Let That Be a Lesson by Ryan Wilson
The subtitle of this book is direct – “A Teacher’s Life in the Classroom” and correct; it is a lovely, funny and sometimes moving book of what it actually like teaching in the classroom to a variety of young people at secondary schools. The chief subject tackled is English, which leaves vast amounts of possible stories of misunderstanding of texts, and also exasperation at certain works being censored.
The author shares tales from the classroom which begin with his training year the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) which places eager graduates in classrooms with a reasonable knowledge of their subject and little idea of how to convey it for the first time. It can be traumatic, it can show what is to come, and sometimes it is rewarding as the trainee teacher gets an idea of what teaching a “good” lesson feels like. Wilson is honest, admits to what he has found difficult, even failed at, but also the highs of making a real difference in a what a child learns, even perhaps influencing a life. He makes the point that it is not only difficult teaching in an area of deprivation, but that even a seemingly non threatening class can be uncooperative and constructively difficult, especially to young teachers. Having worked as a supply teacher myself for a number of years in a variety of schools I was very keen to read this book, which depicts faithfully the combination of internal politics, sheer hard work and sometimes desperation that can fill the days and nights of a teacher. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read this book, which also includes the often humourous and enjoyable aspects of teaching.
The strength of this book is in its stories from the classroom which reflect the combination of difficulties of creating engagement in a positive way, while also dealing with the individual student. It does not go down the route of cute sayings and mistakes like some writers offer in their books, but does tell of the awkward moments, innocent misunderstandings and humour of trying to get a message across. There is a particular memory of two teachers asking questions in exam circumstances and having to fight convulsive giggles at the name of one of the characters. Wilson also pays tribute to two women teachers who have real skill, dedication, and ability to teach, deal with difficulties and be supportive of colleagues even in challenging circumstances.
Wilson has given a great deal of thought to his experiences. He succeeds in his training year, he gets a full-time job, and takes on his own class as a tutor as well as teaching through the age range. The internal politics of the school are treated positively; it is not only students who can play tricks on others! There are challenges, short term panics and longer concerns, but Wilson is a quick learner who adapts, uses the good ideas of colleagues and is genuinely keen to make sure that every student gets the best chance to do well. His exasperation as he moves schools and becomes exposed to the external forces that affect schools – the unilateral censorship of texts, the last-minute changes to exam marking, the withdrawal of financial support for the basics of educational and pastoral needs – is expressed and justified. A certain politician comes in for particular criticism as he forces through policies which are wholly unrelated to actual teaching and have a detrimental effect on children and teachers.
This is an honest, well written and generally positive of view of what being an actual teacher in a classroom is like, and how planning, marking and dealing with the pointless bureaucracy of teaching in the twenty first century can be a brutal distraction from actually teaching people in a classroom. It does not cover the chaos of the covid arrangements over the last year or so, but it does acknowledge the reactive nature of educational policy which can move the goal posts so disastrously. This is an excellent read for teachers who will probably sigh with recognition, for those who enjoy well written memoirs of teaching, and for everyone who has ever been in a classroom.