Reflection on My Education

I was so excited about going to school that I would wear the school uniform to pick up my brother from school before I was old enough to attend myself. I was convinced that school must be amazing because all of my three siblings went there and if they did this thing all day then it must be great.

Unfortunately my high expectations were not met. Reception class was OK except for the horrible milk they made us drink at snack time but mostly I found the activities bland.

I remember one of my first maths lessons, maybe year 1 or 2, when the teacher was telling us how to do subtraction. She said “you must subtract the smaller number from the larger number”. I put my hand up and pointed out that actually you could do it the other way round. She was obviously not prepared for a pupil who not only could already subtract but also had a decent grasp of negative numbers. Not knowing how to deal with this she simply shouted me down and was doubly unimpressed when I produced a calculator from a draw and showed her that 4 take away 7 was minus three. No praise, no extension work, and no attempt to find material to match the level I was working at. In hind-sight, the lesson here seems to have been not about subtraction but to know my place, keep my mouth shut, keep my head down and follow instructions. Not having been introduced yet to Marxist theories of education all I could assume was that the teacher in question was not very bright and that if I as a 5 year old was smarter than my teacher than school was going to be a big waste of time.

I guess you could say that this was my formative experience of education which set the flavour for most of my subsequent schooling. I was bored at primary school, unstimulated, not stretched. There was no such thing as ‘gifted and talented’ back then but I probably would have fallen into this category. My early experiences made me mistrustful of teachers, of authority in general. I became recalcitrant. I still am.

Luckily for me I am headstrong and self-confident and getting knocked back by a teacher like I described above, although it did affect my outward behaviour (in that I stopped asking and answering questions as much), it did not damage my self-esteem or make me nervous. But I think about how many kids in that year 1 or 2 class who were terrified of asking questions after seeing how the teacher responded to me.

So moving through the classes I never really seemed like I was learning anything of much import. I seemed to know the answers almost before they were asked. Most of the stuff that was taught seemed to me to be pretty much common sense stuff.

I remember another incident, maybe year 3, where the teacher had asked the class to do some activity and I had refused because I thought it was a stupid thing to do so the teacher said I could sit on the mat until I did it. I sat on the mat all day as I had decided I was not going to do this stupid thing (I forget what the actual activity was). When my mother came to pick me up the teacher had stern words saying “Brendan sat on the mat all day today because he refused to do this thing” and when my mother asked what activity the teacher had asked me to do she said “well that’s a silly thing to have to do!”. It was nice getting validated by my mother in this instance but again the lesson for me here from the teacher was “obey for obedience sake”.

The curriculum was completely impersonal, the teachers and other staff (all catholic and female) viewed the girls as little angels and the boys as little devils. I never felt heard, listened to or respected and I built up quite a resentment to authority in general and teachers in particular.

I wanted to leave my primary school from about year 4 and go to a prep school, a feeder school for the private school that my brother attended on an assisted place. I found out later that my mother would have like to send me to a Steiner school but could not afford it, but she had found the assisted place scheme and got all four of us into private schools.

I was not quite bright enough to get a scholarship before the age of 11 so I stuck with my primary school until the end of year 6 and then got into a prestigious (although I didn’t know that) public school on an assisted place.

I absolutely hated private school. My recalcitrance was embedded deeper as a result of truly bigoted teachers (mostly male and C of E) using every opportunity to engender a sense of superiority in their students. Teachers would openly mock other children from state schools, calling them all sorts of names. It was a toxic, all male, chauvinistic and prejudiced environment explicitly and gleefully reproducing social inequalities. I didn’t need to read Marx after attending public school, it was a first-hand education in class warfare from behind enemy lines.

Well after three years I had had enough of feeling like the dirt on someone’s shoe and needed out. I hadn’t remembered this, but talking to my mother recently she reminded me that at the age of 13 or 14 I sat down with the prospectuses from all the schools within reach and read each of their mission statements and chose the one that most closely aligned with my own feelings about education. I can’t remember to the mission statement of the one I chose but I imagine that it didn’t mention academic success very much; after private school I was put off striving for the top grades. I hated the system so much that I didn’t want to put any effort into succeeding on their terms.

Ironically when I moved school I was instantly top of the class, where I had been in middle-ability sets at private school. I pretty much owe my GCSEs to the private school as although I spent both yr 10 and 11 at run-of the mill state secondary, I don’t think I learnt much there. Looking back, it was probably a bit of a rubbish school with well-meaning teachers but poor behaviour. I had one stand-out teacher who was my History teacher (Pete – I forget his surname!). Pete gave us the time of day to get to know us individually and taught my friend and I peace songs from the 60’s. He was a socialist and contributed to my political awakening. At the same time we read 1984 in English which opened my eyes to the totalitarian nature of our political system. And this was 1997 when Tony Blair came to power and I started campaigning for social justice.

One of my overriding memories of my state secondary is making sure I didn’t appear too smart. I rarely offered to answer any questions or ask any, not because I feared the teachers’ reactions but because it was not socially acceptable to be keen or clever amongst my peers.

At that time my school did not have a 6th form so I transferred to a local ex-grammar school and did my A-Levels there. This was where I felt most at home out of all the educational institutions I attended. I had a great group of friends and a great social life and came out with reasonable grades despite a poor work ethic. I studied Maths, Sociology and History and felt challenged for the first time and had a tutor who cared about me. My sociology and history courses gave me the opportunity to think about and make sense of the world and led me to want to study economics at university. I decided that economics was the root of all our social problems and was behind all the geo-political decisions made internationally by the big players.

University was another massive let down, my idealism was dashed on the rocks of neo-liberalism. There was an institutionalised anti-intellectualism. It was full of rich kids using it as a stepping stone to working in the city. Most of the lecturers were not interested in critical thinking and the students were not interested in learning about the world. I could talk for hours about my university experience, but suffice to say, It was a thoroughly depressing experience.

 

So how has my education influenced me as a person?

 

I think my recalcitrance is partly genetic. My great-grandfather was an Irish revolutionary and my father was never one to obey rules just for the sake of it. Having said that, my education seems to have been filled with people in positions of authority who lacked the emotional intelligence to execute their roles with compassion. I do think, however, that non-school factors probably had a greater influence on my character than school did.

I see my schooling as a big missed opportunity. I could have spent all those hours doing something useful, fun, worthwhile or enriching but my overriding feeling looking back is one of boredom.

 

What was good about my education?

 

The few relationships I made with a small number of staff and students mainly in my later years of education were good.

 

What was bad about it?

 

The endless monotony, the stupid social mores, the patronising teachers, the religious zealotry of the Catholics, the bigotry of the private school, the pointless rules, the competition, the shallowness of the whole experience.

 

How has my education influenced my view of what is important in education?

 

Before I trained as a teacher and before I had read anything about education I would have said that that the purpose of education was control, program and brainwash the population. I still feel that this is the case in a general sense, although I am constantly coming across specific cases where more enlightened practice is shining through.

Since training to become a teacher and working as one I have come to a better appreciation of what education should or could be about. Becoming a teacher has been a hugely cathartic experience for me. I want to be able to meet children where they are and support them to become the best version of who they could become. Relationships are the most important thing about education. Classroom and school culture are key to this.

I used to be very much on the Summerhill Free School side of the debate and initially found Steiner to be a bit prescriptive or not child-led enough. But the more I read about Steiner’s perspectives on child development them more it makes sense to me.

In my own childhood I had my Will exercised sufficiently as I was in the scouting movement from birth because my parents were scout leaders. From the age of 14 I had my Intellect exercised with my history and English GCSEs, my A-levels and my reading around economics during my degree. What I totally missed out on was the nurturing of my Feeling body. Neither my parents nor my schooling were able to offer me anything in this regard. Irish Catholics and Catholics in general completely lack the necessary lexicon to process emotions and feelings and wealthy, conservative C of E private school teachers are no better. These cultures are very repressed. I was lucky enough to meet people in my life later on who were able to help me open up to my feelings and emotions and access previously uncharted realms. And this is an ongoing process.

 

Addendum:

How have my experiences of my own education influenced what I see as important about education?

 

I obviously found this hard to describe first time round. The reason for this is that I was so put off by the whole experience that I wanted nothing to do with it. I continued to read voraciously after my degree but had turned my back on education. I knew that if I wanted to continue on my academic path I would have to ‘toe the line’ to some degree. Economists don’t run the world by letting just anyone up the slippery steps of the ivory tower.

So disillusioned was I that I could see only the negative aspects of education, and some of this I tried to share at the end of the essay above. But perhaps I didn’t quite understand the question.

Taking a different tack. How have my own educational experiences shaped what I now view to be important in education?

Having not been met by my teachers has given me direct insight into how important it is to get to know our students. The Waldorf model allows for a very deep connection to be built between teacher and pupil over the 8-years they spend together.

Having not been stretched has made me acutely aware of the need to differentiate for the needs of all pupils and in the parlance of Ofsted to “stretch the most able”.

Needing to play down my abilities in secondary school has made me acutely aware of the kind of culture one is creating in a classroom and in a school. It needs to be an environment where every child feels able to be themselves without fear of ridicule, shame or isolation.

Having survived the indoctrination of private school, I am aware of how we present the world to children. We must present a positive, holistic, and compassionate view of the world so that young people can make sense of the injustices and inequalities for themselves in ways which speak to the humanity of all involved. We must allow for our differences to be celebrated and our alikeness to be honoured.

Having survived the high-stakes, grade-driven mainstream environment (and the 90’s was a walk in the park compared to what children are inflicted with now) I have an appreciation that education must encompass so much more than merely the generation of data points for on-going appraisal and league tables.

So, in a nut-shell, my education was an education in how not to educate.

So turn it on its head and imagine an environment where every child was known deeply by staff who cared about them and their futures. Where academic rigour was blended seamlessly with enriching activities, where projects could be conceived of and achieved, where interests could be followed and a wide variety of skills learnt. An environment which nourishes the body, the mind and the soul. Creating this is what is important for those who call themselves educators.

In my humble opinion.

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