Teaching teenagers: a morality tale

Having been a teacher for almost twenty years, I know that the classroom can be a frustrating place to teach and learn, and I’ve seen how easy it is to become bitter about the whole process and concept of education. Dealing with racist, lazy or wilfully ignorant students is a strain, and the staffroom can be a uniquely cynical place. There’s the constant cliché of teachers complaining about their students. All my students are so unmotivated, uninspired and hostile to the very idea of learning, teachers complain. All your students?, I think. What’s the common denominator? Then, the next day, I find myself moaning in much the same manner.

I’ve had little contact with the world of mainstream education, meaning I’ve avoided for the most part having to deal with both the classroom management of recalcitrant teenagers and the implementation of ever-innovative forms of bureaucracy designed to reduce education to the imparting and absorption of SOW-dictated lesson content. I’ve escaped all the immensely frustrating and tiring rigmarole of box-ticking and hoop-jumping of the Age of Ofsted (which now I come to think of it does sound like a character from The Handmaid’s Tale). Nevertheless, working mostly in the field of private language education, I have witnessed the way in which it is increasingly thought of and programmed as and like a business, with the teacher as mere service provider overseeing the delivery of the kind of content which can be easily converted into measurable and marketable spreadsheet data, with schools (and, increasingly, universities) desperate to guarantee students a specific level and speed of progress. Thomas Gradgrind would be delighted to see just how much the system is deigned to make students and teachers knuckle under; Paulo Freire, on the other hand, would turn in his beard.

Such system places immense pressure on the emotional, physical and social security of both students and teachers. While the mass abandonment of the teaching profession is a demonstration of just how hard it is for both teachers to maintain motivation, students find their own ways to drop out, either morally or physically, making the tasks of teaching and learning even more demanding. Secondary classrooms thus become environments where it takes immense emotional strength to even breathe. Who would willingly throw themselves into such a cauldron? As it happens, from next week I’ll be back to teaching secondary school teenagers for the first time in many years. On the one hand, the prospect terrifies me; on the other, I do kind of think what kind of teacher are you really if you can’t teach children?

I’ve long stuck by the adage that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. Education involves the building of a relationship, a mutual sharing of knowledge and experience rather than the mere handing-over of merchandise. Two preconditions for this to take place are respect and empathy, especially in mainstream education when dealing with kids from extremely challenging backgrounds. The teacher has to demonstrate a convincing interest in the lives and enthusiasms of the people they are teaching. Perhaps the video above (which was made in 2010 and very quickly went viral) shows us one example of how to achieve that. It’s certainly entertaining and enjoyable.

However, some things about the rap battle make me uncomfortable, starting with the way it’s framed: Teacher vs student. My reservations have been encapsulated in the form of a poem (part of a longer piece called (‘SOME VIOLENCE)’ by (ironically) my former poetry teacher, Wayne Holloway Smith, whose collection ‘Alarum‘ features class, masculinity, education and violence as central themes. His poem begins:

‘On YouTube an educated man is telling teenager that he is uneducated and will never amount to anything’.

In watching the video, it’s impossible to set aside this question of status. The confrontation is not, even for a second, a battle of equals. With immense wit and charm, the teacher patronises the student, divesting him of his self-definition as articulate, in control of language. He does so (argues the poem) on behalf of a State whose main function is to force him to value himself in its terms, to see himself through its eyes, to discipline and direct his energy, explicitly telling him:

‘Let me introduce you to the value inside the language of my particular group: I am better than you’.  

The students is thus subjected to authority’s withering gaze and found wanting: ‘You’ll never amount to anything’.  It is the teacher, not the student, who is ‘articulate, witty‘, who teaches him a lesson, which is that: ‘this language (that which the teacher, ‘wearing a suit and his hands casually in his pockets‘, commands) finds you ridiculous’.

Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic violence (itself an example of the kind of intellectual capital which the teacher has access to, and the student doesn’t) is brought to life in the following part of the poem, in which a bull is tormented by ‘a showground of people making it mean to them violence‘, forcing it to recognise itself through their eyes:

     and the slow-breathing creature is thinking
pulling this name Bull in and out of its nostrils

and the man understands the creature further with flailing arms
helps it to understand itself with pit-sand thrown in its eyes

and OK suddenly it understands

the man: for a moment, a pulsing orgasm, lust hung in the air
cue: screaming; cue: the world has realised it was right all along
cue: the animal being taken to a place where they can correct its evil by sword

Mark Grist (like Kate Tempest, a poet who became a rapper) addresses some of these aspects in a comeback in which he expressed his frustration and anger at the way the video was presented online and in the media as a morality play.  I understand his anger, but agree with Wayne Holloway Smith in that I think the form lent itself to that interpretation. There’s largely where its entertainment value (and certainly its online appeal) came from. Both combatants employ sexism and threats of violence, but Grist’s is knowing, informed by ironic distance in the form of jocular self-awareness, whereas (in the words of the poem) ‘when the teenager responds it is cliché‘. The teacher (and, by extension, the audience, drawn to the video by the promise of seeing foolish aspirations brought down to earth, ‘bound to agree‘ with its conclusion) provokes vile attitudes from the student, responses that confirm what we ‘know’ about such people, much like the treatment of the bull in the next part of the poem.

Despite my sense that the format of the rap battle between teacher and teenager was inherently problematic, Grist’s solo poems, which often draw and reflect on his experience as a teacher led onto, are often hugely compelling. I found this one deeply affecting:

It forced me to reflect on some of the more unpleasant episodes of my teaching career, those moments when my response didn’t match up to my ultimate responsibility for a student’s emotional well-being. The poem confronts both the classroom and the staffroom at their most bleak and difficult. Like many poems, it’s a novel condensed into two minutes, humanising its subjects in a way that reminded me of a passage from a recent George Saunders article about writing fiction:

When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.

But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.

How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.

Or we could just stick with “Bob was an asshole,” and post it, and wait for the “likes”, and for the pro-Bob forces to rally, and the anti-barista trolls to anonymously weigh in – but, meanwhile, there’s poor Bob, grieving and misunderstood, and there’s our poor abused barista, feeling crappy and not exactly knowing why, incrementally more convinced that the world is irrationally cruel.

What should education do but make us into humans, i.e. people who are ready to grant each other the status of fully-realised characters with our own specific experiences, memories and complexities? Surely our job as teachers is to help our students see that the world need not be as ‘irrationally cruel’ as it appears to be. I hope that I’m up to the challenges of the next few months, and don’t fall back on the self-serving cliché that it’s the students, not their teacher, who lack energy, imagination and motivation.