Poet, novelist and teacher Kate Clanchy tells her story, and the stories of the children she has met, taught and encouraged, over a 30-year teaching period
Firstly, I must confess something of a bias: Clanchy was my poetry tutor at college back in 1998, and so, perhaps, I can hear her human and poetic voice especially clearly in this brilliant book. But that fact aside, it is the warmth, humanity and clarity of this insight into teaching which makes this such a compelling read. Clanchy never uses jargon or pedagogical acronyms; she doesn’t talk about effective starters or lesson objectives; rather she focuses on the story-telling aspect of being a teacher, and the people-focused artistry at the heart of what we all do.
This is Clanchy’s story of her experiences teaching over a 30-year career. Clanchy’s story ranges with humour and honesty from the trials and tribulations of teacher training, to first jobs and first mistakes (she talks of those initial months as: ‘A bodily experience, like learning to be a beekeeper or an acrobat: a series of stinging humiliations and painful accidents and occasional sublime flights that leave you either crippled or changed. If you are changed, you are changed forever’), through to her current role as Writer in Residence at the Oxford Spires Academy in Oxford, one of the most multi-cultural schools in the UK where the children speak more than 30 different languages.
Of course, the tangible outcome of Clanchy’s approach is the incredible, moving poetry by her – often immigrant – students whose voices are otherwise marginalised; now, thanks to Clanchy, they are not only confident in that voice, but are published and in some cases award-winning poets. This is a book which stands up for the unheard and the unseen, whether it’s the white, working-class boys like Allen with his ‘blacksmith’s hands’, holding literature away from him because he finds it so powerful, or girls like Amina who must lie about their birthdays for fear of being sent back, or lost, angry Kylie who loses her shoe behind a radiator and ‘can’t get a ruler, and give the thing a poke, because such enterprise is beyond her’.
But it is also a book which stands up for teachers, which puts the importance of teaching front-and-centre, and reminds us to be proud of what we do, and the differences – marginal and seismic – we might make. Sometimes, it helps to have someone say you should feel proud, whether you’re a young student learning to write, or a hardened Deputy Head at the end of January…
It’s not all feel-good and comfortable, though, far from it, and of course for some of the students things don’t get much better. As such, in the writing of this book, Clanchy also serves up a timely and occasionally angry reminder of why education for all is so important, and expresses with courage and fluency the problems which sit within a divided education system. As someone who teaches in an independent school, it reminded me of the importance of our partnerships programmes – of what Clanchy would consider the responsibility of ‘patrimony as well as entitlement’ – and what lies at the heart of the Trust we all serve: to reach as many girls as possible, regardless of background.
Most memorable quote
It’s not a quotation, but for impact of writing and Clanchy at her best, read Shakila’s Head pp78-84, which finishes: ‘Does she feel the lighter of it, I wonder, now it is me who has to carry the head home? Or will it be equally heavy, however often it is passed, just as much a head? Well, we can find out. Shakila’s head: the weight of it, the warmth, the cheekbones, the brains. Here you are. Catch.’
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Some Kids I Taught and what they Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, published by Picador, hardback, £16.99, paperback available 19 March 2020