Photo by Jose Aljovin

Beating a dead narrative

Yet another teacher memoir abuses more clichés

Artillery Row Books

Publishers seem to love teaching, and must hope that the general public do as well: the list of new titles about schools, targeting a mainstream readership, seems endless. But the uplifting portrayal of teaching, fondly described by the likes of James Hilton or Muriel Spark, disappeared long ago. Instead we are sold books that describe schools as warzones, with all the mental and physical damage that suggests. Tales of misery and despair proliferate, and so much better if they come wrapped in a dust jacket of privilege. Richard Beard’s Sad Little Men, Musa Okwonga’s One of Them, Alex Renton’s Stiff Upper Lip, to choose just three, all tell angry, bitter stories of hardship at some of the best schools in the country. Commissioning editors must think that we can all empathise with an unhappy child because, at some stage of our own school lives, we were probably unhappy too. Victimhood, when added to empathy, shifts units.

A more difficult “sell” must be the teachers’ stories. What market could there be for books like Lucy Kellaway’s recent Re-educated? It tells the story of a successful journalist who decides to become a teacher. That in itself is mildly interesting, but the material is rather thin because, on a daily basis, teaching is (thankfully) quite routine. Now we have Let That Be a Lesson by Ryan Wilson, which tells the story of a successful teacher who decides to become a journalist. Ryan’s “journey” (his metaphor), from the child with the toy blackboard who dreamt of teaching (yes, really), to the Gove-hating, Ofsted-despising, data-phobic, disillusioned ex-teacher who concludes the book, is predictable and only intermittently interesting. Too often it describes the drudgery of the job and its banality, but in language which reflects, rather than illuminates, both aspects.

The authenticity of the experience is deadened by inauthentic writing

Wilson is a former Head of English, which is worth noting because it is astonishing that any English teacher, let alone an author, would write a book so filled with clichéd language. For Ryan, teachers work at the “chalkface”, they “crunch data”, they often find themselves “swimming against the tide”, but have to “pay lip service to all manner of initiatives”. Teachers are so busy with bureaucracy that lessons “take a back seat” but the pupils, bless them, “wear their hearts on their sleeves”. Such phrases are found on every page, sometimes numbering three in one sentence and the result is that the main “angle” of the book namely, the authenticity of the experience described is deadened by the inauthentic writing. 

This predictability extends beyond just the language. Wilson recycles experiences under the mistaken belief that they were interesting the first time they were described (getting lost on the way to work really does not merit being repeated four times). Other, more political detours, are familiar to anyone who has observed the depressing polarisation of “debate” around school policy over the last ten years. It is, of course, admirable that Wilson wants schools to value teachers “who inspire and care and are passionate, not just those who churn out results”. Who wouldn’t? But he fails to come up with any sustained alternative to formal, structured assessments other than a few rather cursory concluding pages advising future Secretaries of States on how to run the country’s educational system. He wants teachers to be more autonomous, and not slaves to examinations. The recent abandonment of GCSEs and A levels, and the chaos that followed, is evidence that such idealism, well-intentioned though it always is, doesn’t work. 

The main villains of this utilitarian state of affairs are (again, predictably), “the two Michaels, Gove and Wilshaw”, two men who “wrought untold damage on the education system of this country”. This is, of course, the sort of clichéd political thinking that would get a round of applause at any NEU committee meeting, but it is historically selective. Wilson attacks Gove for banning books which can, in fact, still be taught in schools. Choosing these two men also dates the book: Wilshaw left Ofsted in 2016, Gove was sacked as Secretary of State two years earlier. You rarely hear their names in schools today, but Wilson repeatedly returns to them, picking over their influence. Wilson left teaching in 2016, and it shows. 

What other profession would find that even remotely acceptable?

There are other, odd, inconsistencies: Wilson seems unfazed when admitting that an eighteen year old pupil is better read than he is; surely such a weak grasp of his own subject is not something to just shrug about? What other profession would find that even remotely acceptable? There are the (again) routine attacks on the government’s not unreasonable desire for pupils to have a secure understanding of English grammar. In my experience, it is only English teachers who find this so outrageous, believing that rules inhibit creativity and freedom of expression. Imagine a music teacher arguing about whether to teach scales and arpeggios.

All of which is a shame because there are passages both moving and illuminating. Wilson’s tells of two colleagues who die of cancer with sensitivity and intelligence. The love and respect he feels for both is obvious. Equally well written is his exploration of his own sexuality. He is of a certain cultural background and age that has made it hugely difficult to admit to being gay. He struggles with accepting who he is as he becomes an experienced teacher. But, much to his surprise and relief, teaching in a school, and at a time very different from his own, helps him embrace his identity. The admiration he feels for the pupils he teaches who have no such fear, or inhibition, really is authentic and moving. 

If only this level of nuance, understanding and insight had been employed throughout the book. Perhaps it is impossible to make teaching a Year 9 class on a Thursday afternoon genuinely interesting, but surely books such as Wilson’s should seek to give voice to those unhistoric acts, which are completed daily by those teachers who seek to add to the growing good of the world. If they do not, or if publishers have no greater ambition than to simply add another story of grievance and regret to the growing pile of such books then they are, to use (another) cliché of the profession, letting themselves down and letting schools down too. 

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