“They're a pretty low ability bunch.” She told me as she opened the door to the classroom and, once in, introduced me to the class, then left. They were a bottom set and knew it, and seemed to take some pride in it and let me know it. I imagine like The Dessert Rats took to Rommel's pejorative, or similarly The Old Contemptibles after Kaiser Bill called them England's contemptible little army. I had the sense it was the same sense of pride as Hell's Angels felt; something brought about from a recognition of being at the end of a long line of no-hopers – a class full of what Arlo Guthrie called the Last Guy.
From the getting to know you badinage, it was clear to me that these people were actually quite average teenagers with a couple of livelier minds bouncing around too. They were as interested in me as I was in them and they allowed me to ask some tricky questions like why they thought they were the bottom set: why they were apparently so proud of it and why would they be in a bottom set? To cut a long story short, they had been labelled as any number of things, for which I could see no real reason, except that they fulfilled these historical judgements up to this moment – it always had been this way and always would. They had absolutely no belief in their intellectual abilities and nothing had happened in their short lives to disabuse them of this lack of belief.
Of all my classes in my teaching career, I am most proud of them, even more than those that entered Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge and all the other Ivy League schools, because they developed belief in themselves and shook off other people's prejudiced burdens. It was a two way thing, they believed in me that I could help them get their GCSE in science and it was a bit like having your home fans cheering you on, or an audience willing you on to higher and higher peaks of musicianship. I have seen this so often in my career, that I wonder how some teachers and it is usually teachers, get away with it. Furthermore, who in God's name have allowed these people to be teachers; to have access to the plastic, pliant minds of children. Surely, this must rank highly as a crime against children; as child abuse.
School years should be the best years of our lives, but often it is just something to be endured, and endured with some resentment. I think schools should be places that foster self-belief based on continual and relentless achievement and where all parties to the learning community show unswerving belief in the ability of others continually to achieve; to find their best and do better. Implicit in this is an obvious affection between teacher and student. Naturally, the teacher has responsibility for establishing this, and granted, it can be a tough job sometimes, but the teacher must remember that before you is someone's pride and joy and deserving of the best. Even if the student is not someone's pride and joy, they should be and so the teacher should behave accordingly.
This does not mean that discipline goes out the window. Imposing sanctions for poor behaviour that preserves the dignity of all parties reinforces positive relations, especially if one's students see that you adhere to the same principles of dignity, discipline and diligence that you expect of your students. Sanctions should be applied immediately and with a proportionally that should be left to the teacher's professional judgement. There has been a lot of movement away from this idea of late in Britain and, like many of the changes was predicated on a lack of trust of teachers, so one-size-fits-all, highly prescriptive centralised policies have been implemented. When a misbehaving student understands that the teacher has the authority and discretion to apply these sanctions, they will have a lot less latitude to continue their misbehaving. And anyway, people like to know the limits and that the limits are strict.
Teachers should be geniuses in the Einsteinian sense of being passionately curious. I'd like to extend this by positing genius as an aesthetic phenomenon in recognising intuition and inspiration and acting upon it. In this, I am in total opposition to someone from the TDA who said on radio 4 that teaching is much more of a science. In fact, I think that this is one of the most idiotic notions I have come across for many a year. This implies a do-this-get-that-every-time thinking, i.e. a simplistic application of behaviourism. I see this in the bought-in, inflexible and imperative curricula that come complete with lesson plans, which include imperatives for differentiation. This is wrong on so many counts. A recent article in London's Evening Standard by the heads of five major, English public schools would appear to reject this trend in education.
This essay is unfinished, but below is an indication where it should go:
Genius is an art/ realizing intuition and inspiration skills/content syllogism of skills/content
Creativity in all things from pastoral, curriculum, pedagogy... and all considered as a whole
Cross-curricularity history of thought/theory of knowledge