There was a time when on holiday my father-in-law could not resist making a visit to the local branch of Woolworth. This may seem odd behaviour even for an Englishman abroad, but on reflection I suppose there is a singular kind of logic associated with his excursions. He would sometimes voice the pretence that the excellent air conditioning within the store brought some relief from the oppressive heat of the day and my mother-in-law would usually pander to this eccentricity, whilst knowing that what he was really doing was inspecting the shop for its efficiency and organisation, keen to make comparisons with Woolworth’s “back home.” This is perhaps more reasonably understood when recognising that prior to his retirement my father-in-law had managed several Woolworth’s stores and having taken great pride in the efficiency of his own shops was always drawn to others like a bee to nectar.
I am in no way critical of my father-in-law’s obsessive behaviour, for as Sara is quick to remind me, wherever we are, even on holiday I can’t forego an opportunity to visit a local school. Even though I may not actually enter the building; in fact the opportunity to do so seldom arises, my curiosity about the buildings, the playground and the general environment invariably takes hold. On fortunate occasions the sounds of learning may well carry through an open window enticing questions about what is happening in a specific classroom, but more often I leave the site wondering about who attends as a pupil and who teaches in the school. Similarly a chance encounter with a school party enjoying a visit to a local cultural attraction or place of interest provides an irresistible chance to witness teachers at work and to note the ways in which they encourage the engagement of their charges in whatever experiences are on offer, often coaxing them to maintain their focus amidst the inevitable wealth of immediate distractions.
Thus it was earlier this week when during a visit to a small municipal art gallery in Paphos, Cyprus, we were advised by a charming young lady at the reception desk that we should begin our visit with the upstairs room as the ground floor was occupied by a group of “babies” with their teachers. Obediently we ascended the stairs but acutely aware of the excited but managed chatter emanating from the forbidden room.
The Municipal Gallery in Paphos is very small and having soon sated our appetite for the twenty or so pictures in the upper chamber we could hold ourselves back no longer and ventured down to the lower floor space. Hovering at the door, not wishing to disturb the teachers and thirty or more seven or eight year old pupils at work, we were a little reluctant to enter. However, before long one of the teachers beckoned us in with a welcoming smile and gestured us to join the class in the gallery. “Please”, she said, “come in, the children won’t mind and we are nearly finished here.” The pupils indeed seemed unaffected by our entry and the teacher resumed her instruction, skilfully holding the attention of her class. Sadly our lack of the Greek language left us largely ignorant of the lesson content and within a few minutes the children were gathering their materials and were en route upstairs to enjoy the works that we had just seen.
So fleeting an encounter with teachers and their pupils can tell us very little about either. Such school visits are, of course replicated in countries all around the world, and I thought of my own experiences as both a pupil and a teacher being introduced to the wonders of cathedrals and castles, museums and galleries in the cause of teaching and learning.
Chancing upon this group left me with a reassuring satisfaction that teachers continue to value the opportunities that exist to provide children with an introduction to the art, culture and history that surrounds them. Who knows what may, or may not have been learned during a morning visit to an art gallery? I would venture that for some of these children the experience may have been of equal importance as the content of the lesson. For others this may have been their first experience of an art gallery. Maybe for a few it will be the beginning of a life time of enjoyment as they gain a greater understanding of their heritage through a study of their national art. Long may experiences like these continue, even if in some cases the names of the artists and their work eventually fade from memory, the opportunity for an exciting form of learning provided by committed teachers is likely to be appreciated long into the future.