The Punch That Ali Never Threw

It was another time, another place and I was another person. Way before I was a teacher and I could sit in the pub in the afternoon. This time in London, somewhere, I can’t remember, wasting time with an old friend. The radio played a local station and we more or less ignored it. Until, after a sports report which told us nothing, we heard that Mohammed Ali was signing books in Tottenham Court Road that afternoon. An opportunity not to be missed, we finished our drinks (probably) and got a ludicrously expensive cab across the city. Sure enough, half an hour later, a large man shuffled out off a limo and blinked in the afternoon sunshine. It was Ali. We turned into little children in his presence.

I’d never been so close to greatness since – as I found out later – I’d barged passed a young Diego Maradona to get Asa Hartford’s autograph at Hampden Park. Yep. In awe of Ali, we stood on a wall, joining in with the chant, ‘Ali!, Ali!’ as he mock sparred with each fan as he passed. And then he looked up: he stared directly at me; he threatened a punch, before grinning that incredible, life-affirming, beautiful grin of his. I could have cried, probably did a little. He was well into his illness but it is a moment which I think about a lot.

The other punch that Ali never threw was the famous one when, standing over a falling George Foreman, he could have battered him again. Lesser boxers would have done; Foreman certainly would have. But Ali stood back, the dignity and respect for his losing opponent more important than causing him more pain. He had done his job; he didn’t need to hammer home the point. He had no need to show off further and flaunt his superiority. What an incredible human being he was. But if you look around your school staff you will see similar qualities in your teachers. The ones who quietly, but wonderfully, teach kids all day every day.

They share that quiet dignity that means we never hear from them. They don’t need to shout loudly because they raise the bar for kids every day of their lives; perhaps not comfortable in the limelight, certainly unlike Ali, but they don’t need to push themselves into that limelight. I’ve recently been in the position of attempting to organise whole school CPD and it becomes clear that many of our best teachers are the best teachers because they don’t reveal themselves to us. I get frustrated when they don’t want to share their talents but have come to understand and respect them all the more for it.

So, keep in mind that those who push themselves to the front of the crowd, who stand on the wall and chant, if you like, are not always the best people to listen to. Sometimes they are. But think of those quiet geniuses who turn up every day and approach  their teaching with a dignity and respect for others that we should all learn from. They have a punch but often choose not to use it.

A Referendum on Decency

I suppose I should be used to it now: waking up with a sick lump in my stomach. The ‘No’ vote in the Scottish Referendum; a Cameron majority; Brexit. This feels a little bit worse though. I don’t normally write about politics – although you could argue that education is always political – but my dad is American – he spent over twenty years in the U.S. Navy – and I have dual nationality so cut me some slack here. Trump has just been announced as president. We should all have known it would come to this. He is a product of our environment.

However, I recognise those who voted for him; some of them anyway. Yes, those that are the dispossessed, the long term unemployed, the ’poorly educated’, who feel they have had a raw deal. Things are not like they used to be. They want those happy times back. They think the angry, intolerant, racist, misogynist, disabled -mocking reality TV star is the man to get them there because that’s what he wants too. Don’t worry about the details, the facts. They’ve seen their industrial heartlands turned into wastelands. They’ve seen their communities devastated by something called progress. But progress happens to other people: different people. Now they believe it is their turn.

But they’re mistaken. He won’t help them. Instead we have a world which is that little bit more intolerant, that little bit more misogynistic, that little bit more distrustful. I see it every day. Selfishness, rudeness, lack of empathy. When we’re surprised when kids say ‘Please’ or ‘Thank You’. When someone fails to hold the door open for us. When someone cuts in on you without signalling on the road home. The lack off awareness of others when you’re on the phone on the train. Trump is a product of that. We want things and we want them now. Those with differences, or weaknesses, will need to get out of the way.

The political satirist Bill Maher described this election as a referendum on decency. If it is, look what has happened. America elected the guy who mocked the disabled, who vowed to rid the country of Muslims, who confessed to sexually assaulting women. They elected the guy who promised to lock up his opponent, to refuse to accept the result if he lost, to build a wall. A referendum on decency? I’ve spoken to every class I’ve taught today about this and told them that. The only thing we can all do to counter that horrible, sick feeling we may have is to be kind to others, to be better, to refuse the hateful rhetoric. It’s the least we can do.

A Lifetime of Resentments and Insecurities

tazOften like a whirlwind, often like a Tazmanian Devil, he storms, belligerently out of my class on the bell in the same rebellious manner as he enters: with somewhere better to be and another fifty minutes chalked off from his day. Negotiating six periods daily is a constant battle for him. What has changed is, in his developing maturity, he now doesn’t fight as much, knowing that this is something he must endure until he can leave school. He does what he needs to do, avoids what he can avoid and gets out of here as fast as he can.

For kids like him, school has been an abject failure. Education has never been respected in his family – what has it ever done for them? – and we have whole-heartedly failed to change that for him. Counting the days, looking at the clock, biding his time. He’ll leave school barely literate. Our inability to engage him or even counteract the feeling that we, as symbols of authority,  are the enemy, means he will leave school with some token qualifications and a whole bag of resentments and insecurities, some of which he may never get over. No-one ever leaves school with nothing.

Of course, a system stacked against him didn’t help. Stuck in a bottom set for most of his subjects – yes, I know we don’t like the term, but that’s what they are – he has never had the opportunity to sit with someone who is ‘good at English’ or any other subject for that matter. Our pretence that it is ‘for his own good’ and he can get more attention in a smaller class has long been debunked by staff shortages and cutbacks. He spends his day with the same kids, every period, all of whom who know their place. Well done us.

William McIlvanney once wrote of a deprived area as ‘a penal colony for those who had committed poverty’. Who could argue against the fact that setting by ability often becomes that. Not always but often, and probably more often than we’d care to admit. We set by ability to appease our more middle class parents; our school websites are filled with photographs of those to whom success is expected and celebrated at home. We glory in that success at Parents Evenings. What we try to forget is that, as Andy Day once wrote, and I often quote, ‘the greatest tragedy in education is the empty seat at Parents Evening’.

He’s been with me for two years now and I’m not sure what difference I make. I occasionally get a smile now when once I got a sneer and an earful of abuse. He’s read a whole load of Robert Muchamore books which he would gladly do all day if he could. His writing hasn’t improved one bit beyond almost illegible. He rarely makes any effort when he has to think on his own. He sits quietly and listens. But I already know what his life will be like and it shames me that I’ve not been able to change that for him.

Enjoy the Silence.The Disappearing Beauty of Being in the Library.

When was the last time you were in your local library, spending time choosing books, wandering the aisles, checking out the shelves? Does it still have that library smell or has it become a cafe or a hub or a ‘chill-out zone’? ( A wee line for the kids, there). They are quite remarkable spaces and we ‘re lucky to have them. But that opening question? When were you last in one? We’re losing them and we’re outraged at the thought but could it be argued that our increasing aspirations lead us to desire our own books, our own libraries., leaving the traditional ones redundant in our lives?

Our books can become a symbol of how we live our lives. We create libraries which we like to have on display, as much for ourselves as anyone else. They help create an aura of cleverness and respectability in our homes, which begs the question; is a library a collection or a space? Can a library exist without books and does a collection of books necessarily make a library? And when, with the onslaught of computing areas, coffee shops and the like, does it stop being a library? For surely the greatest boon of the library is for it to be one of the last places where silence is not only expected but a rule.

l-and-hI write about this tonight after having two classes up to our school library today. I take my classes up every week, if possible, and we spend as much time there as we can. We write and talk about books informally and spend as much time  as possible reading in that fabulous space. Today I had two class who spent the whole period reading. And they did too. It was lovely. The time to sit quietly and read is something we don’t often get to do and, while I have so many things I have to get through, sometimes, just sometimes, it’s good for them to sit in silence and begin to understand what a reading life looks like. The silence is part of that. We sit in silence together.

We sit among the shelves of books  because I want them to be able to pick up the books, feel them in their hands and read loads of blurbs: I want them to get a feel for the vast, huge, unfathomable number of books which leaves even their teacher feeling intimidated. I walk into bookshops and libraries only to be reminded of what I haven’t read. As Gabriel Zaid says in his wonderful little memoir, ’So Many Books’: “To say, ‘I only know that I’ve read nothing,’  after reading thousands of books is not false modesty.”  Readers have books around us all the time; we deprive our students of that experience if we don’t get them into the library.

However, there is much more to cover isn’t there? Course work is a priority. So, perhaps we could be doing other things, perhaps we could be spending our time in a more constructive way. But perhaps we may be forgetting that the only way we become readers is by sitting in a quiet room with a book. We teach our kids about silence when we are in the library, that silence is a rare and precious privilege at times. We neglect that at out peril. The next time you go into your library, then, have a closer look around. At the books, the history, the space. And enjoy the silence.

Notice them. Don’t Let Them Disappear

I have very few positive memories from my time at Secondary school. I had come from Primary really keen, one of the brightest in the class, ready to do well. I was one of the first pupils in the first year of a brand new school, so the future might have been bright; it wasn’t though. My abiding memory of those teenage years is one of desperately trying to hide from the attention of both teachers and my more exuberant peers. Many a day I recall getting home and sighing in massive relief as I lay on my bed. Another day over. It was perhaps no surprise that I left school with ordinary and unimpressive exam passes.

I was reminded of that unhappy time recently while re-watching the overly schmaltzy ‘Freedom Writers’, the true story of a teacher in east LA who miraculously changes the lives of her students in typical Hollywood fashion. There is a scene in the film where one boy speaks of his love for the classroom – see the clip below – and no-one else in the class even recognises him. His life was so awful that his classroom became his safety zone and ‘home’. It couldn’t have been more different to my experience but something did ring true.

Back in the day, I wanted to be the one who wasn’t recognised, the one no-one noticed. School is hard for some kids. They disappear, often deliberately, often because they are shy or frightened. In the course of their day, we may never notice them, may never find out anything about them. And isn’t that such a shame. Perhaps if any teachers had taken the time to speak to me I would have had a better experience than I did: much of my desire to be a teacher was to provide experiences which were better than I had.

New beginnings to the school years are always challenging. As a teacher I have to get know about one hundred and fifty new names, begin the often long process of developing trusting relationships with kids who want to learn from me, mostly. Some kids will slide off my radar because they are ‘quiet’ and no bother. This year I want to try and view my classroom through their eyes. What are they thinking about school, about their teachers, about their peers? I refuse to allow them to go home and heave a sigh of relief without anyone taking an interest.

Teachers like Erin Gruwell in ‘Freedom Writers’ or John Keating from ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ are lovely, warm images of the ideal of the perfect teacher. Most of us will never be like that. But we can be the teacher that reaches the often unreachable. It’s why I insist on silent classes very often to provide for the ones crying out for a bit of peace and quiet during a day of bedlam. Some kids are trying to hide but you must never let them. A quiet word, an awareness of their presence doesn’t take much. Notice them. I hated my time at Secondary School. I don’t want that to happen to anyone.

Reading is a habit not an isolated action.

This summer I’ve been submerging myself in fiction again, after a little break with some non-fiction. I discovered the wonder of Grahame Greene, finally read ‘Rebecca’, and worked my way through a host of unread books I’d been adding to my bookcase over the year.  The act of reading is one in which I am most at ease during the holidays. The niggling thought that I should be doing something else dissipates and my time is my own. I leave no time or space between books, almost literally, and that pile of books which had been building up over the last few months starts to decrease.

thinkerWith no pause between books how could I possibly reflect on what I’d read, something I ask my students to do after reading a book? Of course, I couldn’t. Stopping after each book, thinking for a bit, or even writing about it, is not something that experienced readers do an awful lot of. Of course we internalise what we read – I could talk about ‘Our Man in Havana’ for hours if you asked – but good readers can do that. We live the lives of readers and the reflection part is built in, ingrained in what we do. Our students don’t often have habit that yet.

I return to teaching tomorrow and will, for the first time, meet about 150 new students. Some of them may have been with me before but I like to spend that first day, or at least some of the time, talking about the reading we will be doing and why it is important for them. Each will have a reading journal  – they will write in that once or twice a fortnight – and part of their role will be to write about the things which I now take for granted. However, to begin with anyway, it will be more important to get books into their hands. The refection bit will come later.

When it coms to reluctant readers it is important to remember that the quality of the book itself might not be the most important thing at the beginning. I’m happy for them to choose any book to start with just to get that habit on its way. Many of these guys will be coming to us with negative reading experiences so rejection of their early choices merely adds to that. Let them choose whatever they want: when they start to read you can begin to push books over their desk towards them, once you get to know them. And I won’t worry whether they choose to reflect too much on those books.

While I don’t necessarily reflect on individual books any more, preferring to submerge myself into the act of reading, it is important that we remember that when we meet new classes. There is nothing worse than asking kids to write a book review, especially reluctant readers. Don’t concern them with chin scratching and reflecting. Reading is a habit not an isolated action. It’s more important that we begin the sometimes long process of allowing them to develop that habit, along with an awareness of what being a reader looks like. Some will get there quicker than others. But it’s hugely important that they do get there.

Education is a political football. Stop playing games with it.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard it but when, at a lecture at Strathclyde University recently, Michael Apple stressed the point that ‘Education is political’ something resonated with me. At a time in Scotland when the gap between rich and poor has never been wider, it is a point that we should ignore at our peril. For, while school is and never should be seen as the place to solve all of society’s ills, it is incumbent on all of us to do our bit. Improving the literacy of all of our citizens is a political act. What’s more worrying is when education becomes a tool to be used for political gain.

chess-424556_960_720The Scottish Government’s policy of reintroducing National Assessment is on its way. Despite attempts to discover where the policy originated or which research was accessed – see James McEnaney’s excellent work on this here – we are told merely that this is will be ‘for the best’. National Assessment seems to go against the grain of the principles of Curriculum for Excellent and, regardless of your thoughts on that, it is the Scottish Curriculum. Without the support of teachers it will become a policy fraught with tension and the Government will have a hard job of convincing us of the merits of these National Assessments.

What troubles me is that, in an era of massive constitutional upheaval  and the louder and harsher calls for IndyRef2,  SNP policy seems to be taking a surge to the right in order to attract traditional ‘No’ voters rather than stick to the more left leaning approaches which garnered so much support over the last ten years. No-one should pretend that the SNP are a left leaning party; they merely, cleverly, stepped into a hole left bare by the inadequacies of Scottish Labour. However, education is political but not a political tool. I want the best policies for the children in my class, not for the SNP.

I’m still not convinced how and why any new assessment will provide me with any information I don’t already have. I see a whole load of additional admin; I see a whole load of additional stress; I see league tables, which will be created regardless of the intentions of Government. Part of the change to Curriculum for Excellence was the focus on local needs and the increased value of the professional judgment of teachers. Those shouldn’t be followed with a ‘but’. I know how well my students are doing. Comparing them nationally at an early age seems nonsensical.

It’s not that I’m completely against Government intervention in Education; that would be daft. But if there is so much opposition to a policy which those in charge find difficult to justify beyond a few practiced lines then we really must start to question them. Along with slightly idealistic and simplistic approaches to Reading for Pleasure, which I write about here, I want to trust a Government which takes decisions based on current research and up-to-date thinking, not one which looks to cement it’s political foothold. I’m not convinced that’s the case at the moment. Education is a political football. Literacy is a political football. We shouldn’t allow anyone to play games with that.