in Books

📚 Re-educated

I’ve just finished reading Lucy Kellaway’s excellent book on how she went through fundamental life changes in her late 50s, leaving her decades-long job at the Financial Times to become a secondary school teacher as well as separating from her husband, moving house and embracing grey hair.

The chapters of the book give different slices through the author’s life and experiences, kept fresh through the angles that they take. In one chapter late in the book we are given what I assume to be a ‘typical’ day in her life as a teacher, from when she wakes up until she’s back in bed again.

The book is life-affirming and relatable, with a few nuggets of wisdom in its pages:

Most of them are getting the questions right. I used to think that asking kids things they already knew was pointless. But it’s not: it puts them in a good mood for learning new things.

Kellaway reflects on her own past: her parents and her education, as well as the way in which she brought up her own children. I found myself nodding in recognition to her experiences both as a parent:

Subsequently I discovered that size of house cuts both ways. It may have kept us safe from the world outside, but it also kept us safe from each other. As the children grew older and became teenagers an average evening at number 52 would not find the family amiably playing Scrabble or even gathering passively around the TV to watch Friends. After a quick supper cooked by me – soggy leek-and-bacon pasta or chicken nuggets and broccoli – we dispersed.

…and as someone who wants to focus on specialising and refining their performance in their current job, not focusing on promotion:

My position, and that of about two-thirds of the Now Teachers, is quite different. We have no desire to advance above the bottom rung of the ladder that we are now squarely standing on. We own our own property and don’t need to prove ourselves in the same way she does. We don’t want to be promoted, but only want to be responsible for our own classes and for becoming better at what we do. That feels quite enough. This resistance to promotion makes us both happier and harder to manage.

But the best parts are about her experiences as a teacher, and what she has come to learn — and to question — over the past few years:

For all its strictness, the school does give some latitude to teachers on how they teach. Yet this is provisional, and puts the onus on me. I need to prove that I can get good results – and I have absolutely no idea if I can. Is it possible to teach both the world and the syllabus? If not, is there a trade-off? If children get one grade lower because they have spent a lot of time thinking about broader things, how much does it matter?

I enjoy planning lessons but it strikes me as a shocking waste of time. Why aren’t there national lesson plans designed by the best teachers in the country and updated every year? I spend the next 20 minutes hastily scrabbling around for material and putting together a slap-dash PowerPoint.

Two years later, I have a clearer idea of what it is I’m trying to do. Changing lives turns out not to be about making instant transformations – it is about hard slog and tiny, incremental improvements. This realisation has changed my own life – or at least how I teach, and the sort of teacher I want to be.

Since that day the penny has dropped: the best way of helping Alicia is not to try to make economics a fun show, it is to get her to pass her exam. If it is a teacher’s job to open doors, those doors, under the present regime, are GCSEs. When I started teaching, I thought exams were a necessary evil. I still think that. I hate the way schools talk of them as if they are the purpose of education, when in fact they are merely (flawed) evidence that you’ve acquired some. I despised the government’s response to Covid in schools, where it prioritised the year groups taking exams, as if the education of the other years somehow didn’t matter. I despair at the way teachers spend as much time teaching exam technique as the subject itself. Yet despite this I, too, am teaching the exam first and economics second.


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