I mentioned last week that I had been to see a lecture from Sir John Jones at St Mary’s, which became a timely opportunity for me to renew my educational vows about what really matters in school amidst the stasis and torpor that the weekly wait for an inspector to call is currently creating.
In 2008, I attended two induction courses to help me with the step up from deputy headship to headship. The first was well intentioned but rather limiting because it spent too long tackling hypothetical scenarios, most of which were catastrophic. Rather like learning to drive, you can have all the lessons you want and pass all the theory tests that are provided, but nothing properly prepares you for the first time you go out on your own. The ‘what would you do if…?’ scenarios were therefore helpful only up to a point.
The course also asked that spouses attend, but no one had really thought about what to do with them, so while the men – for this was HMC before they threw the doors fully open to female heads – played out hypotheticals, the women were left to discuss their various roles. Many had careers and no real interest in their husband’s schools, while others were clearly expected to play the dutiful wife and oversee the floral displays in the chapel – and this was only a dozen years ago!
The keynote speaker at the other induction course was Sir John, who reduced me to tears with his enthusiasm for education and his passion for the progress of children, not least when he introduced me to ‘The Station’ by Robert J Hastings, the piece of writing that I shared with people last summer.
I have still got the notes I took at his talk, where he described education as ‘The Calling’, a mixture of passion, wisdom and righteous indignation, and the ultimate civil right. He said that teachers were no longer the ‘sage on the stage’, but needed to be the ‘guide on the side’. He pleaded that no one must be left behind, telling us that schools are all about building memories and the key is passionate teachers, who need to help children to learn rather than simply to teach them. He said that the children will be smart enough if the teachers are good enough, and they will always behave themselves if the lesson is worthy of them.
Last week’s talk contained many of the same themes, with a couple of lovely new nuggets. How’s this couplet, for example, as a summary of the mixed delights of parenthood? ‘Parents carry photos for everyone to see, in compartments in their wallets where the money used to be.’
You could see that his passion is still there as he talked about our ‘just-in-case’ education system, where we tell the children that we don’t know what they will need for the future so we teach them as much as we can, regardless of whether it is actually useful or not, just-in-case. We also run a last-man-standing system that fails almost everyone, with children learning all too quickly that the way to succeed is to do what adults tell them and not to get it wrong.
But it was not all doom and gloom. I wrote the following sentence down in 2008 and I wrote it down again last week, even though I know it by heart: ‘The children we teach will forget what we made them think but they will never forget how we made them feel.’