At the chalkface: Dark night of the soul


The Archbishop of Canterbury had a bit of a wobble last week. Me too. He admitted to sometimes doubting the existence of God. I admitted to sometimes doubting the existence of effective child-centred learning.

These Damascan moments were prompted by Channel 4’s “Educating” series. My teaching chums think they’re mostly excellent. I agree. They capture the nuanced drama of the classroom and the vitality and vulnerability of the pupils. They celebrate the teachers’ brilliance, inspiration, intelligence, imagination, empathy and prodigious industry.

But how hard they have to fight for the right to actually teach! Some of that vitality just seems tiresome, rude, unacceptable. I want to see more of your actual teaching, the thrill of learning – a whole hour on Macbeth, for example. Perhaps it’s too difficult to show this, to catch those carefully nourished insights, linguistic breakthroughs and lightbulb moments. They do tend to be slow, incremental and undramatic. I’ve seen it done well only once, in the brilliant French film Être et Avoir.

Silent contemplation is not telegenic. Louche exhibitionism is. And perhaps consequent on too much of that child-centred stuff? Whatever, it is so tedious. I recognise the endless negotiating and dealing with the damage. It’s called bad behaviour. Original sin. I get very angry. I’d like a little less interactivity and a little more teacher-led stuff.

I wish some of those pupils would stop being so spontaneously inventive, so emotionally incontinent and just pipe down, just shut it. I’d like some non-interactive silence. I’d like a classroom, where teachers don’t need to apologise for the difficult, where more things are non-negotiable.

Like we had in my 50s grammar school, where bullying, boredom, blind obedience and rote-learning ruled and black-gowned teachers hung over us like vultures... it’s just easier. The progressive stuff gives you migraines. Or Old Testament hallucinations?

What’s happening to me? I’m beginning to sound like a right-wing loony. I’ll be calling those all night shock jocks next. Those hippy teachers, eh? Is this some kind of visitation from the ghost of Gove? Avaunt! God may or may not exist, but child-centred stuff does. It may be difficult, but it’s the only way. I have a herbal tea. That’s better. It’s just 4am hysteria, a twitching of liberal nerves. 

I’ll be a left-wing loony in the morning. 

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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