An interview by Jack Shallcrass with New Zealand educator Marcus (Max) Riske, from the series "Looking Back". He recalls his own schooling during World War I and his career in teaching in Wellington. He has taught people from the age of four to ninety-four, and speaks frankly about educational bureaucracy and his theories on what makes a good teacher.
His mother was illiterate and his father only had a couple of years' education. His parents were Jews from Eastern Europe - his father from Ukraine and his mother from Vilna [Vilnius]. They settled in Wellington, and his father had a fruit and vegetable shop in Lambton Quay. They lived in Hopper Street and he went to school in Mount Cook, starting before he turned five by lying about his age.
When the first wounded came back from World War I he realised what war was. He describes the traumatic experience as a child of eight, going to a reception for returned men in the Wellington Town Hall when the crowd at first cheered loudly, and then began weeping at the sight of their injuries. He recalls looking at casualty lists outside the newspaper offices. He says at the start of the war everyone was enthusiastic in smashing up businesses owned by those with German surnames, but then he says the mood changed and people didn't like the war.
He tells the story of a family friend wounded at Passchendaele, after being at Gallipoli. He stabbed a Turk with a bayonet only to find he had killed a fellow Jew. Mr Riske says the war made him very angry but not a pacifist. In 1918 the family moved to Levin, and he caught influenza during the epidemic but recovered.
He recalls influential teachers who taught him that he could teach himself. After a couple of years he went to Wellington College as a boarder, where he was beaten often by fellow pupils until they realised he could do their homework. He describes Wellington College as a terrible, savage place, although headmaster T. R. Cresswell was a magnificent man. He recalls other wonderful teachers: Mr Hercus, Alf Caddick, and Hoppy Stevens.
On ANZAC Day after the war, war hero and Wellington College Old Boy Bernard Freyberg came to speak to the school. He describes the reaction of the school when their hero began to cry during his address to the assembly, telling them about the death of his brother and friends in the war.
Riske says he learned to teach from the handful of incredible teachers he had. He had to move to Palmerston North Boys' High School because his father moved again. His father wanted him to go into law, but he decided to go teaching instead. He describes some of the teachers who influenced him as a student teacher, and says the important thing in teaching is to discover what a child is capable of and get them to do it really well, not to find what they can't do. One has to take each child as an individual.
He recalls Wellington Technical College as being the best school he taught at. He is critical of the system of examinations used now. He talks about his mentors at Wellington Teachers Training College: Fanny Irvine-Smith, May Joyce, William Horatio Gould, and John Adams. He also recalls lecturers at Victoria University College: Tommy Hunter, Ivan Sutherland, and Professor Tennant. He says he has nightmares still about children he taught but was not able to help.
He speaks at length of his time at Wellington Technical College. It was great because of the men who ran it - William La Trobe, John Howell, and Randolph Ridling. He started teaching there in 1945, the first year it was compulsory to stay at school until the age of fifteen. He says he was given as many recalcitrant fourth formers as possible. He had to teach statistics and English. He retells the story of one of the naughtiest pupils he ever taught, who eventually became a military officer. He says 'Wellington Tech' was regarded as anathema at the time because it was co-educational. He describes the impact of reading the classics to poor kids.
He says Randolph Ridling wrote a report to establish a Polytechnic in Wellington and quit teaching when it was turned down by the Education Department. He is scathing of Directors of Education, apart from two. He got a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Illinois to study mathematics education and wrote a report, but says it did a 'fat lot of good'.
UNESCO asked him to go to Africa, where he taught using a maths text he had written - it worked well, but it was not taken up in New Zealand. He talks about his times on the Executive of the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), and union politics. He tried to form one single teacher's union in the 1950s. He is critical of the way teachers get pay increases. He talks about his reputation as a 'red' and his beliefs about communism.