"The journey is as important as the destination, let me tell you."
I started my 11+ education at a Secondary modern school back in 1966. What a year - England 4, Germany 2 is all I will say about football. Yellow Submarine was #1 on 1st September. This was also in the days of selection at 11+ and a three tier system. There was no internet, YouTube or Facebook and only three TV channels. I know, how did we survive? The only way we knew where our friends were was by playing with them or seeing whose house the bikes were outside. Music came on big round things or over the transistor radio. I make this point because there was certainly no expectation that I would ever be a teacher. It was unlikely as thinking we could land on the moon at the time, and yet, three years later...!
Secondary modern schools were there for those who “failed” the 11+ examination, the lowest of the three tiers behind technical schools and, in first place, the grammar school. If successful I would be armed with possibly a few Certificates of Secondary Education (CSEs were the equal to the tier that now form the lower grades at GCSE, and those not counted in any pass rates statistics). I would have been expected to leave school and find my way in the world of work following some ‘lowly’ vocational route suited to my lack of intelligence. While I am at it I might as well say I was rather annoyed by the 11+ test. First, I was 10 years and nearly 1 month old, the youngest in the year by a long way. Secondly, answer this riddle: What fly can you spread? That question still haunts me to this day. I am sure there were others I got wrong, enough for me to fail but that one sticks. Who wants to spread a butterfly on bread anyway, especially when you have Marmite?
As it turned out they got it wrong, the 11+ thing. Like many others, I was labelled at a young age and my future in education mapped out for me, a sort of “glass ceiling” of potential and expectations. This is more than likely why I support comprehensive education now. I did not live down to these expectations however, nor was I really aware of them. My love of learning meant I tried to learn and was totally unaware of the expectations others had of me. We do not all learn at the same rate, in the same way, at the same time, have the same learning preferences or learn in some linear model where progress can be plotted against a graph or measured term by term or even lesson by lesson.
My experience as both a learner and teacher shows that we learn in jumps, we suddenly understand or put the pieces together. We can “know” things, though, and be measured day-by-day; that is why it is so seductive to have an education system based on knowing rather than understanding. I can know my four times table today and learn my five times by the end of the week, and it can be measured. I can be assessed to see how far I have got. Knowing is not the same as understanding though.
I have been told it my education can’t have all been bad because I made it in the end. In a way, yes I did but at what cost? If you have ever experienced being the odd one out, of having your work destroyed by others or pricked with badge pins until your shirt looked like a red “dot-to-dot” then you will know what it feels like “to make it in the end.” The journey is as important as the destination, let me tell you. Such a journey stays with you, but you can either continue recalling it, allow yourself be defined by it, or use it to your advantage.
One benefit may be that I believe I am more aware than most of others who are having a similar learning journey as I did. I know that as teacher pedagogy (the strategies and method of teaching) is important, that metacognition (learning about learning and managing learning) will help, and that empathy shapes teacher responses, but experience counts for a lot in teaching. This is one reason why I insist that teachers should always be learners, always learning something that takes them out of their comfort zone. They should regularly feel what it's like to be lost in the learning landscape, to not understand something but be pressured to give an answer, to feel humiliated by getting things wrong.
"On one occasion a girl wrote ‘Mr Hewitson does not teach like other teachers.'"
My experience as a student may also be why some of the “naughty” boys and girls appeared to seek me out as a teacher at school. There have been occasions when some have tried everything to get into my teaching groups, even claiming the registers were wrong. Sometimes, though, it did not seem like a compliment, and I envied some teachers who had the compliant learners sitting quietly in their classes. Then again, would I have had such rich experiences, faced such challenges, and developed my craft in the way I have if that were the case? I take it as a compliment that such learners wanted to share their time with me, and I am proud to have tried to help a few discover their true potential and perhaps in some way make their experience of school a little more bearable. I often asked for an evaluation of my teaching from my students. On one occasion a girl wrote “Mr Hewitson does not teach like other teachers.” I regard this as one of the best feedback comments I ever got. We as teachers must always expect to learn from our learners.
How I ended up a teacher, and why I did not end up as a plumber or the like, is a testament to accident and possibly fate. You see, I wanted to be an architect. I loved making and designing things, I still do. I also loved technical drawing. This was probably because it was a form of expression much removed from writing which, because of my problems in spelling, I disliked immensely. By the way, nobody worked out that the reason my handwriting was so scruffy was that I was attempting to hide my problem with spelling. You know, “is it an ‘a’ or an ‘e’? Not sure, so make it illegible”. Just to confuse people further, I practiced calligraphy and produced some very ornate pieces of work. Even my Biology diagrams were a work of art in coloured inks (no felt tips). You should see the look on some of my students’ faces when I tell them what I did, and they realise they do just the same. As I have mentioned earlier, I believe that learner empathy is a key trait of good teachers and good teaching. Time to go back to my school days and my careers advice.
How does this compare with your early days? Let us know below!