Having left the teaching profession last year, there is a lot in Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy that resonated with me. I’ve struggled to articulate my reasons for leaving last autumn. I’d spent the best part of my life wanting to be a teacher. If I ever wavered from teaching as my career of choice, I soon found myself coming round to it again. I idealised the job based on my own positive experiences of my primary school teachers who had made it look so easy to command the attention of what had probably been quite a difficult class. Reading Clanchy’s book has helped me come to terms with the reasons I had for leaving it behind and confidence that I could return some day.
I went into teaching starry eyed and optimistic about the difference I could make. I soon found I was constrained by a curriculum that was supposed to inspire teachers. Every lesson had to have a learning intention and a success criteria. But as any teachers reading this will be aware, lessons can often be derailed and can go off on a complete tangent. Is it still a successful lesson if the children have learned something, but not what they were ‘supposed’ to have learned? Teachers are essentially poorly paid project managers now. Your success as a teacher depends on meeting the outcomes. Certainly when I was a child, they inspired us and genuinely responded to what we wanted to learn about. I remember being nine years old and coming home from school to see a plane hitting the Twin Towers in America, struggling to understand why. Instead of the English lesson my teacher had planned for that morning, she openly discussed the whats and whys, helping us come to terms with what we saw. Are we able to do that now within the constraints of the curriculum? Probably not.
Some Kids made me remember the brilliant innocence of children – especially the Scottish ones who were convinced you could catch AIDS from a book about AIDS. Not much changes. Children in Scotland are still as self – conscious when it comes to education. Clanchy’s book won the Orwell Prize for Political Writing last month. It might seem strange that a book about schools and children would win a prize for political writing. The reason why Some Kids clinched the Orwell prize is because fundamentally, teaching is one of the most political careers there is. Every government has an agenda when it comes to education. Who can forget Michael Gove’s controversial reforms to education that saw the introduction of free schools and academies? And of course, the more recent scandal in education where thousands of pupils across the UK had their exam results downgraded from their teachers’ predictions by an algorithm. The teaching profession is haemorraghing. It’s little wonder.
You see how political decisions affect children throughout the book. Some of the most inspiring passages come from Clanchy’s relationships with children who have come from refugee or asylum seeker backgrounds. Clanchy doesn’t shy away from the fact she is a liberal do-gooder who wants to give these children chances they might not otherwise have had. Clanchy does what all good teachers do – she makes her English lessons relevant to the children. Would the children who went on to university have had the opportunity to do so within the context of today’s curriculum?
There is also an all – encompassing theme of class running throughout the book. Clanchy is determined to stop the self fulfilling prophecy that poorer children do not do as well as their more affluent counterparts. She encourages children who might never have thought about university before to consider applying. She looks in on children who haven’t been present at school for a while. She goes to the home of one of her pupils so her mother can sign a permission slip for a trip and is shocked that on a Saturday afternoon, she is still in her school uniform. I found subtle inferences to poverty when I taught. The young boy who came to school late most mornings because his parents worked shifts, so getting up at half past seven to take the children to school wasn’t a priority. He would also frequently wear jeans because his sole pair of school trousers were in the wash. There was also the boy who didn’t have any school shoes and came to school in his sandshoes. Even in the winter. It is therefore even more infuriating that we put constraints on the curriculum because it means only the affluent children have the means to navigate it.
Clanchy’s book gave me hope that I might one day be able to return to the profession. She articulates very well the reasons that I had for ultimately leaving the career. I felt that education was no longer for the sole benefit of the children. Did children really need to know what the “learning intention” was for every single lesson? Like Clanchy, I always felt this constrained me and actually limited the teaching I could offer my children. As any teachers will know, lessons can often derail because of one child’s thoughtful question. Her prose is full of love for the children she teaches. Perhaps a decade or so ago, this might have been frowned upon, but it’s back in vogue at teacher training institutions. And we do love our pupils. Clanchy’s sensitive descriptions of her nurture group moonlighting as a poetry club brought back memories of the children I taught and loved.
There have been a couple of memoirs written by teachers showing the negatives – the pointless lesson plan templates, the useless learning intentions, objectives and success criterias, the marking, the terrible behaviour, the stress and the anxiety. But Clanchy’s memoir is refreshing because it reminds teachers why they chose their career. It certainly reminds me why I entered the profession, but it also helped me come to terms with why I left.
Words by Lauren Gilmour
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