I am a sucker for all the "professional confessional" memoirs we've been seeing over the past year: firemen and women, doctors, barristers, nurses-they're all fascinating, moving, inspiring. This, though, might be my favourite so far. Clanchy, the poet, teacher and writer who last year gave us the wonderful anthology of her students' work, England: Poems from a School, is back to provide an insight into life in Britain's state schools as she writes about some of the children she's taught over the last 30 years. She's hilarious and heart-wrenching as she describes the reality of sex to a class of Scottish kids; she's outraged as she writes of her battle to keep a young Kurdish boy in school in the teeth of opposition from social workers and form teachers; she's passionate about the importance of creative writing. "One of the most inspiring books about teaching you'll ever read... superbly well written... brilliantly funny... read this book," said the Sunday Times. Or as Philip Pullman put it: "No-one has said better so much of what so badly needs saying. I want to see this book become a bestseller." You heard the man.
A focal point of the book is her wavering over where to educate her middle-class children. She decides to send them to the comprehensive, rejecting accusations of “moral grandstanding” to observe that her son’s “patrimony as well as his entitlement” should be considered. If he were to attend an underprivileged school, “then there would be a French horn in the school corridor”. That French horn, a new idea for some of the other students, much like writing, much like being read, “would exist”.
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.
What is striking in Kate Clanchy’s superb reflection on 30 years in the classroom, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, is how little we really know of the reality or complexity of teaching. Clanchy invites us to meet some of the children she has taught during the course of her 30-year career. She provides piercing portraits of children in crisis; young people on the move; adolescents struggling with sexuality; and teenagers trying desperately to fit in. All human life is here. Pupils’ dilemmas on their own may seem small. But they embody much larger and complex issues like religion, politics, belonging, identity, nationality, class and money... Clanchy’s empathetic and sensitive vignettes are a reminder of what a demanding and highly skilled profession teaching can be. She has a poet’s eye for detail and her evocative writing is a celebration of what is surely - in the right hands - the most creative, passionate and influential of jobs.
Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me is a collection of essays that conjures up the cataclysmic disorder of life in a British secondary school, with the odds stacked heavily against idealistic teachers, not only because of the chaotic backgrounds of the students but as a result of Ofsted demands and the shifting dogmas of politicians.
Clanchy is, generally, critical of rule-making authority. Yet, reading the chapter on work in an Inclusion Unit – a class or unit for children who have been excluded from mainstream schooling – one is aware of authority not actually doing too badly. In the first place, she doesn’t pretend that such exclusions aren’t often, even usually, necessary. The excluded and disruptive child has made teaching a nightmare, and learning for the other members of the class all but impossible. Yet, as Clanchy shows, the kids sentenced to the Inclusion Unit are on the one hand troubled, on the other capable of being redeemed. Her commitment and that of her colleagues to this task is evident and remarkable. It is also remarkable that hard-pressed schools and education authorities devote so much money, so many resources, to pupils who have hitherto shown themselves unresponsive and rebellious... This is an engaging, continuously interesting book, and an encouraging one. It is full of good stories and I don’t think anyone could read it without having his or her understanding deepened and sympathies engaged. So it may help parents – and other teachers – when times are tough and children more than usually difficult and baffling.
Kate Clanchy is a journalist, teacher and distinguished, award-winning poet. The book is, first of all, superbly well written, the stories beautifully paced and elegantly punctuated by thoughts about education policy and society. These thoughts are often trenchant but, unlike almost everybody else who engages in debates about education, Clanchy is no ideologue. She dislikes religious schools, is sceptical of grammars and she is hyper-sensitive to the tortuous ways of class and race. On the other hand, she is keen on school uniforms, precisely because of what the children tell her... I can see flaws in Clanchy’s analyses, but these are trivial in the context of her exuberant narrative flow. She only once lets me down, when she slips into the glibly nonsensical statement “all great literature is subversive”. I have no idea what this means and nobody has ever been able to explain it to me. Never mind, read this book, then lots of poetry and the world will be a better place.
...a wonderful book of dispatches from the front line of education by Kate Clanchy, a state school English literature teacher of 30 years. Clanchy is also a Costa-nominated novelist and poet. Last year I reviewed England: Poems from a School, a tremendous anthology of some of her pupils’ best poetry, which she edited. This book gives a sense of the life stories of some of those young poets and what it took to get them writing... This is a book that will appeal not just to other teachers and parents, but to anyone who cares about education. Her classroom anecdotes are inspiring, mortifying, energising and moving. I’d give her an A*.
The book’s weakness is also its strength: the specificity of Clanchy’s perspective. She’s white, middle-class and private school educated and makes no attempt to hide it. Her insights therefore avoid the vague generalisations we might find in a government report and come with the practical wisdom of a teacher on the ground – “a bodily experience, like learning to be a beekeeper, or an acrobat”. For those of us who haven’t been in a classroom for some time, she successfully evokes the full sensorium of school life... The liberal ethos has its own restrictions, but it may still be the best we have. We need people like Clanchy to keep these ideals alive.