‘To Talk Together is to Teach for Life’

A guest post by the North Kensington English Teacher, Mr Rob Mahon:

For many teachers, we regularly feel the sense that our jobs will devour us whole, that the stress of shaping the lives of the young will break our spirit, that we will fail to inspire and fail to lead. But I have always reflected on these notions and considered that, as teachers, we are a part of a noble and enlightening profession. We have the potential to change the course of individuals for the better. This may sound a little sanctimonious, a little preachy even, but it is the central issue for any aspiring teacher. And it’s an idea worth dwelling on.

In short, teachers must possess a vocation and they must believe that their presence can help to form the next chapter in the lives of their students. Personally, I have always sensed the tension, the trauma, the anxiety of colleagues who feel weighed down by the significance of their position. Yet we must celebrate these challenges when we are faced with the trials of a teaching day and the tribulations of an entire teaching career. Surely it is these challenges that entice us into teaching in the first place?

I am the head of English in a small inner city secondary school in London. I have been here since I was an NQT. It has been just over five years. At twenty nine, I have another forty years left or so! For me, education is inevitably a life long journey, a sort of marriage between you and your vocation. I am proud to say that I work within the state sector in London. I acknowledge the effort that politicians aim to play in directing education policy, but I feel we must, as a society, learn to appreciate the art of the teacher with greater fervour. And teachers must aim to view their own work in a softer light; a happy teacher is a great one!

Rob Mahon, at his desk, March 6th 1935... I mean 2014. Sponsored by Brylcreme.

Rob Mahon, at his desk, March 6th 1935… I mean 2014. Sponsored by Brylcreme.

Too often, I am greeted with stories in the press that seem to undermine my profession, that seem to take a swipe at our credentials, or that seem to portray students as permanently wild and tempestuous. I want to share with you an alternative vision. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to work within the inner city context; the days rush past in a blink and before you know it, you are sitting in your local on a Friday evening, reflecting upon the interactions you have shared within the classroom in the week. I doubt if anybody catapults themselves from their slumber in the mornings, yet working in the classroom compels you to remain positive and drives you through those waking moments of a sleepy, wintry November morning!

For me, teaching is about talking; talking to your students, talking to your department, talking to your colleagues. I use talk in its specific sense of speaking and listening – dialogue rather than monologue. The role of talk in an English classroom must be the central focus, a focus that provides a platform for extended creative and analytical writing and reading. I don’t have ‘learning objectives’; I despise  interactive white boards; I rarely include any more than two parts to a lesson. But always talk and always writing. My department feel the same way. We achieved 85% in our English Literature and Language examinations in 2013. Learning through talk and classroom dialogue must be the bedrock for an inspiring lesson; learning to know your students in a meaningful way will cultivate a collective sense of educational ownership that both student and teacher can share in.

I love the work of Frank Mc Court and his novel TeacherMan. He taught his students through storytelling and they learned through the art of stories. Personally, it is through the story that we develop a sense of empathy, that we learn to face the challenges of our own lives, and that we develop a sense of the existential nature of life. From the tales of dystopian worlds, through to Heaney’s bucolic celebration of the ordinary, students can develop their sense of self and identity. In a Year 10 class this afternoon, we spent the entire lesson musing upon the complexity of love in ‘Sonnet 116’ by Shakespeare.

Image courtesy of AbbyGabs.com (Abby Chamberlain)

Image courtesy of AbbyGabs.com (Abby Chamberlain)

Back in my time at university in Dublin, I recall rejoicing in the pleasure of talking about works of literature on Friday mornings, carving through life within ancient and contemporary pages of fictional and non-fictional perspectives. Talking through literature encourages the young student to think independently. Every week, our department allows students to read for pleasure in one of their lessons.  In our department, we aim to produce writers and thinkers. As teachers of literature, we must make sure that we allow this to happen. Writers, readers, talkers and thinkers – that is our goal. Our students are not ‘data’. Progress in learning, meaningful learning, cannot be quantified.

I don’t claim to have the magic formula that will always work. I merely wish to express the life-affirming effects of working in the inner city in secondary education. If you worry about your lessons as a teacher, have a go at exploring the power of talk. And remember; you will need more than three years to work on your craft. Give it a lifetime!