At the chalkface: Every lesson shapes a life

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

Have you seen the new one? It’s called “Every Lesson Shapes a Life”. It’s slick, nicely cut and seductive. A girl walks down a cunningly lit school corridor passing through the various stages of her schooling. Teachers display sensitivity, tough love, empathy...

The New Year breaks. I feel compelled to dredge up something positive for the occasion, a sliver of optimism. It’s all going to get better. Yes we can. Who am I fooling?

I feel like a football manager about to give the half-time talk when we’re losing 7-0, searching for the “positives”. There are none. We’ve lost. Everybody knows the captain lied.

It’s grim and getting grimmer. And you don’t need me to tell you why. Savage cuts, the plague of poverty, the crisis of recruitment and retention, increasingly nasty racial and religious tensions, rumours of knife crime, “off-rolling” our more deeply troubled pupils – and much else.

Time for another recruiting advert.

Have you seen the new one? It’s called “Every Lesson Shapes a Life”. It’s slick, nicely cut and seductive. A girl walks down a cunningly lit school corridor passing through the various stages of her schooling. Teachers display sensitivity, tough love, empathy.

“You can do this,” purrs a positive voice. Yes she can. Teachers’ faces have quiet pride. “You can achieve whatever you want to in life,” another voice urges.

Then – the clincher – a northern voice asserts: “Every lesson shapes a life.” It’s lovely. You could weep. I certainly could. It’s a pretty fib.

“Every lesson”? Blimey. Isn’t this going a bit far? Even I’ve had the odd lesson, where I didn’t quite “reach” anyone. And isn’t “shapes” a mite ambiguous? For good or ill? Isn’t this all a bit desperate? Become a teacher! Join! Please! For Christ’s sake, join! Your country needs you! Someone’s got to do it!

Of course the advert’s not going to observe that teachers are becoming shock absorbers for a broken society, and that crawling through this wreckage could break anyone.

Michelle Obama’s recent visit to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Girls’ School surely affords us more optimism. She’s fantastic, charismatic, compassionate, and a phenomenal role model. She’s right on just about everything. Everyone should be able to realise her dreams. Of course. Everyone should aspire to go elite universities. Of course. But this just won’t happen. The game’s still rigged. All this “aspiring” is a version of the American Dream, whose sirens are so seductive – and treacherous.

American education is a catastrophe and it’s coming our way. Deep, expensive structural changes must happen before any flimsy dreams can be realised.

Oh dear, this is even glummer than I’d intended. We can only fall back on the one invincible “positive”. It got me through everything. Your classroom is yours. It’s a magic space. It can still trump the terrors prowling round it.

And, yes, some lessons might even shape a life.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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