What can we do to enable children to understand humanity?

Teachers - surely much more than purveyors  of knowledge?

Teachers – surely much more than purveyors of knowledge?

Incidents of violence against teachers in schools in England are rare. This is why the recent fatal stabbing of a teacher, Ann Maguire in a school in Leeds was particularly shocking. Mrs Maguire, in her 40th year as a teacher was about to retire from the profession after a long and distinguished career of service. Quite rightly the expressions of grief, incredulity and anger from her colleagues, students and the general public dominated the media for several days. The perpetrator of the crime, one of her pupils, is currently under arrest and awaiting trial.

I had more or less promised myself that I wouldn’t write on this topic, not wishing to join the immediate, and understandable outpouring of rage that followed the event. It is hard to be rational in the face of such an outrage and far too many intemperate words have already been written. Lynch mob mentality appears rife at times like this and it is difficult to make a reasoned contribution to the inevitable debates that surround such an incident. So it was that I decided not to join in the discussion on this media. That was until I read two short pieces in the New Statesman (2nd – 8th May edition 2014) that in their expressions of sympathy identified a number of important points that should encourage us to ask questions about the purpose of schooling and the status of teachers.

The articles within the magazine are brief, but clearly intended to promote consideration beyond the immediate reactions that have dominated the media when reporting this tragedy to date. The specific expression that prompted me to rethink my decision about writing on this matter came from the New Statesman editorial,  which quoted a student from the school where Ann Maguire taught who stated “she taught me humanity.” This, I felt was a particularly poignant  assertion that revealed an understanding on the part of this student that education has a fundamental purpose that is much more than the transmission of subject knowledge. How perceptive, I thought of a young person to see beyond the everyday flotsam and jetsam that washes around the prescribed lessons in school and identify a more fundamental aspect of the role of the teacher. I was especially drawn to the idea that this student has identified an outcome of her interaction with a teacher on a profound level, that has instilled learning which does not feature in any written school curriculum or assessment documentation. To be taught humanity seems to me to be a most rewarding outcome of the education process.

Peter Wilby, in his column in the aforementioned edition of the magazine describes other superlatives applied to Ann Maguire from those who knew her. However, it was his assertion that the ideological stance adopted by certain factions of the media that should be of concern in relation to this tragic event than held my attention. The image of teachers portrayed in some quarters says Wilby, is of individuals who, “enslaved by left wing ideology instruct children in atheism and immorality, tolerate low standards and don’t work hard enough.” He goes on to say that there are many who will look to see where they may apportion blame for this terrible one-off incident – ”permissive liberal values, welfare benefits, violent video games, social media  and the abolition of corporal punishment,” are all likely causes to be identified over the coming months.

There may well be another equally significant, or even greater factor in this situation that contributed to this horrendous crime, suggests Wilby. This he describes as the “routine denigration of teachers”. Politicians and much of the media, he states have made a significant contribution to the undermining of respect for teachers within UK society. Those who continue to show contempt for the teaching profession would do well to listen to the voices of others who knew, and now pay tribute to teachers such as Ann Maguire In so doing they may gain insights into the dedication that is to be found in almost every classroom in the land.

Can there be a greater testimony to a teacher than the tribute paid by a student who recognises that “she taught me humanity” ? Perhaps as teachers we have been complicit in the portrayal of education as a means of filling children full of facts that they can then regurgitate for an examination. Maybe the time has come to return to debates about the broader purpose of education. Certainly we want children to become knowledgeable effective problem solvers, who are literate and numerate, and have an understanding of geography, history and science, but perhaps we need to pay greater attention to the ways in which they may consider and apply their learning and the ways in which they are enabled to interpret their humanity.

Having stated that I would not write about this subject, and spent a day pondering on whether to post this piece, I hope that what I may have done is move beyond the initial tragic story and raised a few questions that many teachers appear frightened to address. The articles in the New Statesman identify a number of significant areas of concern with regards to the ways in which teachers are currently presented. Sadly many of those committed professionals have become cowed and fearful of putting their heads above the parapet to challenge current politically driven educational dogma. There is a danger that adopting a position of silence may be seen as providing assent to those who continue to spin the line that our classrooms are out of control.