I’ve just finished that book I mentioned a few day’s ago, The Learning Game by Jonathan Smith, and it was wonderful from start to finish. Smith wrote it partly as a eulogy to his career as he stands on the brink of retirement (to devote the rest of his working life to writing) and I cannot imagine the reader who at the end wouldn’t cry ‘Don’t go! Stay as a teacher forever!’ Part memoir, part meditation on the whole complicated business of teaching children, Smith takes us through his own childhood (as son of a teaching family) and his time at university. This was particularly interesting to me as he went to the college I now teach at, and his supervisor was a gentleman whose teaching career was cut short after he left by scandal. Of course none of that is mentioned in the book, but it was a fascinating moment for me to read about the great days of a man I was just warned not to sit too near at lunch. Having detailed his own experiences, and included those of his own children, Smith devotes the rest of his time to the pitfalls, challenges and triumphs of being a teacher. And his subject? English literature, which means he has a fine line in excellent quotations.
He’s wonderfully amusing on the latest trend of sitting pupils in small, collaborative groups: ‘when I pop into their rooms it seems they are consulting on the poems when the teacher is quite near them and consulting about Arsenal v. Totteham when he is over there. What to some teachers is the happy buzz of team work to me feels out of control, a cheerful anarchy. Still, they seem to like it. Nobody gets killed.’ He’s also insightful and accurate about the dangers of allowing the huge workload of teaching to get out of control: ‘The trouble with all this is that you start off doing the job, and the job ends up doing you. This affects teachers just as much as politicians and businessmen. Your private life, if you ever had one, goes to pieces. Your interior, your other life, atrophies. You stop listening. […] You have moved lock, stock and barrel into The Achievement Society; you have lost your creative hinterland and you didn’t even notice it had gone.’ He is against the guru school of teachers (and writes about how Dead Poet’s Society made him deeply, profoundly uncomfortable) and also against the serious, anal school of teaching. A little subversion, self-mockery and flexibility is the order of the day. And another section that amused me no end was one on Parents from Hell.
Now, I’ve come across a few of these in my time. After all, if a mother or father is managing to interfere, meddle and control their child’s education even when they are living in a different city, you know you are faced with professionally hellish parents. Including parents in education has been one of the greatest pedagogical changes in the last 50 years, Smith reckons, and he thinks it’s a good thing. Well, yes I do agree, but parents are not necessarily the best people to handle this hugely delicate dimension of a child’s life. Parents often care far too much about a child’s success, thus effectively crippling the child and preventing them from attaining what is the most important part of education: intellectual curiosity for its own sake. I have far, far too many students who are working fundamentally to please a whole range of parents; their biological ones, the parent in their heads, and the parent they see in me. It’s not good for them; it’s constricting and anxiety-inducing. Share in a child’s delight in its abilities, encourage it for all you are worth, but parents, never let them feel that their success is a condition of your love. I’ll share my favourite Awful Parent stories with you. One year I went to a school at which I was briefly a governor and attended their evening to help children choose which subject to read at which university. That evening I talked to far too many parents and far too few teenagers. Why on earth would parents leave their children at home and attend alone? And when their child was there, it was barely allowed to squeeze a word in. One mother I remember particularly because she was obsessed with the thought that my university would favour candidates from certain top-ranking schools (I can assure you this is not true). In an attempt to humour her out of this misapprehension I said (unwisely) ‘Look, it doesn’t matter if they come from Mars if they are keen and have a lively brain.’ In all seriousness this woman looked at me and said. ‘And is Mars a good school?’
The other anecdote I cherish came from the interview and admissions period several years ago. We interviewed a student, a lovely boy, charming and smart, but there were many others who just outperformed him on the day and so we couldn’t make an offer. Unfortunately for us all, this boy had a father who was the captain of industry sort and simply would not accept this outcome. He wrote to us all, complaining; he then wrote to the Master of our college and, eventually, the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Naturally he got nowhere because that kind of behavior only annoys people. I think we all just felt very, very sorry for the boy to be lumbered with that kind of pushy, accolade-obsessed father. Anyway, the whole thing calmed down eventually – or so I thought. Until, a year or so later, I received an email out of the blue from this father. His son, he informed me, had passed all his ‘A’ levels with top grades, had got into a different university, and was now working on a Greek cruise ship for the summer. ‘So,’ ended this man, ‘he’s got everything he deserves. And ya boo sucks to you.’ I couldn’t believe my eyes. And then I burst out laughing. I could not believe that a grown man, a man successful in business, a man with a delightful son of whom he should be uncomplicatedly proud, would write to me in an email, ya boo sucks. There were several answers I could have sent, mostly rewordings of ‘I’m very pleased your son has the chance to leave home’, but I didn’t reply at all.
But to return to Smith’s book, I would thoroughly and warmly recommend it to anyone who is a teacher, who is thinking of teaching, who has children in school, or who particularly remembers the highs and lows of their school days. It’s a warm, wise and wonderful account of the humanity in teaching. It’s also interspersed with some of Smith’s favourite poems and quotations and he has very fine taste. I’ll leave you with a poem that managed to touch and gladden my soppy old teacher’s heart.
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.