issue 180 - February 1988
A teacher's tale
Children's interests are the starting point for learning. But the children in
Marianne Puxley's class were interested in video nasties, street vandalism
and the amusement arcade and she had to rethink her ideals.
I would have been a progressive teacher's ideal pupil. I was bright, imaginative and interested in most things. In my spare time I wrote stories, painted wonderful illustrations and made magazines, with crossword puzzles and problem pages. I wanted to be an archaeologist and find exciting things in the mud. I also loved making gadgets out of wood, and my heart's desire was a chemistry set. I thought chemistry sounded like magic. I organized the neighbourhood children into having jumble sales, cake sales and 'fates' in aid of any charity I alighted on. But most of all I organized plays.
We sang and danced our way through a motley repertoire. The subjects of these plays were pure fantasy, mingled with themes from wide reading. No heroes or heroines from TV ever entered my world, for I was brought up in a society that banned television. I should have been my teacher's ideal. but I wasn't.
My primary education didn't explore or exploit one single aspect of my talents or interests. I went to an authoritarian, exam-orientated school. Creativity, practicality, initiative and enthusiasm were not valued. The teachers categorized all pupils as poor, satisfactory or good - or (sometimes) excellent. I was never more than 'satisfactory'. We did no drama, music or practical science. We never made models or did projects and there were no school trips. 'Facts', copied from the blackboard, were what mattered.
My favourite lessons would have been Art and Composition. But Art was spending an hour a week in the playground drawing a tree, (one tree, the same tree) every week. 'Compositions' were only corrected for spelling mistakes. My complex stories and fantastic drawings usually scored just two out of 20.
I abandoned the idea of grubbing for a living as an archaeologist and decided to be a teacher: a progressive teacher - by then I had read A S Neill and Herbert Kohl. I swore my pupils would never be restricted and repressed as I had been. I knew, though, that there was no possibility of teaching the way I wanted to in the South African system. So I went to Britain.
Britain, in the mid-1970s, seemed to me like the promised land of progressive education. People talked about creativity, child-centred learning and the development of individual potential. I was in my element. I got a job under a free-thinking Head in one of the most progressive education authorities. The school was rural and the children from supportive, stimulating homes. I taught drama in an original and compassionate way, as I would like to have been taught when I was at school. My approach was successful and I was popular with the pupils, the parents and the Head.
And so we all lived happily ever after.
No, of course not.
I have told my childhood story because it seems to me to parallel the general evolution of a progressive, child-centred approach to learning. The waste and boredom typified by my early schooldays are what liberal educationalists have aimed to eradicate.
But my tale does not end in a rosy sunset. After a few years teaching in the rural school I got a job on a city estate. The bare statistics of the school (85 per cent of children on free school meals, 25 per cent from single-parent families, 45 per cent of parents unemployed) only hint at the difficulties some of the pupils faced in their home lives. Schooling was seen by many parents as an irrelevance at best; at worst as a downright intrusion. Support and stimulation at home was minimal. Ask a child 'What are you interested in?' and the usual reply was 'Nothing'. Frequently, the only spare-time activity which pupils would admit to was 'watching telly and videos'. These were often porn or 'snuff' videos.
So where does a curriculum based on the children's own interests start now? I asked myself.
The teachers at the school were committed and well-meaning. You had to be to stick it. But I had to face the fact that most of the pupils were completely untouched by every part of the curriculum. The truancy rate was high. And when the children did come to school I often got the feeling that they were merely being 'contained' rather than involved.
My own standards dropped. A quiet lesson was a success. Blow insight or awareness. Partly, of course, this lowering of a teacher's personal criteria for success is necessary to save one's sanity. The task facing teachers in 'front-line' schools is a mammoth one and most of them deserve every support. I don't believe I've ever done anything as difficult as containing one particular class of 1 3-year-olds at that city school. One colleague described the experience as 'trying to hold on to a handful of wasps. If you catch them, you don't really want them'.
I found myself in an increasing dilemma at that school. Initially it seemed that much of the children's disaffection was because the curriculum was so irrelevant to them. What did someone who was going to work on a production line need to learn French for? Was there really any point in trying to make a girl interested in Geography whose sole aim in life was to get pregnant?
We shouldn't be imposing these ridiculous academic exercises on these children, said the progressive in me. We should be starting from their interests, their prospects, their culture. If need be, we should educate them for unemployment, rather than trying to pretend that they are all going to get jobs in which French and Geography will come in handy.
Ah, yes, but. objected another voice. This is a terrible arrogance - just class prejudice by another name. By depriving these children of the chance to learn languages or humanities we are depriving them of all those resources that the ruling élites of the country find so important. And isn't that the reality? The South African authorities used unequal education as a tool of oppression too. Maybe by eschewing academic standards the radicals are playing their own part in keeping the working classes in their place.
An argument with a colleague clarified and resolved the dilemma. I had dropped out of regular English teaching and set up a special-needs unit in the school. We each took students for whole-day sessions dealing not just with basic literacy and numeracy, but also with social and organizational skills, survival skills, and communication and cooperation exercises. The children responded well, and at last I felt that I was achieving something. We were trying to equip the pupils for life. In or out of employment, certain skills are vital, after all.
However, one day my colleague attacked me for imposing my 'middle-class values' on the children because I had emphasized polite speech and decent manners in my sessions. Seeing myself as a lifelong progressive, I was mortified. Maybe he was right.
It was only when I saw a magazine produced by his students' class that I relaxed. The 'magazine' was a collection of photocopies of drawings and slogans that could be found on any underpass on the estate. There were smutty jokes, crossings out and mis-spellings. There were scrawled adverts for discos. One memorable gem was 'Deb is a slag' plus appropriate illustration. The teacher had faithfully reflected the kids' culture. He said that he saw himself as a 'medium, not a message'.
I felt sure then that my approach was justified: an individual cannot develop her full potential if her experience of the world is restricted to trashy TV shows, video nasties, street vandalism and the amusement arcade.
Of course I am not advocating a return to the kind of education that so wounded me as a child. It is possible to be creative while still having high expectations of pupils. Our special-needs unit is a good example: the children knew they were being stretched and their feelings of achievement and self-esteem went up markedly. It must be possible to encourage creative expression and to correct spelling mistakes.
One of the most important gifts a teacher can pass on to pupils is a sense of control over one's life. The culture that my colleague's 'magazine' reflected was itself a culture of deprivation. He was merely perpetrating that deprivation. If we, as teachers, don't expect and introduce certain standards of behaviour, presentation and academic achievement, we condemn a section of the population to a cultural ghetto. True, some of these 'standards' are those of the ruling classes. But these classes are the ones that run our society for their own benefit. Unless everyone knows their rules, they can't play them at their own game, and there can be no equality of opportunity.
Marianne Puxley left her native South Africa to work as a teacher in Britain. She is now a freelance writer.