Saturday, 4 December 2010

So, Kids.


I was getting my hair cut this afternoon. One of the hairdressers was sounding off about education, one of those dreary, depressing 'bring back the birch, kids don't have no respect' monologues that I've talked about elsewhere, but it did remind me of one of those topics I've thought about a lot recently - just what should a teacher's relationship be to their pupils?

I think it goes without saying that part of being a teacher is not beating children, but what should we be prepared for? I used to think that as long as I'd given the pupils a lesson, moved them on through their curriculum, that they'd learned something new, that was enough. The longer I've been doing it, though, I've started to come to the conclusion that it isn't, not really. The ideal, I now think, is a bit more complex than that, and one which I'll be outlining in a shamefully overly sentimental and lachrymose way below.

It transpired that the reason for the hairdresser's diatribe against this new fad for not throwing things at children was the presence of a schoolgirl in the shop, who had obviously got herself a Saturday job. This girl in turn was giving her strident opinion on the uselessness and stupidity of teachers in general. I found it all quite fascinating, in a way. I've often heard pupils say that what they want in a teacher is someone who can 'control a class' and this girl was no exception. To illustrate her point she mentioned a case when a supply teacher had been unable to get her class to be silent to the point where she had left the room. The touch of bravado in her voice as she told this story said it all. Although I doubt she'd ever admit it, she obviously felt guilt over this incident. The hairdresser's confusion of 'fear' with 'respect' had stemmed from this.

Here's where I know I have a long way to go as a teacher developing their practice. I know that children are not young adults, that they are rapidly developing individuals, often with fragile egos, and that part of the job is to provide the kind of guidance and structure that will help them to make academic progress as they go through the godsawful process known as 'adolescence'. So you can't treat them as adults, no matter how grownup they seem to be - not because of their intellectual capabilities but because of everything else. I don't like to cite non-peer-reviewed sources when talking about child development, but here's some good shorthand to cut through my waffling:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.*

Or to put it another way: you can never go home again.

To grope my way slowly towards this post's destination, then. Despite my knowing all this, a part of me wants to give The Speech, every time I encounter some child who's worked it all out and knows everything (i.e. all teenagers, everywhere). Since I could never give the speech in a professional context (and hence it's something I've always had in my head and has never been said aloud), I've decided to reproduce it here, in my nice pseudonymous blog.

'I have absolutely no doubt that you think you know what school is, and what classes are for, and I'm guessing you think it's something like 'to pump you full of facts and some skills and get you some GCSEs then shove you out into a job'. Maybe you think this is a good thing, maybe not. But if you do reckon that's what all this is for, I'm afraid that's not quite it.

You are, and I appreciate it probably doesn't look like it to someone who has to go to 25 lessons a week and spend hours on homework as well, plus whatever hells happen outside of school, really lucky. For most of human history, most people have received little or no formal education. A hundred years ago, most people didn't get much past primary school, even in the UK. Today millions still go without any formal education at all.

But having the opportunity to learn about algebra and thermodynamics and Shakespeare and slavery and Sikhism and how cities grow and how to play cricket isn't the only reason you're lucky. You're also lucky because your teachers are people who won't hit you, or threaten you, who want to encourage you to be your best**. You're lucky because the CBI ideology that you get an education to get a job hasn't won yet, and because a lot of teachers do what they do because they think you should have a chance, at least once in your life, to learn about some of the things that make this universe and this planet and humanity so absolutely fascinating and give you a flavour of all the possibilities that your life has to offer you, that we've not yet given in to the turgid utilitarianism of 'get a trade, son' thinking - the kind of thinking that leads straight back to throwing chalk and sitting in silence with textbooks.

The proto-existential philosopher Nietzsche saw two possible futures for humanity - one where people dared to be great, and one where people lost sight of their own souls. He called this second possibility the 'ultimate man,' and wrote of him like this:

Behold! I shall show you the Ultimate Man.

'What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?' thus asks the Ultimate Man and blinks.

The earth has become small, and upon it hops the Ultimate Man, who makes everything small. His race is as inexterminable as the flea; the Ultimate Man lives longest.

'We have discovered happiness,' say the Ultimate Men and blink.

Well, some of your lessons will be dull and some of your teachers won't understand you and you'll probably get shouted at sometimes, and if you make it through your school life without at least one detention you'll be very weird, and life isn't perfect, and the next few years might see classes grow larger and resources get fewer, and there probably will be a bully who makes your life miserable at some point - and that bully may even be in school - but underneath all that stuff, what we really want to do is more than give you a good education, one that doesn't turn you out at 16 any more jaded and cynical than you're forced to be because you're 16, we want you to leave with self-confidence and skills and if at all possible the understanding that the world is an amazing place that you've barely begun to explore.

But I couldn't give that speech of course, because I'd have to explain what the CBI is, and utilitarianism. And that would be a picnic compared to Nietzsche. And because kids' attention spans aren't long enough. And it's soppy. And it doesn't really solve anything.

But basically I'd model all education on Doctor Who if I could.

*Admittedly, this is being used as a metaphor for awakening to the love of Christ, but I think it's more useful if you look at it more literally.

**For a given value of 'your teachers'.


Vicky said...

YES. That's really all I have to say.

Christie Malry said...

You too would like a curriculum designed by The Doctor? Should there be a hashtag for it?