What did I learn from teaching?

October 1, 2019

I’m really looking forward to the new Philip Pullman novel coming out later this week. There was a very interesting interview with him in The Observer: I always find his reflections on his career as a teacher thought-provoking, and today he has had me reflecting on the question: what did I learn from my students?

It’s a very difficult question, and not just because a teacher is on the other side of the fence, supposed to be teaching rather than learning. But over the years I learned that my students wanted to be taken seriously, to be listened to. They deserved this, and it was their right. As my experience and confidence developed, I realised that anything might be said or discussed in my classroom, as long as the students could approach the topic as sensibly and as maturely as they were able. Staffroom conversations with colleagues led me to realise that not everyone could or wanted to do this.

I had my opinions and beliefs, and if I expressed them, students expected to be able to question, and expected me to be able to justify. One of my favourite call-outs to students being, ‘Evidence?’ I had to provide mine. There was a phase where politicians were touchy about teachers indoctrinating students, and I was once taken to task by a parent who felt I had been biased in criticising Margaret Thatcher. I explained that I was wont to play devil’s advocate, and to challenge students with a range of opinions – they knew I did this. Other opinions are available. My job was to get my students to think.

Respect was earned; good behaviour was earned. I can honestly say that behaviour was almost never an issue in my classroom. I know I spent most of my career in a grammar school, but students anywhere are not angels, and others did have disciplinary issues.

My students didn’t have to like me, or my subject, and not all of them did; I learned not to take this personally, although it never ceased to sadden me when a particularly interesting and promising student did not choose to take English on into the sixth form.

There was only one moment of epiphany, which took my breath away and left me temporarily lost for words. It came towards the end of my career, with a year 11 class; they had almost come to the end of their allotted time of compulsory education, and we were reflecting on the purpose of school, education and what use they felt it had been to them thus far. A propos of I cannot remember what, something about what they expected from their teachers, I suspect, one of the female members of the class said, ‘But sir, you respect us and we respect you.’ Noises of agreement came from others, and she must have explained further. I didn’t know what to say; I felt very humbled, because I had never consciously looked at the nature of our relationship like that. The weight and the responsibility of my position came home to me very heavily.

I think in the end if there was one thing I learned that summarises all that teaching students taught me, it was to be myself in the classroom, not to pretend to be someone or something else. They didn’t get all of me – no-one ever does, if you think about it – but what they got in the classroom was a true slice of me.

2 Responses to “What did I learn from teaching?”

  1. erikleo Says:

    “To be myself in the classroom”. I think this is what Carl Rogers called being authentic? I had a checkered career in teaching and was never ‘at home’ there in the education system. I read AS Neil and found his ideas all too relevant!

    Liked by 1 person

    • litgaz Says:

      I like ‘authentic’. I’d read Summerhill before I went into teaching, and had been a volunteer at a Free School too, so I think some of those influences rubbed off.

      Like


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