What is teaching for?

The new school year is fast approaching, and the next few days see teachers finalising their lesson plans whilst pupils enjoy their last few days of summer freedom and parents like me wonder what they have forgotten to buy. I’m approaching this new school year with a little trepidation though – as for  countless other parents this year,  I will no longer have a child at primary school. Like those other parents, I’m suddenly prone to making rather repetitive but somehow inevitable comments about how fast my children are growing up.

Teachers don’t age though. Or so we think – unless we carry on meeting them in adulthood, they become fixed in our memory at the point when they taught us. Which is why it always seems slightly discombobulating to meet them years later. I did just that earlier this summer, when attending a joyous university reunion of fellow music students from the 1980s. As we prepared to do some formal singing together we all contributed to one of those “in 50 words tell us what you do now” exercises. Former music students are (to the uninitiated)  a surprisingly versatile breed, and our number included opera singers, barristers, sound engineers, accountants and of course a fair spread of teachers, amongst other endeavours). One of our former professors was singing with us. His 50 words were telling: he was visibly moved and spoke of his pride at the people we had become – not for specific achievements (though some of these were noteworthy), but for having been able to play a part in helping us to become the people we are today. It struck me that it isn’t just pupils who are stuck in a time-warp, few teachers get to see their students 30 years on. But I think his sentiment is shared by teachers everywhere.

A bit later this summer I had the privilege of observing some teaching on a summer music course.  Such courses are of course free from the usual strictures and structures of term-time lessons; they should be (and in this case are) fun, and give the student the opportunity to be ‘a person playing the cello’ rather ‘the cello pupil’.  As if to demonstrate this one of the teachers began a masterclass by asking all the students to tell her their name and something (other than music) they like doing. Not a new trick, but one that makes it clear to the student that the subject of study wasn’t the only thing of relevance or of interest. Music is, of course, a deeply personal business. Once there’s enough technique to play whatever piece is to be played, it’s the way in which the player communicates their connection to the music which matters. So in finding the way to help this emerge it may be more obvious to the onlooker that a music teacher is thinking about the whole person than it is with, say, a maths teacher. But we shouldn’t take that to mean that the maths teacher cares less about the person you are, or that you could become. Why, after all, do teachers become teachers if not to influence our future, as much as to inform our present? (And no, I don’t think teachers are saints: just not automatons. But seeing pupils as fully-fledged people  is somewhat at odds with the governmental way of looking at teachers as individual subject-programmers.)

As parents, we expect our primary school teachers to be interested in the whole person rather than just their subject. But then our children are to some extent cocooned at primary school. There is necessarily more connection between home and school, there is the school gate and the familiarity (at least in general if not in specifics) of the class and classmates. And until relatively recently, our primary school children weren’t treated so much like parts to be processed on a governmental conveyor belt. It’s different in secondary school. The secondary school my children go to has benefitted from an impressive and attractive new building, so when my daughter goes next week it won’t be the same warren that my son navigated in his first few days. But fears about the geography of the school, the bus trip to get there, and the presence of 1000 more children than at primary school, daunting as they may seem to both parents and new pupils, seem to me to be fairly quickly overcome, at least for most. Rather harder for pupil and parents is maintaining the sense that school is still about learning, experiencing and growing in the self, as well as in the subjects studied.  Thanks to government’s relentless pursuit of higher PISA ranking (and the desire for economic growth at all costs), we have now been inculcated into a culture in which children, their teachers and their schools appear defined more by test results  than by personal characteristics. But it doesn’t have to be this way. At their best, schools set the groundwork for pupils to flourish as people (which some do quickly and others more leisurely), and it is our schools’ teachers who make that happen, with whatever subject (music, maths, or any other) that provides them with the medium for doing so.

As school or university pupils, our relationships with teachers are fairly one-dimensional; we rarely appreciate that our teachers have our wider interests (or even any of our interests) at heart. But my experiences this summer illustrate that that is not the case. So as we parents prepare to start the new year defending, endorsing (or occasionally challenging) a teacher’s perspective on some issue, it’s worth bearing in mind that those teachers do actually have our children’ whole self in mind, even if the demands of the governmental conveyor belt make it hard for us to see that. I sincerely hope that my daughters’ new teachers aren’t so defeated by the increasing requirement to view whole pupils only in terms of scores (subject, year group or school) that they are still able to see her as a past, present and future person, when she leaves her secondary school a few years hence.

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