Let’s hear it from a student’s mouth

Let’s hear it from a student’s mouth

This was a headline in one of London’s main newspapers in April 2018:

What is conjured up when we see the headline such as the one above? How have we derailed so much that our 4-year-olds can be a cause of teachers’ fears? What exactly has gone pear-shaped?

In education we have erected a dividing wall; a partition that is jeopardising our children’s potentials and their true learning.

On one side we have People and over the other side of the wall lie Systems. The various education models / systems have been constructed over time, probably with all good intentions and purposes – to support children’s development and ensure they have a ‘good chance’ of getting, what’s deemed by their parents and guardians, decent employment to enable them to afford all the essentials and more throughout their adult lives. Somewhere along the way however, this template has become so engrossed in itself that it has almost completely nudged children out of the equation and lost focus on their needs and what they deserve the most – to be met for who they are, to be loved, cherished and adored not for what they can do and the grades they get, but for the purity of the essence, the beautiful spark they all embody equally.

The education system has become an algorithmic conveyor belt of significant ambitious pursuits, a mere mechanism for churning out the highest grades, top of league tables, highest Uni entry levels… mostly in ignorance and at the enormous expense of our children, their needs and skills.

In addition, has history not shown us time and time again that in truth education is not bound by schoolyard gates – aren’t Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Hypatia, Mohammed, da Vinci, Einstein to mention but a few, the living proofs?

We have put the main emphasis on parts of education that are needed but forgetting that they are not IT, like obsessing with superfluous amounts of information that they most likely a) won’t remember or b) won’t ever need. As a result, many children are experiencing formal education as mental suppression – a regurgitating exercise of data, ideals and beliefs that someone else had or has on different subjects and opinions all in order to just pass exams.

We have ceased to remember the fact that true education is about inspiring another to bring out that which already lies within; Educare – from Latin, to draw from within.

Instead, we have been too busy encouraging children to chase ‘perfect lives’, the very ones we adults can’t seem to fashion for ourselves. We have been dedicating time gearing up school children to chase dreams which are just that – desires not founded on commitment to life, to people and to work – taking them astray and into a cul-de-sac of deficiencies in common-sense, manners, openness, vitality, confidence, self-worth and much more… and inevitably breeding what we are now witnessing: generations of young men and women whose ‘educators’ are handheld devices, their world computer screens, their aspiration computer games… all of which are taking them into a realm that is void of responsibility.

And then there is the people/teacher part. It’s probably safe to say that most teachers have chosen their profession because somewhere deep inside they hold genuine care for children and their growth, however, little did they know that when they were signing that ‘contract’ with themselves to make teaching their lifetime profession, the parties on both sides of the wall – a.k.a System & People – had something different in mind, and that teachers would be met with a system that does not prioritise students and teachers but instead various governments’ policies make sure teachers’ workload is more than is humanly manageable and those in leadership in most cases offer little to no support, all ending in teachers being burned out.

Much weight descends upon teachers’ shoulders and the toll is high – they are overworked, underpaid, stressed, exhausted and often miserable as a result of this.

There is now a widely held acknowledgement that high stress levels and exposure to unruly student behaviour are cited as main reasons for attrition in the profession along with inadequate training and support, with a staggering estimated 40% of new entrants leaving the profession within five years.

There doesn’t really seem to be much support for teachers to put focus on the quality of how they live day to day – not just in the classroom but outside of it too, which in turn has a foundational impact on their energy, vitality and clarity – and it is these qualities that profoundly impact the quality of their teaching as well as their ability in handling the increasing complexities and demands of the profession. In a time when we’re seeing increased levels of exhaustion, overwhelm, stress and complete burnout amongst teachers, there is an accompanying lack, and in many cases a total absence, of self-management and self-care amongst teachers. This system/way of caring for our teachers is not working.

Hence, the most important change we need to start with is to bring one vital ingredient back into the curriculum – our human heart.

Note to reader: The following text contains extracts from emails between myself and five of my teachers. Thank you (in no order of preference 😉), John Ellis, Mickey La Rosa, Peter Clifford, Tim Pickard and Ray Davenport, for giving your permission for this most genuine of love and appreciation Ode to Teachers to be shared with the wider world. And thank you for All your wisdom offered to me and the fellow students that have walked your halls. If we didn’t heed the good sense at the time, there is a lifetime of opportunities to recall them. I know I have and will. Thank you.


When I was growing up, teachers were the enemy. They were to be avoided at all costs, and to that extent making their lives as difficult as possible was the name of the game. They were seen as the school police, our freedom restrictors and control freaks, making us do work that we didn’t want to do. Such was our antipathy for teachers that we would as a class even go to the scale that we would scheme to confuse, annoy, frustrate and push the teacher as far as we could: abominable acts that make me feel uncomfortable just thinking about them, and especially after coming to the realisation I am about to relate.

Not too long ago, whilst searching for an old email, I came across some correspondence between myself and various teachers throughout my history of education, which at the age of 22, is almost all of my life! I was deeply humbled by the assortment of communication I came across, and after remembering in more detail some of the teachers I have spent considerable time with over the years, I came to the conclusion that I have indeed been very blessed with the teachers who formed a big and important part of my growing-into-an-adult life, all the way from nursery right through to University, where I now study Mathematics and Statistics.

I went to nursery a mere 30 seconds walk from our family home, and from what I do remember I enjoyed my time there. The teachers – and one teacher Trudy in particular – were absolutely amazing. I was a fairly quiet child who took greater pleasure in observing others and their activities than necessarily taking part. At that age I found it very easy to say what I did and did not like/want without any fuss, fluster or fight. Finger-painting for example was just not for me, and whenever offered I would simply say No. What was great was that the teachers honoured the fact that I was clear what I wanted and did not push me into doing anything I objected to.

Primary school came, and once again I was surrounded by amazing teachers and teaching assistants. The headmaster was a very sweet, kind and caring man who stood outside the school gates every single morning and greeted each child/parent and or sibling. I had a teacher in year 3 who I felt a strong connection with, who ignited my love of Mathematics. She was a firm and super solid woman with a smile that made me feel warm, welcome and at ease. A kind of teacher who makes learning not only fun but a lot more productive too.

In secondary school I was blessed to have one of the sweetest men I have ever met as my Form Tutor, Mr S. He was never hesitant to take time out of his day, whether during or outside working hours, to chat and to support students in whichever way he could. He spent a lot of time ensuring that we, as a class, spent time together in our form sessions building our relationships and offering the opportunity to develop the tender qualities we all knew we innately had. He cared deeply about his students, every one of us. On many occasions during Progress Review Days and Parent’s Evenings my mother and I would sit with Mr S. whilst he would run through letters pertaining to my performance, but at the same time he would always bring it back to practical, real life conversation about how I was in the school, in the class and in myself.

During my entire Secondary school I had many teachers across the subjects who for the most part displayed their fantastic innate qualities and good teaching, but one in particular that remains dear to me to this day is my Chemistry teacher, Mr D.

In my A-level years at sixth form, where I was in a much smaller class, it was easier to develop more of a friendship with Mr D. rather than a mere student-teacher arrangement. From the first lesson we got on very well, after which he took the time to give me a small yet sweet feedback via email:

I thought you made some excellent contributions in the 1st lesson, keep up this level of effort and you will do just fine.
Mr D.

The fact that he not only acknowledged this, but took the time to express it, was deeply touching for me. He was (and probably still is) the kind of teacher with a great ability to sense when a student was not themselves or struggling with something, as displayed in the following email shared at the time when I was choosing to withdraw:

Missed your usual sparkling contributions yesterday.
We’ve noticed that you are flagging a bit at the moment.
Let us know if there is anything we can do.
Mr D.

This was heart melting and eye-watering to read. We can become accustomed to people in our lives, even those we have super close relationships with, being unresponsive, even oblivious to our feelings and what we might be going through, so for me to receive an email which held this level of care, enquiring for no other reason than to support a young man he sensed needed support, definitely restored some of my trust in humanity at the time.

I am certain that I was not the only student who was cared for in this way.

Then there was the time when I copied nearly word for word a fellow student’s coursework. Mr D. ‘happened to’ (I’ve since learnt there are no coincidences!) mark both pieces of work next to each other, making the plagiarism stare him in the face. When he sent me an email saying he wasn’t happy and that copying isn’t worth it, I tried to make some excuses about needing a structure to use and that it was my own work – reads: lies, lies and more lies. I received a response in which the following formed a part:

You got caught – deal with it and move on – lesson learned, stop making excuses.
Mr D.

This is one of my favourite emails I’ve read back ever.

The directness of the message with no room for arguing is one thing, but what is amazing is not a sliver of condemnation of me, just a clear message about the behaviour that isn’t acceptable, nothing averse towards me, just a disapproval of my behaviour and a stern but loving call to move on.

It gave me the opportunity to understand that what I did was not right, and I was offered the space to move on without sulking about ‘being caught’. This was no different in person, no recrimination whatsoever, nor was I looked at or spoken to any differently just because I made a mistake. For me, these were/are life lessons that sadly many do not have the grace of receiving.

Due to my own lack of effort, commitment and responsibility with my studies and life in general at the time, I ended up failing 3 out of the 4 A levels. From there I had a distinct choice – leave education or continue my studies elsewhere, having to retake the year first.

I chose to continue.

During the first year at my new college many of my old patterns and behaviours around studying continued, leading to concerns from my teachers around my progress and potential success (or failure).

It was made clear to me by my mother that either I pull my socks up and commit in full to my education, otherwise the support that I was getting would be reviewed, for in truth, I was, to use the English phrase, ‘taking liberties’.

I took on board what was said to me, raised the bar and changed my approach to studying, making it a priority.

At college, I had a group of teachers who exemplified the caring nature of the job. Beyond all the frustrations, detentions and disbeliefs at how little homework can be handed in, there was always the underlying care, fellow human beings, teachers, just wanting the students to do their best and fulfil their potential.

In the last few months of my time at college I really began to develop my appreciation for the teachers. This is mostly thanks to reconnecting with a deeply dear friend and teacher, Serge Benhayon, who has always inspired me to look at more than just the physical aspects of life; that my interactions with people, my commitment to life and people, the qualities of relationships that I am choosing and the fact that appreciating all that’s been laid down for me and all that is ahead of me is a very enriching process.

After I had finished my time at college, obtained my results (and opened them live on Sky News!), I wrote emails to each of my teachers and to my form tutor at college.

To my chemistry teacher I wrote:

I really just wanted to express my sincere gratitude for all your help and support over the last two years. Although I did not choose to heed all of your advice, in hindsight it would have got me an A* for sure if I did everything you advised.

Not only do I appreciate your academic support, but also your character and your care for us students. I really did feel that you genuinely care and wish us all the best we can do for ourselves – something not always expressed fully by most teachers.

I wish you the best of luck in the future (with your retirement?) and that you see the amazing positive impact you have had on so many students’ lives. You certainly taught me that no one will help me unless I help myself first. That is something I will take with me throughout all my forthcoming years.

Michael

And the response came:

Michael,

Thank you very much for your kind comments, it really cheered me up.

I have decided to carry on for another year ( or 2 ), teaching is such a massive part of my life that I find it hard to give it up.

I wish you every success and happiness for the future

Mr C.

To see that one’s expression and appreciation can make a difference in someone else’s life was touching.

To my Biology teacher I wrote:

I would like to say now, how much I appreciate all the time and effort you put into me and ‘us’ as a class. Although you had hints of laziness and drizzles of ‘I give up with them’ haha – you never really did. I know you wanted all to do well, and seeing people wasting their own time and opportunities was frustrating. Main message here is, Thank you for all you did over the 2 years. It really did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

I can honestly say, without your persistent nagging and disbelief at little amounts of work I did, I wouldn’t have done what was necessary to get a respectable grade. For that I have the deepest admiration and respect.

Make sure you keep up the hilarious sense of humour and don’t forget double check your shirts for creases when Ofsted come around haha.

All the best with your future years.

With all my gratitude and full appreciation,
Michael

And the response:

Hi Michael,
I am very glad that you got your C in Biology. It is the minimum you deserve. Thanks also for your kind words. It is nice to have one’s efforts recognised and appreciated.
Mr E.

Again, from the response one gets a sense that appreciation is not something that teachers receive often (if at all?) Even though teachers work terrifically hard, what with taking work into their personal time to ensure each student is looked after, they seldom are celebrated, or given the opportunity to celebrate themselves in a way we ought to.

To my Maths teacher I wrote:

The main reason for this email though, is to say how deeply grateful I am for all your help and support over the last 2 years – although I didn't always take it haha. I thoroughly enjoyed your lessons and your teaching persona throughout my time at college.

Many thanks and good luck with all

Best wishes,
Michael

And the (cheeky) response came back:

Hi Michael
Thanks for the kind words, you were a pleasure to teach (no really!).
Mr P.

Mr P. was, and I know as I continue to stay in touch with him, still is very fond of all his students, and although we used to make his life what I can imagine frustrating at times, he never lost his sense of humour and passion to engage the class. He would come up with the most creative methods and the cheesiest jokes to make the classroom a more settled, open and engaging place.

And finally, to my Form Tutor, and in all honesty guardian – not in the legal definition, but in the sense of level of true care he displayed – I wrote:

The other reason for this email, is to tell you that even though I did not always express it so, I am eternally grateful for your genuine care and support for me during the last 2 years. To reflect back on all that makes me realize that I truly had a dear friend in you. Not only with support, but also with pulling me up on things that I did only to hold myself back. It never felt like an authority telling me what to do, but a concerned friend putting forward what was best for me. I can tell you it did make a difference, although maybe not immediately visual to you.

I would urge you to continue this way of being with students, as it does more for them than they realize. I wish you all the best with your future – wherever you may be serving.

With all my appreciation and true gratitude,
Michael

The very tender response came back as follows:

I am not going to lie: your letter moved me very much. Not every day do we get students who actually thank us for what we do, as most just take our roles for granted. What I mostly hate is disrespect and rudeness from kids, so in my eyes you are a role model for others. And that’s because mum gave you such an amazing and loving upbringing. Unfortunately, some kids are in a bad place and it shows, so count yourself lucky! I want to thank you in return for being such a great student. I am sure Mr E. is also glad you came through our doors!

I wish you the best of luck for the future. And please, keep in touch and let me know how you get on with everything!

Yours,
Mr L.R.

The recurring theme appears again – the fact that we have not made appreciation a normality in the teaching world. The other point about this message that inspires me, is that much like Mr D., Mr LR. never held grudges against me for my rude behaviour, lies, bunking lessons… in the initial months at college. A most humbling display of understanding.

As I mentioned at the beginning, when I came across these emails I felt quite touched, and even a bit teary, so I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

"I was digging through some old emails trying to find someone's address and came across a number of emails from one of my old teachers. What struck me was that, although not appreciated at the time, there was so much care for me in those emails, be it whether I was not attending a lesson, didn't hand in homework, copied someone’s coursework, or even the finer things like just not being my "sparky self" in the lesson. I came to two things from this, 1) How there are those who really do care even though we like to write off teachers as being not understanding and selfish. And 2) How devastating it must be for teachers to see so much potential in all these children and young adults and watch many of them throw it away for what is, in the grand scheme of things, absolute nonsense. I know I must have been a difficult teenager to watch: So much potential and life given away to activities and dramas that would distract me from making a massive difference in the world. #NowImBack #AppreciatingTeachers"

I sent the post to Mr D. in an email and received a very touching and powerful read in response:

Interesting to read your comments above – I always try and focus on the positive, exam results don't make the person and I think most of the boys/girls that have been through here turn out OK (even some of the ones who I thought were irredeemable psychos say hello and have fond memories when I meet them in the assorted odd places that ex-students turn up). Some of the really horribly damaged people we have in school, whose back stories we are often not even aware of, have the best attendances because this is a place where they can be safe, and if the importance of balanced chemical equations is lost on boys who don't know if they will have a meal when they get home, I kind of understand that. #schoolNotJustForExams

Take care of yourself young man, you are really still just starting your story – hope it is an interesting one.
Mr D.

This wisdom at its finest in Mr D’s email is far beyond what constitutes the job description of a teacher. More like what one might receive from a world, rather than classroom, teacher!

I know that I am not the only one who has had teachers of this quality and calibre, and I know that there are many, many more who I have never met that care just as much. They are the treasures deserving of our appreciation which can often go a long, long way in confirming the deeply caring nature we are all imbued with.

Appreciation in turn develops greater confidence in treading the path of return to the essence we each know innately, the one that only knows love, untouched and untarnished, encapsulated in the very seed that was there way before the birth. The one that reminds us that we are not just human and that even though we might be teaching from confines of any physical space (school, classrooms) our platform is way grander – in its curricula a world stage as vast as the Universe itself.

As a song goes… “we are all teachers in this world”.

Teachers ARE indeed Gold – And they need to be constantly reminded of the fact that they ARE.

Written by Michael Brown, with Introduction from Dragana Brown

Filed under

ConnectionTeachersEducationFeelingsSchool

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