“There is so much to love in school,” says the teacher and writer Kate Clanchy in the introduction to her book looking back on three decades working in education, from the late 1980s to the present day. As a starting point, it is a refreshing corrective to dominant portrayals of teaching as a profession characterised by drudgery, disenchantment and disciplinary helplessness. It’s a sentiment sustained throughout, as Clanchy offers a series of loving vignettes of school life. Moving, funny and inspiring by turns, this is also an ambitious book. By focusing on “questions embodied in children”, Clanchy offers a state-of-the nation look not just at education, but also at class, gender, sexuality, immigration, nationality and more.
Clanchy’s opening chapter, about love and sexuality, establishes her keen interest in working with outsiders – the marginalised, the misfits, the plain misunderstood. She quickly works through stories from the three schools that inform most of the book. Callum in white working-class Glasgow rejects both heterosexuality and homosexuality, deciding instead to “just have a big dog”. Liam in Essex, with its very distinct version of white working-class culture, persuades Clanchy to take him to a gay club as a first step to coming out (it was the 1990s; she knows she couldn’t do this now). Akash, in a school of spectacular ethnic diversity in the south-east, cannot come out to his Nepalese family but finds refuge in endlessly redrafting a play he can never finish.
The south-east school, where Clanchy currently works, provides by far the richest material. I can vouch for its toughness, having trained to teach English there myself in the early 1990s. The intake (and the school’s name) was different then, but I suspect its spirit remains the same. The incredible, often harrowing stories many of the immigrant children carry are a writer’s gift. Royar is excluded from school for unacceptable behaviour on the day he is searched for carrying firecrackers: in his childhood he had been searched by soldiers who subsequently killed his father. Shakira, from Afghanistan, ran away from a suicide bomber moments before he blew himself up. Dawud called social services on his own family after his sister retreated to her bed rather than face an arranged marriage.
In lesser hands, telling these stories would risk fetishising difference. Clanchy avoids this trap by carefully positioning her own identity. She constantly draws attention to her outsider status in relation to her students – that of a middle-class white woman. And she grapples with its implications. She worries she is little more than “a posh do-gooder”, questions whether she is guilty of “moral grandstanding” (by sending her own son to the school she works in) and recognises that she is “a super-empowered, incredibly lucky member of the world’s ruling class”. This might seem a surprising admission of privilege from a teacher, but it makes sense in the context of those of her pupils whose families live in constant fear of being forcibly returned to their home countries.
She avoids sensationalising her students’ stories because many of them have already been mediated in the form of poetry: her book tells the tales of the poems as much as the lives of their authors. In recent years Clanchy has come to national attention for her students’ poetry, which has won prizes and been published in an anthology, England: Poems from a School. The success has met with some scepticism. How can students, many still learning English themselves, write so brilliantly?
Her poets, she writes, are like athletes from the western Kenyan Rift Valley, where living in harsh conditions at high altitude has bestowed on them natural advantages as long-distance runners. Adversity has provided her immigrant poets with natural advantages of their own. Learning the cadences of a new language equipped them with “extra sound awareness”; rendered isolated and temporarily silent by the experience of dislocation, they came to “listen to their inner voice”.
Readers can experience her students’ verbal athleticism in examples throughout the book. They make for inspirational reading, as in “Homesick” by Priya, aged 16:
There is that strange smell again, the
cars on the road screeching, not like
the laborious rickshaw in Bangladesh.
There is no
inviting market, no smell of spices and
sliced fruit –
Look ahead, jump, skip and hop. Hide
you are alienated. Chew on the candy
It melts in your mouth. Such foreign
Clanchy has a straightforward strategy for drawing out such “inner voices”: she introduces her students to great poems, which they draw on to produce their own. This isn’t the dominant way to teach creative writing in English lessons at the moment. In fact, as Clanchy points out, there is precious little creative writing going on at all, and an excessive focus on tightly controlled critical analysis. Draconian accountability measures and narrow GCSE syllabuses have combined to drain the subject of its lifeblood – with teachers by and large powerless to resist.
In an age when education policy is dominated by reactionary voices, Clanchy’s own voice is not just welcome but, in its liberal, modest way, radical. Indeed, she has much in common with the revolutionary Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a regular target for the “discourse of derision” that the right has so successfully employed to undermine much of what was good about education when Clanchy entered the profession. Like Freire, Clanchy begins with the world of her students, introduces them to new knowledge, and recognises that she can learn from them as they learn from her. And like Freire, she offers a pedagogy of love.
Andrew McCallum is director of the English & Media Centre, an educational charity supporting secondary teachers and students
Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me
Picador, 288pp, £16.99