In spite of all these doubts I graduated from my Educational Studies degree and marched straight on to a Primary PGCE. I was suffering from the ridiculous illusion that I could change things. I honestly don’t know why I thought that. I can only think that a part of me knew that I wouldn’t be able to teach in the way I wanted to, but the idea of teaching had been in my head for so long that I couldn’t imagine any alternative.
Anyway I persevered with my PGCE and received the appropriate qualification. I sometimes had to teach in a way which the idealist in me didn’t in any way agree with, but I tried to see it as a lesson in pragmatism and persuade myself that if I did my best in difficult circumstances then I would be helping the children in my care. I abandoned that idea, though, towards the end of the course and decided that, actually, I wanted to enjoy my life and that my health and vitality were more important to me than anything else. I came to see that if I persisted I would turn into one of those old, resentful teachers who hate their schools and the children and despise themselves for putting up with it all. I sincerely – almost desperately – wanted to ignore all my reservations and just plug myself into the monolithic internal logic of the system, but I couldn’t do it. It would have been nice to have had a job which was reasonably secure and had decent opportunities for career progression, but in the end I decided that it just wasn’t worth it.
It took a long time but I think the moment when I finally accepted that teaching like this wasn’t for me was towards the end of the year, during a placement when I was doing autobiographies with a Y5 class. I was marking the children’s work and I read the ‘autobiography’ of a girl whose granddad had recently died. I had to give grades for all pieces of work, so alongside supportive comments welcoming her to speak to me about it if she wanted to, I gave a grade she would happy with. I was scared that there might have been a penalty if I had rocked the boat too much but I am still ashamed of giving a grade at all. What shocked me, though, was the fact that other teachers read the work and marked it down for incorrect usage of the apostrophe. These were teachers who were actually very pleasant; they were probably just referring to the APP grid and not paying much attention to actual content.
What a horrible lesson for that girl to learn though! I imagine it won’t be long before she decides that is safer just not to make herself vulnerable like that any more. It was then that I made the connection between this kind of experience and the way many adults cannot express themselves creatively. There are many adults I know who insist that they’re ‘just not creative’ and it seems clear to me that whether or not it is true now, it was almost certainly not true before they went to school.
During my final placement I developed a good relationship with my class and there were times, especially towards the end of the course and especially after I had decided not pursue a teaching career, when I wanted to set aside half an hour or so and try to explain to them that learning in their own time, for the fun of it, is a completely different experience to learning for any kind of exam. I wanted to explain that the former really just involved realising what you were interested in and exploring it, while the latter was a complicated game where you had to figure out what was being asked of you and working out how to play along was arguably the most important thing you could do.
I don’t want to deny the importance of grades and qualifications in themselves, but only the underlying assumption that they can define who a person is and predict the future. Of course grades are useful – there’s no escaping their functionality – but I think schools should make it clear they only measure the performance of particular skills in a particular context. It must be made clear that a person’s innate abilities cannot be measured, and the internalisation of grades as a form of self-definition that gives people a fixed, reductive, often inaccurate and always unhelpful view of themselves. People aren’t fixed; they change. They change, that is, unless they view themselves as fixed by exam grades which give an essential measure of who they are.
I even sometimes felt tempted to question how the school was run. Why do you have to call me ‘Mr Hansen’ and not by my first name? For what reason do you all have to wear uniforms and why do I have to wear a suit? Why do we have to pray at the end of assembly?
It should be possible to open things up for debate. Only good can come from encouraging the children to question them. I hear people ask: ‘But what if the children lose respect for wearing the uniforms? What if they no longer want to pray in assembly?’ I can even imagine hysterical parents asking ‘What if my child no longer wants to write in cursive writing!?’ And I would respond to these questions with a question of my own: If we make children put up with arbitrary rules and regulations without giving any justification for them, how can we expect them to grow up and take an active and critical part in a democratic society? How can the first of these things possibly lead to the other?
There are people who think that our species is really in its infancy in terms of what we have the potential of accomplishing – politically, socially, technologically and so on. To have come this far though, from working with sticks and sharpened rocks to mapping the human genome and travelling in space, suggests that the desire to learn may well be an innate part of us – a natural instinct. I don’t mean the desire to learn irrelevances, I mean the desire to learn things which interest us and are directly relevant to our lives.
I’ve been aware throughout writing this that many people may cast everything I’m saying to one side as being far too idealistic and completely unrealistic. I can only ask that these people consider, in a scientific spirit, whether there is any truth in what I have been saying rather than simply dismissing it as uncomfortable to think about. If enough people start thinking about these issues then we can begin to figure out how to take things forward. Unless the problem is recognised and discussed, there can be no chance of overcoming it.