Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy
Some of you may know Kate Clanchy’s work from her super comic novel Meeting the English (see here) or her earlier memoir Antigona and Me (see here), about a refugee who became her cleaner and nanny. She has also published books of poetry including Slattern and Newborn, written plenty of journalism, and is currently chairing the judging panel for this year’s Rathbone Folio Prize (see here).
What you may not know, is that she has done all this alongside her thirty-year career as an English teacher in the state system. Most recently, she has been teaching at Oxford Spires Academy for ten years, where she is Writer in Residence, and her pupils have gone on to win many prestigious prizes for their poems. Indeed, Picador published a book of their work last year with an extensive introduction by Kate – England: Poems from a School.
Some Kids I Taught... is her memoir of that teaching career, and Kate came to my local bookshop Mostly Books to talk about the book and answer questions last week. She said that the book took her six years to write, teachers so often “give their creativity away,” it was good to be able to write. The book is a moreorless chronological journey through her teaching career, but each chapter has a theme: “About …” and the topics are wide-ranging from Exclusion to the Hijab, from On the Church in Schools to Poverty, Art and How to Choose a School, from Prizes and Selection to Being Well. Under each of these and more headings, Kate tells us about her pupils in short story / extended vignette style. Each story is “a child and a thing,” she explained.
She began writing the book with one of the stories in the middle: in the chapter on Nations, Papers and Belonging, it’s one of the most emotional and shocking – ‘Shakila’s Head’. Shakila is from Afghanistan, a Shia Muslim refugee from the Taliban, and she wrote two poems on a sheet of paper. It was the one she crossed out on the back that moved – about her experience of a Taliban suicide bomber at a market when she was fourteen. Kate read this one out to us – it was very moving.
However, not all of the stories are serious, there’s plenty of good humour too. In the first one, it’s 1992, Kate is in a temporary teaching post in Scotland and has to give sex ed lessons to a class of thirteen-year-olds:
“Mrs McClanchy? [sic] ” said Callum.
“Whit wis the name for men and men?”
“That was homosexuality, Callum.”
“Aye. And whit wis the name for women and men?”
“That’s heterosexuality, Callum.”
“Aye. Well, when I grow up, I’m no’ going to have either o’ them. Ah think Ah’ll just have a big dog.”
Whether the stories are serious, funny, or anywhere in between, what there is in this book is complete honesty, many words of wisdom, good teaching advice, and compassion for and understanding of the difficult lives and situations of her students, alongside snapshots of personal memoir. Clanchy’s passion for teaching creative writing – something the school curriculum just neglects completely after GCSE – her talent for getting the best out of her pupils through poetry just leaps off the page.
She cares deeply about all her students, who in her current school come from all over, an incredibly multicultural mix which she relishes. In their poetry group they compose some amazing poems – some of which are included in the book. Clanchy gives them a ‘frame’, a context or a verse to get them started and away they go – and we mustn’t forget that for most of them, English is not their first language – it’s an amazing achievement for these talented teenagers. Kate took great pains to only write stories which could show her students in a generally positive light. Those who could be recognised from the text read their stories before publication, others are amalgamations.
It takes a certain kind of person to be a great teacher, and part of that is learning from those you teach. From the ‘Inclusion unit’ she worked in with excluded kids in Essex early in her career, to the multicultural mix of Oxford Spires, Clanchy’s pupils have taught her well – as she has taught them. This book is essential reading.
Source: Review copy – thank you.
Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (Picador, 2019) hardback, 288 pages.