Saturday, 7 July 2012

Oops! Helping Children Learn Accidentally by Hywel Roberts

Oops! Helping Children Learn Accidentally
Hywel Roberts
Independent Thinking Press

People of an artistic, creative leaning can sometimes find themselves travelling down the false avenue of working in the public sector. I know, for I am one such person. The draw of The Civil Service or Local Authority is that your time is spent trying to help people and for a soul full of joy and empathy such as mine, that is an important decision.

My experiences of such things have been rather negative as it turns out. I am not at liberty to divulge my current employer – not for matters of national security or anything so grand – but because I have been made aware that they employ a media / PR company, at vast cost to the taxpayer, to monitor all social media and related areas for ANY mention of their name. So if I mentioned them here, I would likely lose my job.

But like many that decide to work for the emergency services, I went in with the best intentions. It doesn’t take long to see that something has gone terribly wrong. Bureaucracy has run rampant. Structures of power are labyrinthine in complexity and there’s this vague idea that no-one knows what is happening. And the people who have been there the longest, people who in a private company would be treasured for their knowledge and experience, are soulless, defeated wrecks, the last of their passion, commitment and yes, empathy, long since drained.

I have a lot of friends and acquaintances that are teachers and it has become apparent from many of them that they see themselves as the fourth emergency service. What they are doing might not save lives but in fairness, it can make them a hell of a lot better. It has led to some uncomfortable (for me) biting of the lip but in a way, a more abstract way perhaps, what they do is equally important. At least, it should be. But as with my own experiences, it’s a profession ravaged by those in charge seemingly putting as many obstacles in the way as possible.

Oops! Helping Children Learn Accidentally is a book aimed at inspiring teachers. It’s not aimed at me but I’ve been forced to endure enough teacher chat to get a general gist of the challenges they face. Like others in the public sector, it is a calling that has very idealistic origins. Like a paramedic that just wants to save lives or a police officer who wants to make their community a safer place. The harsh reality is that, for paramedics, a lot of people you see are drunks or timewasters. For police officers you may spend as much time behind your desk as out on the beat. And for teachers, it seems, it is the dull rigidity of the curriculum and a bizarre, counter creative inspection culture that can paralyse their efforts.

This book makes clear the unique and vital position teachers hold. The mass monolithic beast of state control is less of an all consuming worry because, when it comes down to it, there are just two groups of people in the classroom: teachers and kids. And rather than let the sometimes negative aspects of the whole setup get you down, this book hammers home that you can take control yourself and really make a difference.

Oops!  is a thoroughly engaging read: no heavy academia or dry, endless essaying. For the academics out there, it makes enough references to works such as Mantle Of The Expert but on the whole the style is dictated by its author and his very personal (and personable) view of his profession.

Having worked in all manner of schools, Hywel has braved the world of freelancing as a method to pass on his experiences and enlightening view of teaching. That’s a thing that requires a great strength of personality, and that shines through with his honesty (worries that keep him awake at night), humility (his own mistakes and how he learned from them) and humour (numerous references to his favourite film, Jaws).

Some of it is refreshingly basic. “Smile at your pupils” is one such example. As it progresses it looks at other ways of engaging children, using a lure to ‘trick’ them into learning. The intro nails it best: “Good teachers are great liars.” But it is the creation of these false realities that get the kids thinking without realising. The book is full of cunning ruses that always raise a smile. It made me think back to my own school days and the teachers who I can now see were employing similar things. It goes without saying, those are the teachers I remember and the lessons I enjoyed most.

Of course, I am not a reliable source to explain how good a teaching aid this is. But I can say that if I were a pupil, this is how I would want teachers to engage with me. It’s a truly inspiring read, championing positivity, creativity and passion which will appeal to teachers just starting out, or those that feel they’ve lost their spark. The structure is sharp: short condensed sections and paragraphs passing simple ideas and anecdotes, lots of quick lists and examples, things to try. Best of all, I think it makes you take along hard look at yourself and your place amongst your peers. That works in any profession or organisation. Are you a shadow or a face? Are you a radiator or a drain? How do you need to change to get to where you want to be?

A teaching aid that is actually enjoyable is not something I expected I would ever read. It is very much a book for those with a key interest in teaching but to return to my opening points and thus conclude this review in an efficient manner, the purity of the ideas here and their relation to an unfairly criticised profession ring true in wider circles. If the comparison weren’t so violent, Hywel would be the Dirty Harry type character, arriving in your backwards, demoralised workplace and cleaning up the corruption and the mismanagement and instilling some belief in people who initially signed up for some incredible noble reasons. The person you want to be, but for some reason can’t. Why not?

In fact, more appropriately: Hywel Roberts is to teaching what Batman is to crimefighting. He doesn’t have any super powers or any easy answers. He’s just a man with a whole load of tricks and ideas and a sense of what is proper and right. And the kids love him. Strongly recommended to all teachers out there, the perfect way to refuel your enthusiasm, rediscover your direction, and learn something new about yourself whilst you’re at it.

Dean Freeman

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