School was difficult for me. Painfully shy, withdrawn and generally fairly awkward, I was so unresponsive in class that my primary school teacher believed I was deaf and tried to move me to a school that could cope with my ‘special needs’. Later, at secondary school, I effectively dropped out, seemingly unnoticed, unable to cope with daily bullying and escalating feelings of worthlessness that left me isolated and friendless. I spent my latter school days reading at home or walking in the park, and when exam time came around, I simply didn’t turn up, quietly awaiting the storm that would erupt when my parents found out.
The dole seemed a good option after that but I was forced onto a Youth Training Scheme, ‘working’ in the office of a local glass manufacturer. I read a lot and thought that journalism could be a good career for me. The pre-entry course at Preston Poly required two A-levels and four GCSEs so I enrolled on evening classes at St Helens Technical College (now St Helens College). The experience could not have been more different to my experience of school. The teachers were actually interested in their students (by and large, they were also interesting to their students) while the student themselves were a mixed bunch, most of them older than me, most juggling study with work and/or family commitments. Some were studying for pleasure, others to access higher education.
The courses included English literature (I took A-level and GCSE at the same time) and English language (A-level). It was the teacher on the latter course, Carol, who made the biggest impression on me. She dressed differently to most of the people I knew – she reminded of the people in the books I liked – and she thought and talked differently, too. She was interested in what her students had to say and made a real effort to engage us. She asked me what I thought about this or that and listened while I answered. I felt like an equal. She encouraged my writing and gave carefully thought-out, individual feedback to students. She also took the pastoral dimension of her job seriously. All of this was completely new to me. I realise now that what I was experiencing, for the first time, was great teaching.
It gave me renewed confidence and self-belief. While I would never be a prodigious contributor in class, I started to think there was something I might be good at. And I worked hard, really hard, on that course. I got an A, the only student that year who did. I never told Carol quite what her course had meant to me (I guess I am trying to here). I was too shy even to go to her office to pick up my course work. But she had helped me realise something: that if I found something I was really passionate about, I was capable of becoming good at it. I came away from Carol’s course feeling differently about myself.
It is something I think about whenever I hear students being characterised as stupid, lazy or uninterested. In my own experience, it is much more likely that they have not yet found the thing that interests them. That simple insight continues to inspire me and it is probably why I have gravitated towards adult education in my subsequent work life. I still believe passionately that everyone, whatever their background and whatever life stage they are at, deserves the chance to find out what they are good at, and that for me demands a broad, creative curriculum at school and in further and higher education and continuing opportunities to learn throughout life. And while that view has been in retreat for some years, I think it is still worth banging the drum for.
Paul Stanistreet was Editor of Adults Learning from 2002 to 2014. He is now Head of Publications at UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. He blogs about adult education and lifelong learning at: https://wordpress.com/stats/day/thelearningage.wordpress.com.