Kate Clanchy has noticed an odd reaction whenever she tells people she’s a teacher: she’s immediately given advice on how to do her job. This doesn’t happen, she imagines, with other professions. Partly, she suggests, it’s because most of us have had contact with a school, and are interested; but partly ‘it’s because of gender and class prejudice, because […] most teachers are Miss.’
She’s been called ‘Miss’ – ‘the name I put on like a coat when I go into school’ – for 30 years now. As well as being a teacher, Clanchy – a prize-winning poet, novelist and short story writer – works as a writer in schools. This dual perspective informs her wonderful book. In prose that leaps off the page she describes the ‘bodily experience’ of school: ‘a series of stinging humiliations and painful accidents, and occasional sublime flights which leave you either crippled or changed’.
Clanchy admits that in school she has found more questions than answers; and it is around these questions that the book is organized. The thorny issues of current educational debate are tackled head-on, from exclusion to poverty, religion, and streaming. But, as in the best creative practice, she doesn’t tell; she shows us, through the (anonymized) detail of students’ lives. In the (confusingly named) Inclusion Unit we meet Kylie, Vikki, Clarice and Simon – each with ‘the power to end learning in any mainstream class at any time’. Their stories, ‘as stark and clear as any Hollywood movie’, detail the damage that has been done to them. Little by little, the unit staff’s attention and love raise the students’ low self-esteem; there is even some success for poet Simon, who is ‘smart as paint’. But the successes are small, and hard to measure, and don’t show up well on data. And the underlying social problems feel intractable.
Clanchy is alert to the challenges of being a school-based writer, with its ‘dubious, in-between, first-name status’. Apart from the need to be sensitive to the daily reality of teachers’ lives, there’s the question of how to encourage students to write, without exposing them, or their trauma; she recalls her own feelings of vulnerability in a writing workshop. She writes movingly about the desperation of immigrant students to write in their mother tongue, and the ability of poetry to cross boundaries of culture and language. There are some wonderful extracts from students’ work. But, for the most part, immigrant students are highly motivated. More problematic is how to motivate poor white children, whose low self-worth is often responsible for their acts of self-sabotage; or who see no benefit in working hard for future rewards, in a system that has failed them and their families.
Although Clanchy has always worked in the state system, and often in tough schools, she is unsparing about how her own attitudes as ‘a nice liberal person’ are tested, when choosing a secondary school for her son. As she observes astutely, it is ‘the most political choice we will ever make’. After weeks of Year 6 parents’ ‘crazy’ conversation – including the need for a school ski trip – they take the plunge, he attends her school, and flourishes. She points out the benefits to both sides: her son leaves with a wide circle of friends, rooted in his community; the school gains from his academic demands, and ‘high grades to spike the stats’. There’s something else, too: her son’s knowledge that he ‘had something to give – a patrimony – as well as something to take’.
‘Schools run on love,’ Clanchy declares; from ludus, the fun, experimental love of school plays and trips, to agape, the pure, parental strain which has ‘sadly disappeared from teacher training manuals’. Although it’s hard to read this account without feeling angry at an under-resourced system, and the casual damage done to children’s life chances, you finish it knowing that she’s right. Throughout the book, the idea of ‘school’ is shown to be one of love. For Clanchy’s students, it’s a place of nurturing and refuge; somewhere safe to heal, and be heard.
Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, Picador, 2019. ISBN 978-1509840298, hardback, £16.99
[This review was first published in Writing in Education, Spring 2020]