Education Sunday Address, 17th September 2017

Good morning, thank you for inviting me to speak today – it is a privilege and an honour. And thank you in particular to Maureen for her support, guidance and encouragement.

You all know me as Matt, the on-and-off attender, the neighbour up the road, the resident who campaigned on traffic issues in the area. But I also have another hat – that of teacher.

I’ve been in teaching for fifteen years and I am now a Deputy Headteacher at the Pendlebury Centre - a specialist provision on Edgeley Road for young people with mental health needs. 

More often than not the young people I work with have stopped attending school. And with some - though certainly not all - when attending secondary schools they find themselves in trouble for not following the rules. Be that the rules we find written down or the myriad of unspoken social rules and demands of a school environment. Others do both – they attend school, they follow the rules – but they spend their nights upset at the stress of school, and may even attempt to harm themselves.

Usually, when I say I am a teacher, the next question is, “What do you teach?” And the answer usually being looked for is the subject I teach.

On paper I am a qualified secondary school history teacher. But hopefully I will explain to you today how I have learned over the years, that the answer to this question is far more complex – and hopefully a little bit enlightening.

I started off my training as a Secondary School History Teacher in 2002, having completed a politics degree in Liverpool – I was the first in my family, alongside my slightly older brother, to attend university - coming as we did from working class roots in Sheffield.

As part of my teacher training, I undertook two placements in different schools, under the guidance of a teacher-turned-mentor. I’ll never forget the opening conversation with my first mentor, Maurice – also the head of history at the school. He immediately questioned how I could possibly become a history teacher without a history degree. When I responded by explaining the largely historical content of my politics degree, he returned with, “Can you tell me the dates when Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned?” When I said, ‘no’, he responded with, “Well, that’s my point…”

It is funny – but also perhaps cautioning – how seemingly throwaway comments like this can stick with you. Particularly so when it is said by a person in power to someone in what might be described as a ‘lesser’ position. For me, it didn’t matter that year how much I succeeded at becoming a teacher, I never felt good enough. And this sparked a chain of events that leads me to where I am today…

As a side note, just before graduation in 2002, my grandmother – my Nan Elsie - passed away. One of my last conversations with her involved her telling me how proud she was I had gone to university. Going to university may seem to some like a basic rite of passage in 2017 - but for the older working class generations in my family at least, it was still something special. For my Nan Elsie, it was about ‘showing them’ - ‘them’ being the upper classes that she perhaps felt were unreachably above her.

My Nan Elsie left me an amount of money – enough to buy a new car or perhaps to go travelling with. However, in 2003, rather than take up a permanent teaching post – and with the words of my first mentor burning away at me – I used this money to pay the fees for a master’s degree in history whilst also working as a cover teacher. My aim at this point was in many ways to answer the question, “What do you teach?” I wanted to be the best history teacher I could be. I also felt it was a good way to honour my Nan.

But like all best laid plans, it was one that ultimately took a very different course…

Whilst as a cover teacher in Liverpool, I taught at various schools. I found life as a cover teacher to be tough. My first assignment summed it up, teaching in an inner city school surrounded by a large spiked fence – and frosted plastic windows, replacements for all the ones that had been broken over the years. It was autumn 2003, and I’ll never forget one day – looking through one of the remaining clear glass windows over the yard at break time. The students had gotten into the habit of smuggling fireworks into school and firing them across the school yard – and in turn, a riot van had been despatched across the school field to dampen the spirits of any wannabe Guy Fawkes. 

It was difficult but I also enjoyed aspects - particularly when I had longer placements and could strike up a rapport with so called ‘bottom sets’ who’d often been served up one cover teacher after another.  Such groups would be resolute in their reluctance to work, often giving me the runaround to avoid work, but as they say, “the world loves a trier” and I think that’s true of pupils – they could see I wanted the best for them.

During this first year of teaching, as I studied for my masters’ degree in history, I was asked to undertake an assignment in a special school - for boys permanently excluded from secondary school. I very nearly turned it down but needed the money.

It turned out to be a transformative experience. At this school, I was asked to teach humanities and literacy but also to take part in a football match every Wednesday afternoon, to sit each day and have my lunch with them and so on.

I was also asked to act as a mentor for a small group of eight students, walking with them through their trials, tribulations and their steps towards success.

Again, certain memories stand out – using my morning break to sit with a severely-dyslexic 13 year old boy called Charlie, as he tried to improve his reading away from the audience of his peers. I remember how one day he skipped reading to settle an ongoing feud with another boy, Toby - badly bloodying his lips and nose with a few well aimed punches. I remember the challenge of talking to Charlie– getting him to recognise that he had done wrong – but without condemning him entirely. This is a tightrope I still find myself walking today.

I remember sitting with another 14 year old boy called Corey, a stocky hot-tempered young man who could shake the building as he shouted and thumped doors in frustration. I remember sitting with him one morning as he sobbed because his grandfather had passed away – putting all my ‘important’ jobs to one side and taking time to listen. I couldn’t change what had happened but could say, ‘I hear you, I understand.’

I worked at a Catholic Salesian school for a number of years and their unwritten ‘motto’ was ‘it’s good to waste time with children’ – not just in times of crisis, but spending time each day to greet students by name, to ask how their weekend is and so on. Autistic students - and students who are nervous of adults perhaps due to experience - may not always reciprocate in the most articulate, socially-‘nice’ of ways but research does show it nonetheless means a lot to them to be recognised.

I remember trying to teach a class where a boy called Aaron had built an impressive and highly distracting tower of pens – and bellowing at him to stop ruining my lesson in my classroom - and him walking out in tears. And afterwards that sense that I could have handled things so much better – not least by taking my ego out of the situation. 

I think times have perhaps moved on from the "don’t smile for three months" approach to classroom management – one which seeks to simply contain students through dominance and fear rather than help them develop true self-discipline – but we are all guilty at times of viewing classroom management as ‘win or lose’ when it’s much more of a fine art, one that we have to develop continuously.

I remember, on another occasion, sitting in meetings with pupils who had lashed out at me the day before, still feeling some anger but accepting their apology and committing to a ‘fresh start’ because I knew it’s what we all needed to move forward.

From that point I found myself called (and I emphase the word ‘called’) to a different route – working in various settings with students who have additional needs, be that dyslexia, autism or things not easily defined. Children who have grown up in families where drugs reign, children who have grown up in households where adults have been abusive or simply absent. At present I work with a significant number of young people who are in the care system, living in communal care homes away from their families – sometimes placed hundreds of miles away to protect them from grooming gangs.

We might think these young people in crisis are a tiny minority but we only have to look at statistics, such as those from Relate, which show that in a typical class of 30:
- 1 young person will have experienced the death of a parent 
- 8 young people will have experienced severe physical violence, sustained neglect or sexual abuse
- 10 young people will have witnessed their parents separate 
- 7 young people will report having been bullied 
- Around 5 to 10 young people with have some difficulties with written language

We might also recognise that all 30 will likely have unlimited access to the internet and social media – this, from what I have seen in recent years, is a real challenge for our times and one we have yet to fully grasp.

It might seem odd to quote Trotsky in a church, and I’m certainly no fan of his politics – but he famously once said of his own experience of childhood, “Life strikes at the weak and who is weaker than a child?” Even when faced with the bolshiest, brashest of teenagers, this is something I remind myself of – they’re children, they’re vulnerable, that brash exterior is them acting out their vulnerability.

Fifteen years on, I am still learning – although I still do not know when Mary Queen of Scots was locked in the tower. The masters degree has helped me, not so much with my teaching of history but in piecing together evidence and writing cases for pupils who need extra funding and support long-term – one of my current roles.

So going back to the earlier question, “What do you teach?” My answer is ‘children’. 

Yes, subjects matter – I have not encountered any child who doesn’t like at least one subject – and by nurturing these interests, we provide impetus and interest to their lives.

But, to be a teacher, I have learned you have to first and foremost be a guide – and dare I say it a servant - to children. Some teachers may bristle at the word ‘servant’ as it is often interpreted as weakness, but a servant can be something strong and powerful. Ghandi was a servant to his people, as was Martin Luther King, as was Winston Churchill.

And this doesn’t just mean being their entertainer or their mate - I am very clear with young people that I am neither. It means holding firm on boundaries and expectations around acceptable conduct on the one hand – matched with a unconditional positive regard for them as individuals on the other – and this includes a sense of humour, not least an ability to laugh at yourself. Just this week, for example, I took a group of students on a climbing wall activity – activities which I always make a point of getting involved in. I’m scared of heights, not the most nimble and the activity culminated in me scurrying to the top, getting stuck, having a panic and falling about two metres, whilst bouncing against the wall, before the rope stopped me. I’m now nursing bruised ribs. It’s not something I would do deliberately to endear myself to young people, but they saw my human side and I am no less in their eyes for it.

I am not going to stand here and profess to be fully signed up to the doctrinal small print of the church. I have read various books on theology over the years and the only conclusion I have come to is I struggle with theology.

However, I was brought up a Christian and – going to a Methodist church as it happens. And as much as I struggle with belief in terms of supernatural things written down on paper - as an adult I do try to live in continuity with that upbringing.  

I have found that living each day as a conscientious teacher is one way I continue to feel in some way Christian – and vice versa, I have found that to be a conscientious teacher requires us to not just be anchored to a ‘code of competencies’ (of which our government is very fond of publishing) but to hold onto a greater vision of how life can be and a way to try and live – which the stories of Jesus clearly point to.

Jesus is viewed in various ways but the one that really sticks with me is the old Victorian saying of - ‘Christ, Our Example’ – as we see in the washing of the disciple’s feet, a practical helpful act in response to a hot, dusty environment yet also a highly symbolic act that would have stayed in the minds of his followers.

It strikes me that this is ultimately what being a teacher is about. It is about, in practical ways - yet also symbolic ways - trying to make more evident and more tangible in the here & now what the Apostle Matthew calls the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ – to offer a place of hope, community, forgiveness and justice – a place of love. Just as this church offers in its endeavours such as the vulnerable adults group.

It’s not all rosy, it is true that the teaching profession has faced hard times this past few years – morale is low in places and the statistics show a high number of teachers leaving before their career gets started. I consider myself blessed (and I use the word blessed to mean gifted) to have found somewhere like the Pendlebury Centre, to have experienced some excellent schools along the way there, and to have met colleagues, children and their families along the way who have educated and enriched me as much as I have tried to do the same for them.

Amen

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