sorry for the inconvenience.’ So wonderfully apt.
But I'm wandering. I meant to start with CPD, which might stand for Continuous Poetic Divagation, Conservative Policy on Diarrhoea, or Chronic Psychotropic Disorder.
However, as all folk in the teaching profession know, it also clunks into place as Continuing Professional Development, which means spending a certain number of hours per year on training courses, later listed on a CPDR (Continuing Professional Development Record). The CPD acronym (rarely enunciated without a groan) has quickly acquired negative connotations.
Last week, in my college role, I was engaged in discussion with colleagues about (groan) CPD and how to make it more relevant. We were talking about teaching. Which experiences, training sessions, books had taught us how to teach?
My father died over a quarter of a century ago. He was 61 and I thought he was a good age. Now, at nearly 59 myself, I see he was incredibly young. On the stone tablet that marks the place where his ashes lie, he is described as a ‘schoolmaster’. He liked that word – he liked words in general.
When I was ten I was in his class at school. He was one of two head-teachers (they were partners in a private business) and the school was a huge Victorian mansion in which we also lived. It seemed normal at the time. In the holidays, when the children were away, my sister and I had a classroom as playroom, as well as the run of the huge garden and playing field at the back. When they wanted us in for tea, (we were unlikely to be visible) they rang the school bell.
When your parents are teachers (my mother started teaching later, in the same school), you imbibe certain things without knowing. There’s the matter of answering a question with a question, for example. Q: “Why do poems have short lines?” A: “Why do you think they have short lines?”
A college boss once told me I had a habit of answering a question with a question. He found it very annoying. Teachers use this response mechanism to get you to think. They also do it to give themselves time to think. I once had a fierce argument with the same boss. I told him I didn’t think you could be a good teacher without a sense of self-doubt. He believed, needless to say, the opposite.
I have a clear memory, accompanied by a warm glow of pleasure, of asking a question when I was in Form IV, my dad’s class. We were doing Hadrian’s Wall, which was more than 70 miles long and built of local stone. “How did they stick the stones together to make it?” I asked.
My father paused. “That’s a very good question,” he said.
To this day, I would rather be praised for a good question than a good answer. Of course, he may have been playing for time, while he worked out what to say. Or he might have been delighted by my question because he knew the answer. I can’t remember what happened next.
It was early CPD, nevertheless, although I still don’t like the acronym. My teacher-father communicated the idea that the question was enormously interesting, and so the answer would be a sort of discovery – an excavation. Without knowing it, I developed the same habit. I learned it at my father’s knee, and that must be why – although I did try to avoid the profession – when I returned to teaching, it came naturally. Continuing personal development, maybe. Teaching teaches you more about learning than anything else I know, and sometimes learning teaches you about teaching.
Teachers need to like learning, though. My father was curious about everything Roman, including Hadrian's Wall, he was as curious as we were. And he knew how to find out stuff. When he was dying, after his second, and fatal, heart attack, they connected him to a heart monitor.
The day I visited, he was watching a graph of his heart activity on a screen. I asked how he was.
“Okay,” he said. “It’s all been enormously interesting.”