What do we mean by ‘Educational Aspiration’?

Here’s the full version of my article in TES Scotland 17th February 2017

Reading J. D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is a humbling experience. His beautiful memoir of a crushingly challenging upbringing and the aftermath of fraught family connections rang a few bells and brought me back to thinking of the lives of the children I teach. Returning to school after the Christmas break, I was reminded that there are those in my classroom who will not have had the same happy holiday as everyone else. There are those who, while being asked to raise money and bring in donations for the local Food Bank, will have had to turn that very Food Bank for Christmas dinner.

Vance’s thesis throughout the book is that poverty is generational. He grew up in communities where having a job is rare and barely surviving was normal. His parents and their parents and their parents were mired in a system which, they were convinced, was not for them; a system which lies when it says that hard work pays off in the long run; where Grandparents worked themselves to death just to keep afloat, and aspiration was survival, and avoiding homelessness and starvation. It is no wonder that the poverty gap is widening with showing no sign of reversing that trend. Throwing money and resources at the problem will fix nothing.

There is also an endemic perception that education is for others. The poor don’t go to University; you certainly don’t see many lawyers and doctors coming from poor backgrounds. There are few role models to change that, no heroes returning to transform their community. And perhaps that’s an area worthy of focus. If we are to convince those in poverty that education truly can be transformative then wouldn’t it be good if we showed them that too? Perhaps ensure they visit a University at a younger age than sixteen; match them with a mentor for a term to discuss the life of a Uni student and the possibilities which could be open to them.

To what should be our great shame, some children, having lived their lives in poverty, begin school already behind their peers in so many ways. Our system often fails to overcome those barriers and these kids leave school twelve years later still behind their peers, but with deep-rooted resentment of a system which has failed them. Oh yes, we comfort ourselves by creating qualifications for them so that we can repeat, year after year, ‘at least she’ll leave school with something’. A line which should shame us.

In his book, J.D. Vance overcame horrific odds to reach University and succeed. He realises that there were significant adults who consistently told him and reminded him that aspiration was transformational; who never lowered the bar but raised it and helped him get there. If education is to be for all, then let it be for all. For all time.

Believe it or not, there are good things happening in schools

Here’s the full version of my article in TES Scotland 20th January 2017

 

And, woe, we did revel in the Pisa disaster. We’re rubbish and getting worse. CfE has failed. We were happy to see bandied about, in this very magazine, phrases such as ‘all time low’ and ‘plunged’.

And, of course, it was bad. To think that there are less of our children reaching competent levels of literacy is unacceptable. However, the hyperbole of such language doesn’t help. Political outrage merely gets in the way; politicians merely get in the way. Pisa tells a story but a very narrow one and one which ignores the great things happening in all our schools.

As an English teacher, it is my life’s work to improve the literacy of every child who walks though may door. When I read about drops in standards, whatever that may mean, it hurts. Literacy is a human right. The ability to read and write should be a minimum expectation of every kid who goes to school. And most do. The misleading media attention on Pisa is an unfair reflection of what is happening in our schools and deflects from the majority who are achieving so much.

In the fortunate position of visiting schools on an annual basis, the wonderful things occurring never fail to amaze me. In my own school, in the last weeks before Christmas, I’ve watched children involved in debating to a very high standard, a jazz band, a ceilidh band, a concert band, a choir; I’ve read about their successes in football, rugby, netball. They are building rockets in the engineering club, coding, producing incredible art, winning creative writing competitions with poetry which would make you cry. They are, for the most part, polite and eloquent and funny and interesting and challenging.

Those things are happening in schools all over the country. However, that’s not in the news. Instead our children read and hear stories that they are struggling with literacy and numeracy and science. Yes, they read those too. Of course, we could turn this into a political debate on the merits of CfE; we can point fingers and blame. If there are barriers to literacy and numeracy inadvertently created by the curriculum, then they need to be overcome. If things need to change then they need to be changed. I’ll be at the front of the queue with the wrecking ball. But I won’t stand by and let the great work that’s happening in schools be ignored. I’m no apologist for CfE – any more. I was in the past – and see the flaws. So let’s speak up for the successes and tackle the failures; let’s collaborate and share the good things and challenge and dismiss the rubbish. We owe it to ourselves; we owe to our children.

Reading for Pleasure- A Passport to Everywhere

The sight of a brown box, just delivered, slammed down on the hall rug might not sound special or appealing but it was the most glorious thing that has happened in my professional life. Almost two years in production, I could now stop telling people that I had a book coming out. And, perhaps, that moment was the most nerve-wracking of all. The anticipation as I breathed in, found some scissors and began to open the box, slowly and carefully, for my first sight of ‘How to Teach – Reading for Pleasure’. My words in print. My book.

As long as I remember I’ve been in awe of books. The covers, the spines, the very feel of them; the remarkable nature of words and stories captured inside. Like many of you, no doubt, I loved having them and seeing them on my shelf. Before University, working in factories and shops, I longed to be able to afford more; to fill up my shelves with the complete works of Hemingway or Roth or Updike. It was never a status symbol; they never made me feel clever; I wanted them around me because they were aesthetically pleasing as well as filled with memories. Like a long curated record collection, nothing says more about you than your books.

So what brought me to this point? Why would I write a book about reading for pleasure? There are other books on the subject. And, as a classroom teacher, I’m not convinced that this thing called ‘pleasure’ is my main focus. I want kids to read and read well because literacy is the benchmark for their place in society. I want them to be readers because good readers succeed in life. I am convinced of that. But what I wanted to achieve in writing this book was both a tale of my reading life and a series of, hopefully, relevant strategies which would allow the children in my classes to begin to develop the habits of a reader.

imageAnd I’m really proud of it. I wanted to capture my own approach to reading, perhaps with a touch of humour and a wee bit of memoir. Either way, I think I’ve achieved that. Every strategy in the book has been successful in  my classroom at some point: no, I don’t use all of them all of the time. I use them when necessary and when I’d like to inject a little bit of enthusiasm for reading. It, for the most part, works successfully for most kids.


But holding your own book in your hands? That’s a moment which will stay with me for a long time. The new book smell, the untouched pages, the sight of my name on the front: the proud tears. In  my initial communication with Phil Beadle, who so kindly made this all possible, I said that I wanted to write something of which I was very proud. I’ve done that. Books come and go but our words, in print, last a lifetime. Almost two years after I began, I have a book out. And it’s a wonderful feeling.

Moments of Growing Up

aberdeenAberdeen. I don’t know why it has taken me twenty years to write about this, but it has. Twenty years ago,  sitting on a train leaving Aberdeen for the last time. A life lived.

It seemed such an event at the time, such a turning point, a real change in my life. I had gone there an uneducated wanderer, in search of a life and a love, and was leaving a University graduate with everything in front of me. A train journey to something else, something different. Tom Waits on the Walkman – yes, a walkman, with cassettes – deliberately set up and picked out. ‘Goodbye, so long. The road calls me, dear.’ Not that it seemed like a choice, really. It was the end of something. The end of University. The end of the job I had, the last meaningless, mindless job I would ever have. The end of several relationships, relationships which would naturally end – associates, colleagues, course mates – and some I’d hope to keep or we’d promised to keep. Knew we would not.

‘Goodbye, so long.’ And the emotion I felt that day should not have been a surprise but it was. I knew this time was coming. A scarcely held back tear. A sudden realisation, as the train pulled away, that it was genuinely the end of something special, a time that would not only prove to be the making of me in many ways but one which would define who I was. Like a hugely important era in my history. ‘The road calls me, dear.’ The grey, wistful mumble of the train heading over the bridge, over the river, to a new world. The river that separates. Past from present, then from now.

 I’ve rarely returned to Aberdeen, merely the odd occasion, and never for very long. Not the same. Either I’ve changed or it has. Probably both. I think of the people I knew and no longer know and I smile. But I don’t regret, never regret. Aberdeen. It seemed like my home forever at the time. Should have known better. A life apart, that some other person lived. ‘Goodbye, so long.’ Tom Waits knew what he was on about.

There have been at least two other times in my life, at least, when I thought to myself that this was it for me, my life will never change. The first came when I was about twenty two. Still at home, still in a terrible nowhere job, still with the same friends. Don’t get me wrong, the friends I had then helped me through my terrible years, my drinking years. Always there, always by my side. And they would still be if life did not require us to live differently. Our proud, loud, male existence.

There never was a quiet pint, never ‘just the one’. And therein lies the problem.

No, if you went out, you went out. At about twenty two I recall an evening when one of our crowd, always this one – the loud and aggressive one rather than the loud and funny one – was particularly loud and aggressive. You could sense a tension in the crowd, had been for a while. We felt or knew that we were coming to the end of something but did not know how to do it.

A situation which almost came to blows, involving me for no other reason than silence and complicity. I didn’t need this any more. I remember very distinctly thinking that this could not go on. An epiphany which began the end of that particular part of my life. I recall walking (slightly) behind my staggering friends – for they were my friends, remember – and thinking that this could be it for me, This life, unless I acted. The next pub we went to – for we did go to another pub – saw me standing quietly to the side. I would like to say that I, somewhat romantically, gave a silent toast to my friends and left but that is not what happened. What did happen was that I brooded silently, eventually took a final look all around me, a final sip and walked out, home. Soon after, by coincidence rather than design, I left East Kilbride, much like leaving Aberdeen six years later. I continued to see these friends, occasionally,  for some time after but all had things to do, business to take care of, living to do and we lost touch. We all became different people.

Some of us actually grew up.

An Island Life

To find myself sitting on a rock, slightly precariously peering down into hefty fall, was a sobering experience for me at that point of my life. My downturned Rushdie novel dismissed in front of me – a difficult novel for such an important time – and Scott Walker soulfully accompanying me on my Walkman, it had only been a week since my departure from Aberdeen. Here, on my own idyllic Greek Island, this boy from East Kilbride had finally made it.

The sea appeared to me as blue slate. Such calm I had never seen; this was not Ayr, Prestwick, Aberdeen with their rough, choppy, threatening waters. The blue a shade of blue I had never witnessed either. A painting and a happy hopeful one at that. If I strained my eyes I could, just about, make out a distant island but this was, more or less, as isolated as I had ever been in my life.

syrosMy earlier departure from Aberdeen had hinted at something big, something breathtaking and this was it. From hapless student to Teacher of English. And, thus, my life had taken a newer course.

I had reservations about here, about Greece. Would an Island be too far away? Would it be too quiet or even too busy? Neither. Just perfect. The rock I sat on became very familiar very quickly. Even at night I sat here, in awe of the stars above me. Even at night the sky took on bluish hue which I had never seen before: a breathless blue.

I sat here and watched the ferries carrying business in and out of the island. Three times a day. And for some reason I watched with a slight regret as it left. Perhaps it was symbol of another time, another place, my only means of departure. Perhaps it reminded me of my dad, who had his lived all of his earlier adult life on boats. A navy man throughout.

And look at me now. On a Greek Island. My first professional post. My new life. My hours suited me very nicely throughout my time in Syros. Five O’clock in the evening until nine, Monday to Friday, two until six on Saturday. My classroom had two tables with three seats at each. Six seats. Six only. My room was cramped and through the back of the small school but I was, more or less, left on my own.

I had a pleasant relationship with the school owner, certainly in the first year, and he trusted me and left me alone. Occasionally, I would come into school to complete some preparation or to check for mail, which was sent here. No computers at this time you see. However, for the most part, I tried to keep away outside working hours. My walk home was the same every day. I walked up a whitewashed set of stairs, passing a small grocers at the top. When I turned around at this point, half way up a steep hill, I could see forever. Over the town square, scanning the harbourside, into the distance of blue Mediterranean Ocean. It was glorious. It felt like heaven and it went through my mind on several occasions that I would never leave here. I would though; when things went wrong.

Not far from here, my apartment sat back into a garden area. It was small, white and had shuttered windows which I loved opening in the morning. Large open windows. I would sit here, pretentiously, on a pillow with coffee and read for much of the day. The view was, again, magnificent. I had neighbours: another single man – a soldier, I believe – on the left; a family of four on the right. No-one around during the day, mind you. I read more than I ever had, throwing books over my shoulder as I went and, little did I know, I would be developing a habit which I carry with me still. Always a book in my hand, my pocket.

I had never really been abroad before, this boy from East Kilbride, and, I am embarrassed to say, that I was too shy too eat out in any of the Tavernas for about a month after I arrived. Don’t know what I expected. Too expensive perhaps, too Greek. Nothing in English. Evenings would find me walking along the sea front, pondering over Menus, little realising the delights I was missing. So I ate at home. Pasta, meat and potatoes, exactly what I had been eating at home. Eventually, sickened by my repetitive diet, I took a breath and went out for dinner. Socially, that first night was to change everything.

Thoughts on Returning to Class

Trying hard not to yawn too much, I rise from bed and shower efficiently, tuning out of the business news on Radio 4. Wash away the deficit and shampoo out the credit crunch; always a refreshing way to start my day. Even more so on the first day back at work. It is a new term and I have to try and make a good impression, not only on the six sets of gleaming students, eager and willing to learn, obstruct, mock, ignore, anything I had to offer them, but on my colleagues. Your’e never off duty, you know. All comes with the territory.

A clean shirt, carelessly ironed, the shiny new shoes. Try not to spill egg on them as I watch the early morning news. Drizzle forces me to stride more purposely to the car than I would have liked today, but it is a necessity. I sit quietly for a minute or so. Look in the mirror, that sort of thing. I will go when I am ready. And I think I am.

The neighbourhood glistens, driving by, a clever and accepting place to return to each evening. Too many cars line the road, some too far out, I have to creep past, breathing in as I do so. I can move my elbows around on the motorway. Lofty impatience pervades the journey. White van man jostling with potential stroke victim in ludicrously overbearing Land Rover monster. He needs it for protection would you believe. Oh, the irony. Holding back to let them get on with it, I realise that, despite it being two and a half weeks, I could drive this route with my eyes closed. almost literally. Not recommended of course, folks, but you get my point. I am not unfamiliar with the journey.

A daily routine of shouting at the radio, Tory politicians disguising their odious greed behind necessity and austerity. Heard it all before. But perhaps that rage is better out before I get to school. Let the anger out, I say. Be a happier and calmer person in the classroom. It’s a theory anyway.

Coming off the busy motorway, onto a quieter but no less frantic expressway, the holiday seems to drift away. All too familiar scenes fly past, Greener, at their greenest, now. Soon to be enveloped in snow. I have seen these views in all weathers. For years now. They change not but I do. A burst of music is required to pump me up for the beginning of a new term. Morrissey. ‘First of the Gang to Die’ seems appropriate. The school appears to my left, unchanged but seemingly shiny, clean and welcoming . Not a bad place to work.

The empty car park suggests I am earlier than I thought. I sit in the car quietly for a minute. I’ll go when I am ready. And I think I am. Entering the building, I wish there was a welcoming face but there is not, and I make my way along the long, poster-covered corridor to my classroom. I took the furthest away room for a reason. Quiet, away from noise and interference. I do what I do well and need no interruptions from management.

Nothing has changed but that is okay, comforting. I glow as I unlock my room, push open the door and enter for another year. Master of my Domain. Where I come alive and where I do what I do best. For, at times, great things happen in this room. Lives can be changed, including mine. Amazing individuals come and go. We achieve things. The computer springs awake, lighting up the room. I unfurl the blinds, let there be light.

Removing my jacket, preparing the first coffee of the day, I begin to flick through e-mail, deleting and saving as appropriate. But these are not important, will not hinder my day, ruin my mood. I hear the first colleagues arrive but wait to greet them. Their stories will be told, anecdotes shared. This is my moment. I am reminded of last year’s talent, reflected in the childhood exuberance of wall displays and Book Tweets. I will be hard pushed to better those this year. But that is the annual challenge, why we, too, are learners, always improving, always listening. The coffee feels good as the caffeine begins to kick in. Sitting back down at my swivel chair, I turn and raise my mug in salute the job I do well. I am a teacher. And I love it.

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.