Secret diary of an Irish teacher: I’ve been wondering who my students ‘Gay Byrne’ will be

Secret diary of an Irish teacher: I’ve been wondering who my students ‘Gay Byrne’ will be

I’d always promised myself a day off school when Gay Bryne died.

I didn’t take one, but I’ve been listening to him on podcasts walking to work every morning. Very slowly, I’ve been saying goodbye. And I’ve been thinking about my students too, wondering who their ‘Gay Byrne’ will be.

The more appropriate question of course is whether they’ll have one? I suspect not. This feeling was made even stronger by one’s student’s remark in class this week “like, I suppose we’ve Michael D.” We owe a lot to Gay Byrne, and I enjoyed listening to his voice again. I was particularly interested in his descriptions of hosting a live television show for all those years. A show that invited and relied upon ordinary comments from ordinary people. Unlike Graham Norton or Ryan Tubridy, Gay Byrne never used a script, never used an auto-cue and never edited after the fact. What happened on the Late Late Show did not stay on the Late Late Show. It was exactly what we got at home; and we’ve the tapes to prove it.

And my God, did stuff happen! As I watched more and more snippets of the show, I began to feel a certain camaraderie, a sense of knowing. Now, I’m not claiming to be Gay Byrne here, but his description of live television resonates with me as a teacher.

Let me give you an example. There was one episode around the abortion referendum in the ’80s when a member of the audience pulled Gay up on deciding the rules of the interview, in defence of a drunk guest on stage. “Whose rules?” he shouted up belligerently, “they’re your rules”. Gay’s reaction reminded me of my own, when a student questions my opinion, advice, or as it feel some days, very existence. As a performer, a teacher, your job is to stick to your guns and remain calm. One crack and you’re a goner. Gay Byrne absolutely had the ‘teacher act’ down. He used his audience, he played to them, but he also held an air of authority, necessary for live television, for control.

How does one foster this ‘air’? What was his secret? I have no idea. If I did, I would bottle it and sell it to every trainee teacher in the country, because it’s the hardest part of the job, the steepest hike on that learning curve. Teaching is not about what you know; all teachers have the academic qualifications, it’s about how you control and manage the unpredictable. We’re performers and all eyes are on us 5 to 6 hours a day. There is nowhere, nowhere to hide.

To give Ryan Tubridy his due, he also did well when the ‘live’ nature of the tribute to Gay went awkward last week. Nell McCafferty behaved unpredictably. Tubridy stayed calm and carried on, knowing there was probably something going on to which we weren’t privy. This is often the case in the classroom, where you have a myriad of personalities and a huge number of scenarios playing out in the background. Too easily, your Late Late can turn into Jerry Springer! But Tubridy did well to recognise this and treated McCafferty with appropriate compassion and kindness.

Similarly, I empathised with his valiant effort to hear from everyone, get everyone’s contribution, whilst also covering specific topics and getting the job done.

That same tension is characteristic of a lesson. You inevitably have the student who wants to contribute again and again. Their hand starts raised, then it flaps; soon they’re bouncing out of their chair as if to tell me a bomb’s about to explode. And they react this way every single time I ask a question.

You also have the student who would rather sink into the floor than speak. Who will never give you the answer you both know they have, for fear of being seen to exist at all. I wonder if this is what it’s like to have monosyllabic guests… Lastly, you have the rest of the class, who you must monitor and cajole into speaking, in a way that’s equitable. These are the swing voters in the room. These are the ones who decide if you’re worth their time and energy. I had one kid last year ask me quite genuinely “do you ever think it’s because nobody likes you?” Luckily the rest of the class audibly inhaled, and he has looked at me apologetically ever since!

Because of the unpredictability of it all, sometimes the curriculum comes second. Gay Byrne once unknowingly rang a woman, whose daughter had died the night before. He had to quickly change tone, switch the agenda and change the conversation on behalf of the woman and the entire nation. This recalls one particular event for me, when I worked in London. The world of gangs and knife crime surrounded our school and one day, entered it. The students were out playing in the yard when bricks were pelted at them from a wall nearby. We didn’t study English that day. The students doodled, sketched and painted and I left them alone. Knowing that this was out of my expertise. I shelved the lesson and I gave them space.

The good fortune teachers have is that nobody is watching. I can’t imagine the energy it must have taken Gay Byrne for all those years. And I respect him hugely for it.

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