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.

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.

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.

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.