What does it mean to teach?

When my friend Lia told me to read Some kids I taught and what they taught me, my response was to judge a book by its cover – why would I, who lived the world of teaching each day, read what appeared to be a teaching memoir?

I’m so glad I did, because this book is so much more than a memoir. It is a love letter to teaching. Even more than that, though, it provides impressive insights on several areas of education. Below are just a few of my many favourite parts.

Early in the book, Clanchy identifies the driving need of children to fit in. It is a need that goes far beyond the school gates, and will drive their social mobility and overall chances of improving their own lives: “Not to be left behind, never to be the one dressed differently, acting differently, feathered differently, never, never to be excluded: for children, that is a primary drive. It is connected to the inbuilt Darwinian drive to walk with your tribe, stay with your kind, and it is stronger in a seven-year-old than the fear of death.”

Through the story of one student who leaves school and becomes a teenage mother, Clanchy allows us to see this girl as conforming to her tribe’s expectations, in words which ring familiar and true: “Aged only sixteen, she will join the adults of her family, with an income as good as her sisters’. She will meet all her family expectations as firmly as a surgeon’s son getting his place at medical school; most of us do not want more than that. And if she is conscious, as of course she is, that those expectations are different from those of the society around her, what of it? That will only make her feel more inadequate in the world, only turn her further in on her tribe.”

Clanchy tells us stories of the ways children from disadvantaged backgrounds cope with the boundaries of school – my favourite anecdote was the boy who turned up at the school gates each day with a small uniform infraction (shirt untucked, baseball cap on, no tie…): “‘He never gets any better,’ she says, ‘so we have to conclude that he likes a telling-off.’… He comes from a cruel, chaotic home where most attention comes as abuse. He has chosen this engagement with Miss P. Each morning, she and the uniform tell Connor that he is in a boundaried place now, where people care what he wears, and care if he keeps the rules.”

This book is the most insightful I have come across in unpacking modern poverty, as Clanchy tells the tale of two homes – her own, and that of a council-house dwelling ex-student: “Cheyenne’s boast about Christmas presents is not a tragic fantasy, and she is not lying about her BlackBerry or her Burberry shirt, for this is poverty in the twenty-first century, and it’s complicated… Cheyenne almost certainly does have more consumer goods than my children, in the same way that she has more calories and less nutrition; more cash and less financial security.” In this observation, Clanchy prompts the reader to consider the very real challenge schools face: “How do we, as a school or as a nation, educate Cheyenne, get her to adopt middle-class habits such as reading, homework, and long-term ambition, without alienating her from her family? How do you induce her to go through the difficulties and deferred gratifications of studying when everyone around her would say that did not work for them?”

On school choice, Clanchy is unflinching in recounting her own anxieties as a middle class mother trying to balance the need to do the best for her children with her political and moral compass. Ultimately, she chooses to send her eldest to the nearest school, even though it is one of the worst in the area, commenting nobly: “Maybe I should be thinking of what my son could bring to the school, as well as what he could take, about his patrimony as well as his entitlement.” The pain and anguish in this section was palpable, but Clanchy soon moves on to explain the very many positives her son experienced through this route, which should give comfort to parents everywhere choosing secondary schools.

As an English teacher, I found Clanchy’s insights on teaching English fascinating. Her mode is to teach poetry through writing poetry, something I myself did in school but have not invested significant time in my own teaching. Her arguments are lengthy and her explanations inspiring; rather than hatchet them here, I would simply tell English teachers – read, then action.

Ultimately, this book assured me that, as an English teacher who often finds myself surrounded by those with more scientific and research-minded colleagues, that there is a great power in literature, and, specifically, story-telling to provide insight. Clanchy delivers her message not through statistics, facts and figures, but through human emotions, lived realities, and incisive observations.