Among other new ventures this year, I have started an MA in Education. It is definitely the “done thing” at my school. So much so, that the lecturer comes to us on a Monday evening and I don’t even have to exit the school gates to experience academia.
As part of the introductory work, we have to write a pen portrait of ourselves including a biography and information on our professional context. I have written 100s of pen portraits over the years. The city loves them. Schools love them. On the whole I find them rather dry.
In the midst of writing my pen portrait today, I have been thinking on David Doherty’s closing comments at #TLT13 yesterday. In 30 years time, will my students look back at my English lessons and know the seas roared for them? I was lucky, the seas did roar for me at school. In one classroom, with one teacher. Now it’s my turn.
Here is how the seas roared for me:
My earliest memories of education are not school-based. In fact, I have very few recollections of my education beyond the moments of chaos and trouble and the resulting discipline and tears. My mother was the true educator of my formative years, a single middle-class mum in the 1970s, she was an oddity. Her strong political opinions saw me understanding more about the miners’ strike, the poll tax and nuclear disarmament than Barbie or Cindy. In contrast, my private education, with straw bonnet and crisp white socks, resulted in the summation “Louisa will not succeed in academic endeavour” at the end of Year 5. I am probably the only student in history, who was forced to “drop” Latin at the age of 7. Added to this, a physical debilitating kind of blindness meant that I was unable to read for most of my primary education.
My earliest memories of reading are not of stories, or books or even of being read to. My personal reading history begins in the out-patients unit of Reading Hospital (the irony has not escaped me). I was 4 years old and attending numerous appointments with The Eye Surgeon. Reading line upon line of letters – H, M, B, Z, F, G, L, P. I hated it, the repetition, the bright lights flashing into my eyes, having to guess, and the pervading sense that something was wrong. Sometime later I underwent the first of several operations that would result in my right eye being patched from the age of 5 to 7 years. The Eye Patch is another enduring memory of my first attempts at reading. My more functional eye was covered in an attempt to force my lesser functioning eye to work, the world to me during those years was fuzzy and uneven. It was wonky and it didn’t seem to work properly. Nothing seemed to make sense, least of all letters, words, sentence or books.
I suspect the end of primary was the tipping point.
My elder (and more clever) brother was off at a deliciously selective private-ish secondary school and my mother was left with the choice of the local C of E comprehensive or a failing technical college for my secondary school. She placed her trust in the pastoral heavy comprehensive and is it there I meet Victoria Wood (not the comedienne). Victoria Wood was my English teacher from year 7 through to Lower Sixth. I wept the day she announced she was moving to New Zealand, it is one of very few days from my school life that I can remember with clarity.
This teacher taught me to read, to love stories and to immerse myself in the narrative world. I have no idea what the popular pedagogy in the early 80s was, but it felt as if she would present a text or an idea and allow us to go wherever we could with it. And we did. Her mode of assessment seemed to be a glance over the rim of her glasses and a raised eyebrow. A nod of the head, when earned, signaled something extraordinary had just taken place.
Mrs Wood was why, after falling ill for much of my upper sixth year, I choose to study Literature at a “lesser” university rather than retake, hoping for higher grades. Her comments, via letter, from New Zealand were:
“an idea is an idea, whether it stems from an ivory tower or from the gutter, if it brings light in the darkness, it is always a gem”.
University was, perhaps unsurprisingly, less about academics and more about experience. Through blind luck, I was given the opportunity to work for a world-famous film director, an opera company, be a nanny, a book editor. I had academic articles and creative writing published. I met my husband and decided it would have to take something pretty special to make me ever leave London.
The jump from university to an office job at one of the big 4 accounting firms was another stroke of blind luck, I was made redundant at the age of 22, when the technology bubble burst, and fell literally into a job where my boss seemed to value my talent for smoothing creases and juggling tricky customers, above my lack of technical accounting skills. I become indispensable or so they say. I used this to my advantage (who wouldn’t) and cheekily took off for foreign parts (China) and trained to be a TEFl teacher.
In amongst the busy-ness of city life, came three daughters, and a need to regain some perspective. As if by magic that came in technicolor in October 2008 when Lehman Brothers went under and triggered the “banking crisis”. Although many of us ordinary types find it hard to pinpoint how the banking crisis did impact us, after all prices keep rising, pay rises keep falling, the impact I felt was monumental. My small and beloved team in city were some of those blamed in the papers and in Parliament for being the root cause. Remember those articles about pay consultants who push bonuses higher and forced bankers to be more risky? Well, that was us. The spotlight turned in our direction and we froze. I think I stayed frozen. Finally, it was over several glasses of wine, with my boss, after giving evidence to the treasury select committee when she asked me “What are you doing with your life, Louisa? You can do something better than this.”
My half-hearted reply was, “I always wanted to be an English teacher.”
Another tipping point reached.
So, as I write my pen portrait, I can’t help but think about my students and imagine them in 30 years – would their pen portrait say that school made them feel alive, feel like anything was possible. Did they know that the stars were within their reach?
Yesterday, I attended Teaching and Learning Takeover 2013 in Southampton, David Doherty talked about making the seas roar in our classrooms. That’s what Mrs Wood did for me, the tide changed. I changed. Now it’s my turn.