Aristotle believed that spending time with children was necessary and one of the ways to lead a happy life. Children could bring out the best in people, he thought. They could teach adults patience and kindness and deliberation. Aristotle’s no- nonsense practical philosophy encouraged people to look for activities that were good for their own sake rather than as a means to an end. Time spent with children was good and the parent, guardian or teacher who recognised this would feel the satisfaction of a job well done. No other reward was necessary.
In my early days of teaching before targets took the fun out of the job, I spent many lessons weeping not in frustration, but with the kind of helpless laughter that only a classroom filled with thirteen-year-old boys can generate. Their glee and game-for-anything attitude inspired me to take risks. One class acted out their own comedy scenes from Twelfth Night in makeup and hastily improvised costumes and I will never forget the boy playing Malvolio rolling around on the floor, school trousers stuffed into his pulled-up socks, so breathless with trying not to laugh he could barely speak.
Playing to the boys’ natural sense of irony and wit and wanting to puncture the competitive corporate male school ethos as well as liven up a drab temporary space, I put up fairy lights, lugged an old-fashioned typewriter into the room and set another group the task of making Valentine cards from Henry V to Catherine, the tackier the better, with chocolate prizes for the most schmaltzy. They went mad with red velvet, pink pens and glitter. Some of the boys were so determined to outdo each other they wrote their love poems in French. The cleaners complained all week about the mess, but we had the best fun.
Those boys have gone through university by now and some may even have young children of their own. I wonder if they remember those lessons as I do? It was not so long ago, but it seems to belong to a more innocent time when there was no guilt attached in allowing pupils to play and improvise. Now that I have been so well schooled in lesson aims, agendas and learning objectives I know that were I to meet those classes all over again I would be a different sort of teacher: less spontaneous, perhaps, less experimental, less good-natured. More efficient, more measured, more professional. I wonder which teacher they would prefer?
I’m interested because few children forget their teachers. I still remember Miss Hayes, my teacher from infant school, who patiently showed me how to tie my shoe-laces again and again and ignored my embarrassment and frustration at not being able to tell the time. Miss Hayes was soft voiced, smiley and super efficient, which combination of virtues made her not only sensible but safe. I worshipped her. I loved my junior school and Sunday school teacher, too, Miss Smith because she took an interest in me and acted as something of an early mentor, gently drawing me out on my reading and my ideas. I even spent time at her home, unthinkable now.
My early teachers weren’t so interested in my fun, but they were interested in my welfare and my development. They became role models because of how they conducted themselves and I admired them for this. Miss Smith was tall and wore big square glasses and long wool skirts and flat shoes and she was the most sensible person in the universe. As a wobbly ten-year-old she was everything I needed in a teacher. She had weight and grace and dependability. She was a woman of virtuous character and I knew that I could trust her to show me who I was meant to be. For this is the real purpose of teaching, as Aristotle understood. This is education as it is supposed to be.
In ancient Greece, children absorbed knowledge from spending time with adults who had enough experience of life to explain things properly and clearly. The philosopher believed that children needed the right role models if they were to develop good character and that education was much more important than wealth. Our modern system of education with its emphasis on passing exams in order to achieve success in a well-paid career would make no sense to Aristotle. He believed that finding fulfilment is our life’s work, and if we are going to reach our potential we need to know where we want to go. I’m grateful to my early teachers for showing me the way.