Learning lessons of fascism or just plain rude?

I ask Kieran to leave my classroom and he goes willingly; he understands that he has gone too far by dancing around during my lesson on the slave trade. A passing senior colleague kindly asks if she should take him. I nod, he is disturbing my lesson and has all the warnings I am willing to give. She asks him to come with her; he looks at her blankly almost in shock. He has never been taught by her and doesn’t know her. She repeats the instruction and the reply is:

“You’re not my friend, f*** you”

After school, Yasmin, one of my favourite year 10 s told me in an aggrieved tone:

“This supply teacher told me to do some work, and I was like, go over there and read your book, you don’t even know me! He didn’t even know my name and he dared talk to me.”

Yasmin was telling me this as if I would nod along agreeing with her excellent point. How had we arrived at this situation? Had anyone in school ever told Yasmin anything different to this?

In many of our UK schools there is a crisis in the authority of adults. The idea that Kieran or Yasmin should simply do as a teacher asks was laughable to them.

I began three years ago, as a young left-leaning teacher, hoping the study of history would allow a reflection on lessons of the past. For me, anti- authoritarian stances come in part from perceived lessons of the Holocaust. Gifted thinkers such as Adorno and Fromm, Jewish German refugees, argued with great insight that citizens who challenge authority and not simply follow orders are the key to ‘never again’. The Holocaust happened because people followed orders unquestioningly. Adorno wanted an ‘education that enables individuals to become resilient towards authoritarian tendencies’. Milgram’s famous experiments were seen as proof of the individual’s capacity to follow orders unthinkingly. I studied these thinkers and felt that their conclusion was logical; authority should be treated as dirty word.

Becoming a teacher in UK schools challenged my views on authority. Hannah Arendt’s writing brilliantly sums up the problems caused by a lack of authority in schools. A leading left wing intellectual, and a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, she wrote that there was a crisis in education. Although she was talking about the USA her arguments applied to the UK as well. She argued that the lack of authority in schools is damaging to young people and, in the sphere of education, children need authority figures.  Whilst seeing challenges to authority by her adult peers, in the public sphere and universities, as a good thing.

Hannah Arendt argued that ‘where the adult is not in a position of authority peer group authority will rule.’ (This chimes with my experience). ‘As for the child in the group, he is of course rather worse off than before. For the authority of a group, even a child group, is always considerably stronger and more tyrannical than the severest authority of an individual person can ever be. Therefore by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority.’

Many schools are pursuing a progressive ideal but, without clear consequences for disobedience and rudeness, they have sadly fostered conditions in which ignorance, joblessness, and illiteracy are rife.  This is where the extreme right can thrive. Removing authority from schools has not helped the cause of fighting fascism. There is nothing noble or worthy about Yasmin or Kieran’s questioning of authority, the sole result is that they learn less. Yasmin poses no threat to neo-fascists, she is just a (lovely) girl with bad GCSEs who is rude to people she does not know and doesn’t realise how much her potential has been wasted.

To create a society that would stand up to fascism; education alone is not enough. Germans were cultured and educated in the 1930s. How would I prevent fascism? I don’t know! What I do know is that the absence of authority in our schools is not the answer. Learning the lessons of history is no easy task and whilst the intentions were honourable many in the British education system have ‘thrown the baby out with the bathwater’. Authority is needed.  Kieran and Yasmin deserved teachers who had the authority to teach them. Maybe Kieran would not have been excluded so many times, and Yasmin might have gained the golden 5 Cs.

I am now lucky to be in an institution that gives me the authority to do my job. If any adult gives a pupil an instruction, whether they are a teacher or not, they are treated with respect. We unashamedly teach from the front; we teach them knowledge. There is calm learning and shared laughter. Rather than every hour being an unpredictable battle for authority, children learn for every minute of the hour. I can build better relationships, and spend my day filled with the joy of teaching.

Jamal walked up to me in the yard, “Good morning miss I have bad news I think, can I tell it to you?” He is polite but confident. “I think the dates are wrong in our textbook about the Greek Bronze era. I was reading at home and recent archaeological evidence shows that …..” Then I realised, this was the questioning of authority I had longed for, a respectful intellectually curious young boy had not taken for given what the teachers said. This is a great education. Pupils following the teachers’ orders does not preclude deep intellectual questioning.  Jamal was in a position to question me meaningfully because he was in a school where pupils did as they were told and he had learnt something.






Zen Corridors

At an art gallery/bar/all round wonderfully pretentious East London venue, a left-leaning friend of mine asks me about my new school. I describe some features of the knowledge curriculum. I then mention the silent corridors to her. Her response is shock, close to moral outrage. She uses terms such as ‘creating robots’ and cruel’. I have never seen her so aggressive.  This got me thinking; why is she so outraged?

So many of our educational views are deep emotional reactions. Things with which we have negative associations. Things we think we should think, in line with our political tribe. I wonder how many of my own views are just deep emotional reactions rather than me looking at what is best?

A big problem with the current  educational debate is that what sounds nice, is not always what is the best policy. Progressive child-centred education, with loose rules, sounds really fun and lovely. It is a much easier sell. Traditionalist educationalists, by contrast, have a harder sell. It does not help that tradition is associated with conservatism and the Tories are seen by many as the ‘nasty party’. The problem is however what sounds nice is often not what is best for children.

Maybe my friend’s idea of school corridors is one of ‘Fame’, with children creatively dancing between lessons. My associations, from experience, are less ‘Fame’ and more ‘Zombie Apocalypse’. Many school corridors are simply unsafe. I have seen in my old school blood on a year 7 child’s head from being pushed against a wall. A teacher, knocked over by a group of children, had an eight month leave to recover from a serious head injury; and she could have been killed.  I know I am not oppressing children by making them walk single file, purposefully, and  in silence between lessons. I know it is the kindest thing to do; but to many it does sound oppressive.

I had an epiphany, (educational not religious), whilst on holiday visiting the San Francisco Zen Centre. On the first day I was informed that we should walk in silence down the stairs to the meditation hall at 5am. I asked why, and was told it was in order that we might prepare to focus. The students need the same. To arrive at their lessons on time, calm, focused and ready to learn (no need to worry about being cool or make conversation) silence is key.

In the future I will say that we are learning from the age- old wisdom of ‘golden silence’ at Michaela. Creating a space of ‘mindfulness’ in the corridors is really important to us. Mindfulness is the latest buzzword.  That got me thinking that traditionalist teachers need some better marketing.  Traditional education often does not sound like the kindest option, but often I firmly believe it is. I hope that we (me included) will all try to see the best policy and not judge ideas as whether Gove endorsed them or if they do, or do not, fit with the latest educational fad. Until then, when I speak to my progressive friends, I will never again say I teach in a school with silent corridors, I will simply say Zen corridors.