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Living Contradiction: A Teacher's Examination of Tension and Disruption in Schools, in Classrooms and in Self
by Sean Warren and Stephen Bigger
(Crown House Publishing, £18.99)
THIS extraordinary book about education poses an essential question to teachers. “Is it possible to build good, positive relationships with pupils without sacrificing order and discipline?”
Central to that question, in a profoundly honest and lucid narrative, is the classroom odyssey of one of its authors, Sean Warren.
It tells the story of how he went to school in east London while living on the Coventry Cross estate, one of the worst in Tower Hamlets and, coping with very challenging family circumstances, left school at 16 and became a builder's labourer. Through his own determined volition, he eventually qualified as a teacher.
Self-critically, he recounts his embrace of classroom authoritarianism, how he became a champion of behaviourist approaches, quick-fix solutions based around zero tolerance, “assertive discipline” and rigid sanctions and how he patrolled the corridors with the “undiluted support” of the head.
He became the exemplar of the new model teacher advocated by Ofsted and took on the state-approved and teacher-pressuring role of the county's behaviour and attendance consultant. His own practice he describes as increasingly draconian. “Control had come to define me. I was contributing to a climate of fear masquerading as respect.”
Yet all this power-centredness was having a contradictory effect upon his own psyche and he began to realise that in his arrogance “there is clear evidence of my administering sovereign power over others. I also actively suppressed myself.”
He began to recognise that what he was demonstrating to others was also gradually pulling him down. “I psychologically adopted a bullish mask of confidence, assurance and assertiveness. It manifested in my walk and in my stance; it exuded from my personality,” he explains.
Such realisations made him determined to change his methods and behaviour as a teacher and the book charts Warren's struggle to shake off this authoritarian persona, which he began to understand was destroying any opportunities to achieve a self-activated learning, student co-operation and a democratic classroom. As such, it is a teacher's story that is entirely gripping and relevant.
The 14-year-old Sean Warren, now 52, was in my class in Poplar in the late 1970s and was a powerfully creative student. He was the co-author with Paul Parris, a black classmate, of the fine anti-racist play Moonlight, published by the Inner London Education Authority.
When we showed it the great Caribbean actor Norman Beaton, he was strongly impressed by the text and offered his own brand of generous encouragement. “Keep on keeping on!” he said, with a huge smile.
It seems that Warren never forgot that, hence this powerful book some 38 years later.
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