I remember talking to a friend years ago about how it felt to have passed her driving test. She said that when she was at the wheel by herself for the first time, she found herself thinking, “Shouldn’t there be a grown-up around here . . . ? Oh wait, that’s me!”
Let loose on the road, often at a very tender age, drivers carry their own lives and the lives of others in the palms of their hands. They need to grow up very rapidly, and take responsibility, or disaster looms around the next corner in the winding country lane.
As teachers, we are let loose on the young people in our charge. Like it or not, they look to us for guidance, and they look to us for knowledge. For many of them, we are the only people who will ever, I mean ever, talk to them about literature, or chemistry, or history. We have this short space of time in which to make a difference: the very few hours we will spend with them in the classroom, and the time we direct outside class in the form of homework.
If we’re not the expert in their lives, then who is? Television presenters? Pop stars?
For the most disadvantaged (which doesn’t always mean those who are materially the poorest), if we don’t give them the knowledge, then they probably never will get it. If we don’t add to their store of cultural capital, they will remain impoverished, because knowledge builds on knowledge. The increasing dominance of electronic distractions in life outside school makes school time all the more unique and precious, as a space in which young people can focus on listening to people who know what they are talking about, and who aim to share that knowledge with them.
Wait a minute, ‘people who know what they’re talking about’? Who’s that?
I’m that person. I’m supposed to know what I’m talking about. They’re looking to me to enlighten them, to set them free from the trap of ignorance which could cripple them for life.
So I’d better get serious about improving my own subject knowledge. How many poems do I know by heart? Not enough. Is there an important author I’ve always neglected because I found them a little, well . . . dull? I’d better start reading some of their novels / plays / poems. Have I thoroughly memorised a schema of the history of English literature? Sort of . . . but it’s not good enough.
I’m not there yet, not by a long way. But I’m not happy with that situation, and I’m working on it, because I need to be the expert, for the sake of my pupils.
And what I can never, never do is dodge the issue, by piously proclaiming that I don’t want to indoctrinate them by just telling them what I think.