Pass It ON

I am sure the furore around Kate Clanchy’s book, Some Kids and What they Taught Me will not have escaped many readers of this site. I would like to offer some thoughts as someone who is both author and teacher. I am struggling to condense everything that troubles me into 800 words, so let me just say this. I could write this column solely on the peculiarity of ‘we’ in the narrative – an inclusive pronoun that has done an invidious job of exclusion, in my view; a feint which allows the reader to imagine more generally what teachers think and do. And let me also share this: I am recovering from the grief and anger at the way in which a small group of people in high-profile school roles spoke to and about my older sons, one of whom in SEN, the other SEN and ASD. I have fought – it really is the verb here – to have concerns heard across agencies. I am not the only one and I know it will have been terrible for young people and their parents and carers to revisit, for example, ableist comments and attitudes; for students, to wonder, ‘Is this what teachers really think of me and say about me?’ There is flaw, bias, and bad behaviour in all classes and staffrooms: thank goodness for those teachers who pointed out the wrongness of Clanchy’s peculiar taxonomies of childhood in the book and I remain baffled by those who thought it was a wonderful teaching book or the most inspiring book on teaching they had ever read. HOW? When you read this, about autistic children: ‘’More than an hour a week would irritate me.’ ‘If I set them a task, they will stick at it, not deviating, for hours, and never ask why. This is fun.’ That a teacher could mock in this way is appalling; that it was repeatedly endorsed, staggering.

I am haunted by the descriptions of children and young people, when we ought to have seen due diligence on safeguarding. I am furious at reckonings passed off as knowledge because this percolates into misunderstandings and gets passed on as fact and scholarship. It is hard to understand the publishing, legal parsing, editing, prize-winning when these are minors described in this way. I am embarrassed for and furious at the people who came forward – doubtless without having read the book – to moan about cancelling and censorship. Finally, I think the discussions around the book have again exposed the stiff old arguments of not being able to say ANYTHING nowadays, which is, as ever, radically ill-informed, predicated on privilege – your freedom, that is – and plain cruel and self-indulgent.

Going forward? We already know that there will be a rewrite done more ‘lovingly’, but how can that be? I have read the book and there is something unlovingly written on each page and often at length; it would need to be a different book. I would also like to know about consent because while we know that consent was given by the students for their work to be included and that they were paid, what is consensual about their lives, appearances, class, or race being written of, shamed, or appraised in this manner? For whether you agree that they have been appropriately anonymised (and I do not), those students can still see themselves and future students can see themselves too. The ‘African Jonathon’, the autistic child who is good at Maths but has no friends, the young girl with an eating disorder whose proclivities Clanchy translates into other areas of life and classroom work.  I think there must be clear and probably difficult discussion going forward. I certainly feel differently about publishing now, about some writers and about a lot of teachers. I also do not accept the notion that someone meant to do well and be kind and therefore their behaviour and tropes should be exonerated. A writer – or teacher – needs to work harder than that and understand both that it is the outcome, which is of significance and, also, that within an apparent kindness may be arrogance and ethnocentricity; within serving and trying to raise people up, there may be pity and, for example, the press of an unacknowledged structural racism. We need, also, to have very clear guidelines – in consultation with those who are specialists in educational law and the right of the child – so that damage of this kind is not done again. Or at least is not done after the reprint of Some Kids I Taught and What they Taught Me. As for me? Those kids – the ones I taught and those I still work with – taught me to learn and to challenge myself to do better; to think differently. Now would be a good time to resolve once and for all for sectors of publishing to do just that. Let us all learn from some kids and hear their voices, true and beautiful and do better by one another, whether in teaching or publishing: or both.

Resources and examples of key comment on the book. Monisha Rajesh

Pragya Agarwal:

Speaker and writer Karl Knights from 2020 on the book and its troubling depictions of disability on twitter here and, again on twitter, there is a superb forensic account of the book from experienced teacher, Diane Leedham with the hashtag #DiReadsClanchy in which language and point of view are dissected and the legality of text in terms of child protection, safeguarding and The Equalities Act are addressed. 

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