On Auden and Education (or why Teaching Makes You Stupid)

This week, whenever I have had a quiet moment to myself, I have mostly been reading a book about W.H. Auden. Or more specifically I have been reading a book about Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’. Although actually it’s not specifically about that poem, even though it is, and it’s not completely about Auden, even though it is. By which I mean that author Ian Sansom (yes, the same Ian Sansom who we looked at in the last Unpopular episode – he of the marvellous ‘County Guides’ mystery novels that are not really mystery novels) makes it partly about himself and partly about The Bigger Picture and partly about Auden and partly about poetry and partly about this particular poem. It is a great book, but I have to admit that it also makes me feel Really Stupid, and that in turn makes me sad and frustrated.

For whilst Sansom’s book is Not An Academic Text, it does throw in quite a few references to Academics and Academic Texts and Other Poets and Literature and Literary Criticism which, had I the time, energy and space I would probably rather enjoy following up. But I don’t. So I don’t. None of this is Sansom’s fault. Rather it is because we have navigated the second week of the New School Year and already I feel like I Have No Life. Or rather it is that life has already ebbed from my sickened body and left me a shattered husk. Not that I want to be overly dramatic.

I suspect that were I to be reading a similarly pitched book about Teaching and Learning then I would probably Not Feel Quite So Stupid, but frankly also strongly suspect that I would find such a book to be A Lot Less Interesting. Where is the Auden of the contemporary (Secondary) Education world? Probably busy being an Edu Twitter Celebrity.

The Point Of All This (and there may be one, so bear with me… equally there not be, so please feel free to skip to the latest mix of Unpopular music) is that whilst the past two decades of teaching may have left me Well Versed in an understanding of the Science/Craft/Magick (delete as appropriate) of Teaching, it has had a detrimental impact on my knowledge and understanding of Subject (both the ones I teach and others). It has, in effect, left me (feeling) stupid.

Not stupid in the context of the level to which I am teaching (I am pretty confident I could bring home a ‘9’ in the Art or Photography GCSE) but certainly in the broader, deeper context of my subject specialist knowledge. So whilst I am highly skilled (this is not the moment to be modest) at empowering students to think more deeply about the photographic texts that they are reading in order to get a level 6, or 7 or 9 at GCSE, what I/we lack as teachers is the cognitive capacity to ask each other those challenging questions about our subject. Or indeed to ask ourselves.

Which is why, to veer further into the somewhat tedious realms of Education for a moment (don’t worry, we’ll get back to Pop Music shortly), I have been increasingly thinking that more opportunities for subject specialist Continuing Professional Development is really critical to our survival as Teachers (or indeed as human beings). By this I do not mean CPD that focuses on Subject at the level to which we teach, but the deeper knowledge that draws us out and beyond the confines of School (we are not children, after all).

Where are the opportunities for our History teachers to talk/argue about the connections between 1970’s Britain and Our Present Predicament? Or indeed to argue about whose books are best: Dominic Sandbrook’s or Andy Beckett’s? Where are the opportunities for me to discuss with my Art colleagues the work of Robert Frank (including whether ‘Pull My Daisy’ is actually any good or not, and then to define what we mean by ‘good’) or to argue about the value of John Berger’s critical writing and whether it is still relevant to approach Art from a Marxist viewpoint in 2019? Let’s face it: Ten minutes over a rushed instant coffee between a quick pee and then dashing off to teach Year 7 doesn’t really cut it, does it?

Yet when Leadership discussions about Staff CPD take place we continually promote Skills Of Teaching as the Only Valuable Topics for Training. We say it is in response to What Our Staff Want but really, is it? Always? Again? And again? And even if it’s what they think they want, are they always right?

How do we build cognitive capacity into our daily grind such that we can enjoy the developing treasures of the subjects we fell in love with? (Because we DID fall in love with our subject probably long before we fell in love with the idea of teaching that subject). Didn’t we? (That’s a whole other question).

When I start to feel less stupid I will let you know.

And the Pop Music I promised you? It’s The Blue Aeroplanes again, who once upon a time took Auden’s ‘Journal Of An Airman’ text and made it into a terrific song on the wonderful ‘Tolerance’ LP. You’re welcome.

3 thoughts on “On Auden and Education (or why Teaching Makes You Stupid)

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