An illustration of students holding up coffee cups, pens and homework

The students who taught me the most

It’s expected that teachers inspire students, but what about in reverse? Ryan Wilson, author of Let That Be a Lesson: A Teacher’s Life in the Classroom, writes about the pupils who left a big impression.

Ryan Wilson

As I walked through school gates for the first time as a teacher, 22 years old in an ill-fitting suit my mum had helped me pick out, I felt I was going to change the world. I had visions of my students performing their own inspired adaptations of Shakespeare plays in their lunchbreaks after being moved to tears by the beauty of the Bard’s language. As the years wore on, and my expectations became more tempered, I came to realise that education is actually a two-way street. There were many days when I failed to impart much knowledge at all, but the young people in my charge were consistently successful in educating me.

Teaching is a daily lesson in humility. The young me arrogantly believed that it wouldn’t be too hard; I had wanted to be a teacher my whole life, and I had practised over and over with imaginary pupils. How much harder could it be in reality? The answer is: unimaginably harder. Any time you think you’re getting good at it, any time you think have it mastered, you can be absolutely certain that a child will be waiting to remind you of your fallibility.

Take Azad, for instance, a sparky young man I had the pleasure of teaching for GCSE English. We had been studying the work of the then-Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. It came up in passing that one of her love poems may have been written to another woman, a fact that clearly stood out and lodged in young Azad’s mind. A full year later, on the morning after the death of Margaret Thatcher had been announced, he came bounding up to me in the corridor: “Sir, sir,” he exclaimed, “I saw that lesbian you taught us about died!”

For reasons unknown, events – and, crucially, people – had become entangled in his head. I spent a few minutes patiently explaining that Margaret Thatcher and Carol Ann Duffy were, in fact, different people and that Mrs Thatcher was not, so far as we know, a lesbian. Azad seemed satisfied, and as I walked away I was allowing myself a moment of quiet gratification at having clarified this major news event for him. My smugness was punctured by a further question from Azad echoing down the corridor: “So Margaret Thatcher was dating Carol Ann Duffy who died?” Never, ever feel pleased with yourself in teaching.

If Azad taught me a thorough lesson in humility, Chloe taught me about resilience in the face of unimaginable difficulty, and about appreciating what you’ve got. I was not immune from moaning as a teacher, whether it be about the piles of marking, or the prospect of teaching year nine on a Friday afternoon. None of it even registers on the scale of hardship compared to what she had been through in her life. Having witnessed both her parents being killed in Liberia, she came to this country aged 12 as a refugee not speaking a word of English. Her older sisters acted as mum and dad, dutifully coming to parents’ evenings and raising her as their child. As her English rapidly improved, Chloe stayed behind after class to ask her teachers for extra work, reading voraciously and constantly expressing her gratitude at getting a British education for free.

'I spent a few minutes patiently explaining to my student that Margaret Thatcher and Carol Ann Duffy were, in fact, different people'

I taught her A Level English Literature in her final year at school. Her peers had elected her Head Girl, and she had just earned a place at medical school. It makes me a bit emotional even recalling it now; it was her triumph, of course, and a tribute to her tenacity, her drive, her ability to press on even when the odds were stacked against her. But it was also a triumph for the school, for the wider community and for society at large. Here was someone against whom the odds were stacked – and now, she wanted to give back by becoming a doctor. Students can teach humility in more ways than one.

The difficulties of teaching in schools are real and not trivial: the obsession with exam results, the lack of funding, the surveillance culture which has become an obsession among so many leadership teams. But Chloe is a reminder of why education really matters, of how it can literally transform lives. Her story has so much to say about what can be achieved when state organisations work together for good, about why it is imperative that the government deals with the crisis in teacher retention – and about the value of hard work, too.

I may have been standing at the front of the room talking about Macbeth or The Canterbury Tales or apostrophes. But, in their very different ways, it is Azad and Chloe – and hundreds of other young people – who are often the real teachers. I believe with all my heart that teachers are heroes, doing a remarkably difficult job with minimal resources while enduring the jibes of a society that largely believes they are in it for the holidays and to swan home at 3 p.m. But Azad and Chloe also remind me that teaching – in with all its joy and madness and challenges – can be the most outrageous privilege, too.

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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

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