In praise of the North Kensington English teacher
Yesterday, I was privileged to spend the day with a former student who is now head of English at a girls’ comprehensive school in London. I am guessing he is not yet 30 and he has been teaching for five years. Through a collision of circumstances, he finds himself in charge of an English department of 7 or 8 teachers that manages to get its students excellent GCSE results (the high 80%s for English and English literature) and at the same time successfully engages large and increasing numbers of newly arrived (in England) girls with little or no English. The school has managed to escape becoming an academy and is seemingly somewhat starved of funds as a result and is rated as ‘good’ by Ofsted (rather than the prized ‘outstanding’). I sat in on several lessons and found bright, articulate girls from all kinds of backgrounds open to learning, confident to express their opinions, knowledgeable, critical, listened to by their teachers and cared for. If anyone ever needed reminding that an excellent education can take place in schools that are not bright, shiny academies that look like airport terminals with Ofsted ‘outstanding’ badges everywhere, they should pay a visit to this school.
I had lunch with North Kensington English teacher in a local cafe and a drink in the local pub with him after school. Everywhere we went, it seemed, he was known and greeted warmly. ‘Professeur’, called the Moroccan cafe owner (excellent coffee, btw). Girls came up to him and his colleagues in the street (and pub!) and said hello. In fact, the landlord in the pub gave me a 10% discount on a round of drinks just for knowing him. I had forgotten the way that a teacher could be so embedded in their local community, so included and so keen to contribute. This is not an affluent part of London even though it is close to some very chi-chi areas. And this young guy was treated with good humour and warmth seemingly everywhere we went. He clearly loved the place – the school, the area, the girls, his colleagues, the cafe, the landlord, the booze. His headteacher mimed breaking his legs if there was any talk of him moving on.
I hear that occasionally one of the girls calls him a ‘dickhead’. And when he started, he once found tampons stuffed randomly into parts of his classroom he never knew existed. Then last week, behaviour in the corridors made him think about giving it all up. He has never been on a leadership course; he does not see himself as a ‘manager’; he doesn’t use the bullshit jargon of the clipboard-toting leader-waffe. He cares about his students. He believes that the study of literature has some benefits. He sees the potential of all the girls to succeed. He has hope; he is optimistic; he thinks about the future. Reluctantly, perhaps, he has embraced the data culture but he doesn’t talk like a machine when he’s explaining why he loves what he does. Because it is what he does – English teaching – that drives him.
Thank you, Rob. You reminded me that another way of teaching is still possible. Much success to you. Bottle what you have (40% proof?!) and share it. Schools, students and communities need teachers like you.