How to beat the Bounderbys: Jonathan Keates reviews the rewards and difficulties of teaching

It’s no good, I can’t do it, it doesn’t sound right somehow. To that most frequent of conversation-starters, ‘What do you do ?’ I find it impossible to reply ‘I’m a writer’. ‘Yes, sir, I’ve written several books,’ Max Beerbohm, in a wicked poetic parody, imagines the aged Thomas Hardy telling the future Duke of Windsor over luncheon at Max Gate. In my case it’s about a dozen, but I feel dishonest or at least pretentious in identifying myself first and foremost as a writer. Writers are people who receive visiting fellowships, grants from American humanities foundations and invitations from the British Council to lecture abroad. According to the blurbs on their dustjackets, they ‘divide their time’ between desirable metropolitan heartlands like Islington and Manhattan on the one hand and Elysian bolt-holes in Umbria, Gascony and Greece on the other. They can’t all have private incomes (though quite a few time-dividers are so blessed) so presumably the loft, the duplex or the casa colonica is paid for by the labours of a consort or a silly-money contract with a publishing conglomerate.

With me things have arranged themselves somewhat differently. Writing is an instinct – has been since, aged 6, I sat down to compose a nail-biting drama on the subject of Charles II’s escape after the battle of Worcester – but teaching is what I do. I taught my first lesson during an Oxford summer vacation, to a class of German students from Hanover in an upper room of the public library at Westgate-on-Sea, fell helplessly in love with all my pupils, wept when the time came for them to depart and realised immediately how dismal any other kind of day job must turn out to be. The enchantment has not substantially faded in the intervening 35 years. My heart still lifts, with the beginning of each September, at the prospect of new classes or of another chance to teach those whose company I’ve enjoyed in a previous form. My pupils still keep me emotionally alive, feeding the fires of my curiosity, admiration, rage, guilt and remorse. Their unending demands and accusations of inadequacy, as much as their merciless stream of banter, are the perfect antidotes to pomposity and smugness.

The simplest lesson a teacher learns is to take nothing for granted. Never assume, for example, that the principles you swear by as an educator will be those others hold sacred. Schools are now seen as delivering a quantifiable product, and that insidious culture of control which views everything in terms of targets, mission statements and performance indicators has effectively hijacked a process whose true impact is only superficially measured by league tables, box-ticking or statistics. No halfway decent teacher believes that education starts and ends with the delivery of a classroom monologue copied faithfully into exercise books by voiceless, cringing acolytes.  Beware both those who desire to teach according to this model and the type of pupil for whom such pedagogical square-bashing provides an ideal lesson. True instruction is a subtler discipline, involving things which cannot be purchased or tabulated, whose registers are the moral awakening of children to the existence of other human beings, the development of a personal identity through the acquisition of self-respect, and the nurturing of talents which often bear only a tangential connection with those facts on which latter-day Gradgrinds and Bounderbys base their dismal system of mark-crunching.

Often the redemptive process remains incomplete until some years into adulthood. One of the job’s greatest rewards is the delayed feedback from those you thought you’d never see again once they left the exam room after their last A level. Now and then the warmth of the retrospective tribute, making you feel that, like Edmund in¬†King Lear, ‘some good I yet may do in spite of mine own nature’, is the stronger for marking the end of an inner progress towards maturity which has lasted well beyond university. Quite possibly¬†Emma¬†or¬†The Prelude¬†or¬†Antony and Cleopatra¬†will never be opened again, but your personal commitment to each of them and the pupil’s own sense of an enlarged consciousness derived from contact with the writer’s style, imagination and ideas, have been crucial in ways unguessed at by either of you while lessons are still going on.

Such rewards are more genuinely earned in the State sector, where teachers have suffered harder than any other public employees from an acute lack of trust on the part of successive Governments. The volume of paperwork currently demanded from staff seems deliberately calculated to strangle at birth that kind of originality and initiative which gives meaning to the vocation. Bureaucracy, together with pointless accretions of marking based on the sterile nightly revolutions of the homework treadmill, and today’s obsessive health-and-safety preoccupations designed to combat the new and ominous parental enthusiasm for US-style litigation, have taken most of the fun, inspiration and spontaneity out of the job for all except those prepared to draw on stupendous reserves of energy and optimism in order to beat the system.

Life has been made no sweeter for us pedagogues by the recent introduction of AS levels in the first year of the Sixth Form. Perhaps we should have seen this coming, ‘a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand’, when GCSE, replacing O level with a two-year course, robbed adolescents of a key developmental year, in which crises of personal identity could be negotiated without the additional pressure of working for a public exam. One Government having taken that from us, its successor has now denied post-GCSE students that precious twelve-month breathing space in which, once upon a time, they could enjoy work for its own sake in subjects which interested them, while seeking a broader fulfilment in sport, drama, music and art. Officially the AS levels are intended to offset a supposed narrowness of focus in the old three-subject A levels. Most pupils, as it happens, cannot wait to jump off the crowded raft of humanities and sciences to which GCSE has shackled them, and begin preparing for the ultimate academic refinement of a specialised university course. I am no great upholder of conspiracy theories, but I cannot help seeing this burdening of children ( and by association, their teachers and parents) with such additional stress as being part of a broader attempt by government, whether Labour or Tory, to stifle the rebelliousness of a future electorate. In the world’s most over-examined scholastic population, acquiescence and submission to central control are easily bought with a basic fear of failing.

Thus teaching, for me, has become a matter of defending a whole range of values unimportant to current policy makers Рenthusiasm, dissent, refusal to accept received wisdom, inquisitiveness, browsing in disciplines and fields alien to our own, the essential triviality of ink-and-paper exams in comparison to those we make within ourselves, the importance of learning acquired through experience and an openness to sensory impressions, and the belief that there is no such thing as useless information.  Come and join us. The pass never needed holding more desperately than now.

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Our Members are champions of literature. Their support makes our engagement work in schools and prisons possible and they enable us to celebrate literature in all its wonderful diversity. As a thank you, we give them all the joys of a literary festival and book club rolled into one, all year round.