HomeEducational StagesAdult EducationSurviving school: Some (personal) thoughts on teachers and teaching

Surviving school: Some (personal) thoughts on teachers and teaching

The funny thing about writing about the English education system is that it never really changes. Most of the things I wrote 10 or 20 years ago are still as relevant as they were back then. It is also the most depressing thing about it. I’m pretty sure, after more than two decades writing about English education, that most of the things that are wrong with it are things we believe we cannot change, even though we can. We don’t even like to talk about these things – I mean, what’s the point, right, that’s just how things are – but unless we do, nothing will ever get better. It’s true of a lot of things in British life, which is why tinkering at the margins and modest ambition just won’t do, even if it is the only thing that will get you elected. If we want a better life for all, we need to put in a few windows, slaughter a few sacred cows, lance a few boils. We should demand the Earth because our kids deserve it. What’s the point of pruning a branch here or there when the roots are rotten?

There is an unhealthy obsession in English state education with discipline and control. Unlike in most comparable countries in Western Europe – and most places in the world unstained by British colonialism – almost all state school pupils in England must wear uniforms (schools can, in principle, choose not to, but few do). They are often prohibitively expensive but there are no exemptions. If you cannot afford to buy a new one for your child, maybe you can get one second hand, or if there is an older sibling, they can wear their hand-me-downs. Failing that, some local authorities offer grants to poorer families so they can kit their kids out in the regulation 1950s-style shirt and blazer set (you know, like all their parents wear to work). School uniforms are justified as a sort of social leveller. But, of course, they are nothing of the sort. They are an indicator of class and social status through which people in positions of authority routinely adjust their demands and expectations (the difference between a benevolent slap on the wrist and being put on the DNA database).

Schools can also set rules about pupils’ appearance, and these are often pretty draconian. There are rules about hair style (length, fringe, colour, use of gel, clips and extensions, and much else), length of skirt, height of sock, opacity of tights, colour and style of shoe, and so on. Trainers are, by and large, forbidden. And, for the most part, uniforms are gendered, skirts and tights for girls, trousers for boys, reinforcing harmful and restrictive stereotypes and the idea that girls – whose appearance is subject to often quite extraordinary scrutiny – are objects. Children who fail to meet these standards, or who turn up without the proper equipment (pens, paper, proper PE kit and other things some parents struggle to provide) are frequently sent home or given detention. Pupils can face expulsion if they repeat-offend or are (God forbid) ‘defiant’. School websites abound with evidence-free gibberish about how neatness instils pride and uniforms foster togetherness and prevent bullying. But the really important message of uniform and appearance policies is one of control and knowing your place: you may not understand why these rules are in place or what they are for, but you are going to do it anyway, whatever you think of it. You’d better get used to it.

School uniform policy is not the only or even the most important thing wrong about English education, but it is indicative of much else that is and that is why it is worth talking about. While uniforms appeal to some, for others they are a constant, discomforting burden. Many students, those dubbed difficult or challenging, struggle with this focus on discipline and conformity, which penalises the kids who most need support and are often the ones with the most to give. For these students, the outcome of this high-control, highly punitive environment is not a feeling of togetherness or wellbeing, it is the opposite: alienation, stress, fear of the consequences of transgression and, for those who cannot afford the right kit, social stigma. Such feelings are not limited to the pupils; teachers often feel them too, and not just in schools. Micromanagement and overbearing accountability regimes have created a culture across education in which teachers are constantly looking over their shoulder, afraid of the next performance review or inspection. Much of this anxiety is passed on by leaders and managers who often adopt commend-and-control strategies to cope with the demands of targets and accountability and create high-control regimes in their schools, colleges or universities. The pressures they encounter are enormous. Staff feel them too, as do parents who have to support their child in navigating this high-stakes, no-second-chances environment. Anxiety to a quite large extent drives a system the main outputs of which are failure and disaffection.

Is this oppressive culture really conducive to a good learning or teaching environment or to the creation of happy, confident and inquisitive kids? It seems pretty unlikely. Good teaching is about listening and understanding, about igniting a spark the student can follow in whatever direction they like, not taking that spark and forcing it one direction or other. The most important thing a teacher can share is a piece of themselves, a passion or interest that sets the student on their own journey, that makes them curious and engaged. This is particularly true of children who appear distracted or uninterested, who are seen as difficult or defiant. Kids who don’t quite fit often feel ignored in a system so set on fostering conformity and obedience. For these students there is huge power in the moment in which they feel seen for the first time.

For me, this moment came late. My school experience was a dismal and alienating one, also a frequently violent one. I’ve written about it before. I didn’t manage to connect with any subject, even English, or with any teacher. I have no fond memories of it. I was bullied to the point that I simply stopped attending. I didn’t attend any of my final exams. I left without qualifications. It was only in further education that I finally encountered teachers who genuinely cared about their students. My English teacher shared her interests and drew out the interests of her students. She saw them. She listened to them. She thought they could be something more. For me, and I am sure for others, this was transformational. There was something magical about this grown up talking to me about the stuff she was interested in and trying to find out what I liked.

I got the qualifications I needed to study journalism at polytechnic (what was called a ‘pre-entry’ course) but not to get to university. When, after a few years of work, I started to think this might be an option. I applied to a few institutions hoping my work experience and interests would count but only one university, Cardiff, gave me an interview. I remember meeting the course leader, Barry Wilkins, in an office teeming with books and papers. He wasn’t interested in what qualifications I had but in what I was like and what I liked to read. I managed to speak haltingly about Bruno Bettelheim and his book Freud and Man’s Soul, which I had just read, and to convey my enthusiasm for the novels of Milan Kundera. I knew very little about the subject I wanted to study, philosophy. But it didn’t matter. He wanted to know if I was interested and serious and that I wanted to study. Barry became my personal tutor. His interest in his students was inexhaustible (I know I am not alone in feeling this – he is very warmly remembered by his students). What was great about him was that he made you feel like you really mattered to him, that you had value. He didn’t care about your accent or background or who your parents were. He was simply a brilliant guy.

Neither of these two teachers were memorable for their ability to convey a curriculum. What they gave me was a sense of freedom and a feeling that my interests and likes had value. I wouldn’t say they lit a path exactly, but they gave you a compass and showed you how to use it. They knew the job of teaching was not to show you through the right door but to keep as many doors open for as long as possible while they found the things they really cared about. But education, as most working-class people experience it, is about doors closing, disorientingly fast, until almost all options are gone. There were brilliant kids at my school, artists, poets, storytellers, wits, critics and dandies. Often, they were the difficult and challenging kids, the ones the teachers couldn’t stand. They didn’t fit. They were often called stupid or lazy. They were defiant. They were punished. They were bullied, coerced into lives they didn’t want, until there was little left of the person they could have been. At least then there were second chances. These are few and far between today.

When I got to university, all those years ago, I loved to spend time in the library. It was my favourite thing just to wander the shelves. It was amazing to me to suddenly have access to all these books. I would sometimes pick a novel off the shelf and spend the rest of the day reading it. I never doubted that this was what education should be like. I was taking a line for a walk, as Paul Klee put it. I was finding stuff out. I was learning how to understand, learning what it was I was into. I was opening all the doors. That is what education should be about. All learning involves learning about yourself, just as all teaching does. It should be a launchpad for ongoing, lifelong exploration.

I worry though that education is going in the wrong direction, and we are letting down vast numbers of young people and the adults they become. The obsession with control is not just about students’ appearance and behaviour. It is about what they learn and how they learn. There is little freedom because there is little trust and trust is absolutely essential in education and in fostering good learning environments and good student-teacher relationships. The thing we forget about kids is they are smart, and they can spot inauthenticity a mile off. They know when a teacher doesn’t believe in what they are teaching, they know when they aren’t sincere and when they don’t care about them or their learning.

The smartest kids are usually the ones who buck against this, the ones perceived as troublemakers and problem kids, the smartarses and awkward customers. They might show their resistance to mindless rote learning and indifferent teaching through their behaviour or their interpretation of uniform rules. These same kids – the crazy, sensitive, chaotic, inattentive, non-compliant, offbeat ones – will also be the first to notice when a teacher sees them and is prepared to share something of themselves with them. Somehow, we seem to have forgotten this in our climate of high control and accountability and anxiety-amplifying high-stakes testing. Finding these kids and helping them become their best selves is what education and teaching should be about. But, too often, they are collateral damage in the rush to produce docile workers and obedient citizens. Bright lights go out every day. And no one, for the most part, even notices.

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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