The Staff Room, an insight into education in the district written by Catherine Jackson

Catherine Jackson from Badsworth. New columist for the Pontefract and Castleford Express.'p307a436
Catherine Jackson from Badsworth. New columist for the Pontefract and Castleford Express.'p307a436

I have a few bugbears as an English teacher.

‘Would have’ abbreviated to ‘would’ve’ has increasingly become ‘would of’! I don’t often scrawl on books, but I just can’t help myself when I see that.

Another one is when students say that something is different to something. I was always taught that it was different from and anything other than that was categorically wrong.

Well, it turns out I am the one who is wrong. I went on a course at the end of last year, and was shown, with evidence, that it is acceptable to say something is different to something else. This is quite a painful thing to accept, not to mention write down and put out in the public domain.

Tolerance and understanding have arguably never been more vital as concepts to be taught in our schools today, but quite clearly, I need to show more tolerance in the ‘different to’ world.

I’ve been making light of this idea, with my example, but listening to an old recording of the late poet Seamus Heaney on Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs the other day I was struck by a line in one of his poems Terminus.

In it he says: “Two buckets were easier carried than one. I grew up in between.” He was using his own background as the starting point for this poem – a Catholic nationalist, growing up in the mainly Protestant unionist Northern Ireland.

In the poem he explores how balance is key for positive and happy living and working together. Balance he suggests makes for understanding and tolerance.

These ideas, especially pertinent for a man living in, at times, a volatile political situation, can equally be applied in schools nationwide.

Essentially, all schools are communities where staff and pupils live, work and often spend more time with each other than with families at home.

As such, these communities are surely precious enough to nurture and to work on, together, in order to find that balance – the balance required for carrying two buckets. If one bucket is unequally weighted in comparison with the other bucket, the carrying of it is undeniably harder than carrying two equal volumes – however full and heavy they may be.

In his interview on radio broadcast, Heaney was asked if this idea of balance was the ultimate solution and whether he believed it really was achievable.

Heaney’s response was given in his wonderfully lyrical and measured voice, saying he believed it was possible, particularly “at the micro level of a small community”.

The idea of balance needs to be worked out in all areas of education: in work and play; in fun and laughter balanced with rules and structure; in social understanding and giving versus the somewhat selfish need to focus on study; in the tolerance of others’ beliefs and cultures versus the courage to be true to oneself.

I suppose, when dealing with young people, this idea of balance could lead to a rather confused life if not carefully handled.

The concept needs to be understood and explained. Some of my best lessons have undoubtedly been when I have thrown off the constraints of a lesson plan and veered away from it.

The times when I have been free to stop and have a laugh with pupils have been invaluable – but they also need to know that it is necessary to pull back, and get back to the plan and settle back to some serious hard work. Fun as well as hard work is a vital balance, and one encourages the other when balanced carefully together: all fun would eventually become wearing, and dare I say, boring, over time.

Similarly, in a world where intolerance and narrow-mindedness seem to be increasing, we need to encourage our pupils to be tolerant of the beliefs and cultures of others. They need help to understand them, but they also need the help to understand themselves and work out their own beliefs and then to have the courage, the strength and the support to be free to be themselves. It’s certainly not an easy challenge.

But, just like carrying two buckets, if balance is equal and there is equal weighting, the carrying of the two weights can be sustained for much longer than if one is light and one is heavy. That may seem easier at first, but it will not be in the long run. And after all, life is generally not a sprint. It’s more often than not a marathon.

So, I will try – I can’t promise – but I will try to be more tolerant with the ‘different to’ people. But ‘would of’… that’s another matter altogether!