Education: Oi! Show us yer brains!

Summer holidays may seem an odd time for a teacher to take to a building site, but a week spent there can be very educational. And lucrative. By Andrew Cunningham
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The Independent Culture
FOR TEACHERS, long summer holidays are a great perk. The problem is, you always run out of cash. Teaching isn't highly paid, and you need to finance holidays and a few days out for the children. So when I got a call from my brother in the building trade, I jumped at his offer: a week's labouring, in exchange for much-needed readies.

It was early in the holidays, so I was already tired. By the time I'd done a week's work on this building site - a large Victorian house in Ealing Broadway, west London, which was being gutted and converted - I was gutted myself. But like all exchanges, the experience proved highly educational. It wasn't just me that was shattered - so too were most of my preconceptions about the building trade.

Starting work at 8am sharp proved a shock. This was a smallish site of six or seven of us, so I quickly picked up the universal greeting: a guarded "All right". (I could never quite bring myself to add "mate".) I'd discarded my usual bow-tie and cords for some "old" clothes: a rugby shirt and shorts. Even so, one or two eyebrows were raised: everyone else was in tattered jeans, boots and T-shirts.

With the arrival of my brother came the first big shock to the system. He pointed to a huge pile of sand that was totally blocking the front entrance to the house, smiled, and said: "All this needs bagging up and shifting."

I just about bit back an incredulous "Who by? Not me?" He was serious. So I got on with it. And for the next day and a half, I shovelled, bagged, lifted and shifted well over 100 bags of sand - each weighing much more than I could comfortably carry. Soft hands disappeared faster than a chocolate biscuit at break time. To make matters worse, it was a heatwave. Sweat streamed onto my glasses (never a problem when you're straining at Hamlet). Unlike school, where just about everybody seems optically challenged, no one wore specs on this site. Thus no one was very sympathetic when I kept stopping to clean mine.

I began to look at education in a whole new light. I'd read hundreds of "classic" novels; not one of them taught me how to lift heavy loads without giving myself groin strain. What's more, working outside in 80 degrees proved a valuable lesson in empathy. In the classroom, we'd read disbelievingly Hardy's descriptions of field labourers downing mind- blowing amounts of beer and cider. Now I was labouring myself, I began to understand why. All you can think about is vast quantities of liquid. Shifting the sand was just the start of it.

Over the next few days, I did all the things builders did, day in, day out. I carted plasterboards, shifted scaffolding, mixed cement, lugged more awesomely heavy loads, stuck up ceilings, shovelled up rubble... The more my muscles gave way, the more my prejudices against builders gave way, too. I'd never really thought about it before, but it's tough to have to earn your living with your hands; bricks are a lot less pleasant to work with than books. I stopped taking teaching for granted.

And, much to my surprise, this site proved a welcome respite from a school staffroom. Unlike teachers, builders don't make a song and dance about how busy they are and how bad their lot is. They get on with things. They have to. They're dealing with a public that mistrusts their very motives, seeking any excuse to dish out less dosh than the estimate. Coffee, common room, conversation: a site offers none of the luxuries we teachers have come to expect. Soggy sandwiches, hair full of brick-dust, a tree for a latrine - these are the lot of the builder.

Yet I was amazed at the good humour I encountered. Builders' mastery of irony could teach teachers a thing or two. There was a funny side to everything: even dropping a brick on your foot: "Next time, try heading it mate."

And I was lucky enough to meet a true sage on this site. Aged 45, built like the many houses he'd created, we'd have scorned each other in the street. But he soon showed a sharper turn of phrase than most scholars. "John" was a married man of many years standing - but was currently having a bit on the side. So he referred to his new girlfriend as "Vernons": a good away draw. When discussing with a mate on his mobile where he was going that evening, he referred to meeting her at "Highgrove" - his "country residence".

Naturally I was ribbed (predictably they dubbed me "Prof"). And they never did understand why I recoiled in horror every time they offered me their tabloid newspaper. But I reckon I encountered a lot less snobbery (real or inverted) than a brickie would cop for in a classroom. A few preconceptions remain. Having worked with these blokes for a week, I certainly wouldn't want to pick a fight with one.

Toughness comes with the territory. Shifting and shov-elling on site is a cheaper form of keeping fit than going to a health farm.

I'm glad I traded my school for the site - if only for a week. If education is about losing your preconceptions, I learned more from those bricks than most books.

The writer is an English teacher at Cranleigh, an independent school in Surrey

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