Tes' 10 questions with...Ryan Wilson

Former English teacher and assistant head-turned-journalist Ryan Wilson talks about the teacher who inspired him to join the profession

Tes' 10 questions with... former teacher and author Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson is a former English teacher and assistant head turned journalist. He has now written a teaching memoir called Let That Be a Lesson, which details the ups and downs of helping to lead a school.

He talks to Tes about the dangers of excessive data crunching, the importance of creativity and why reading a book with a class makes the job the best in the world.

1. Who was your most memorable teacher and why?

Mrs Weir was my English teacher and I’m sure I’m romanticising it a bit but, in my head, I just picture these long, lazy summer afternoons, the sun streaming into the classroom, with her teaching Macbeth and talking about ambition and jealousy and love and betrayal, and it just feeling relevant. I remember thinking, “Surely there’s nothing better than this; why would anybody want to do any other job?”

And she was really quietly spoken. She never raised her voice but she commanded total authority. She was wonderful and I know I’m not the only one whom she inspired. I remember, really clearly, thinking that there can be no better job in the world than reading books with a group. I still think that – the joy of doing a book with a class is unrivalled.

2. What were your best and worst times in school?

I’m sure this is rose-tinted glasses a bit, but I just remember loving school. I’m just a person who likes order and timetables, and I was lucky that I was reasonably good at exams, and so I quite liked those. I loved the people. I just remember laughing the whole time – mostly laughing at teachers, giving teachers a hard time. Especially some supply teachers, which has come back to me – karma has visited me! But I can’t think of bad things about school; I really loved it.

I sort of idolised my teachers. Certainly, I spent a lot of time talking about them out of class – I have very happy memories.

3. Why did you choose to work in education, and what prompted you to change careers and become a journalist?

Number one, I loved school. Number two, I did think, and still do think, that it is a noble, worthwhile, satisfying, fun vocation – and I still absolutely think that, particularly about being in the classroom.

I still think teaching is brilliant, but being a teacher in the current system, at this time, has got its real challenges, and particularly as I moved up through management, those challenges got greater.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I was in a management meeting and we were discussing whether to have a minute’s silence for the terrorist attack in Tunisia. I think there was a national minute’s silence, and I said I thought we should have it in school, and somebody more senior than me said “I agree with Ryan, we should, because Ofsted loves to see that stuff”. And
I thought, “Not because Ofsted wants to see it! Why can’t we just do something because it’s the right thing to do?” I just thought the tail was wagging the dog so completely – it was a cumulative thing but that was, I guess, the one thing that made me think: I need to try something else.

4. What are you proudest of in your career and what do you most regret?

I ran an exchange trip to a school in Chicago with another teacher. Weirdly, that’s one of the things I’m really proud of.

I’m a big believer in education being about more than the curriculum, and the purpose of school being a lot broader than just the academic subjects. And in terms of life skills and life experience, I don’t think it gets better than living in a foreign country with a family that isn’t your own, and learning about their way of life and how they do things when it’s so different from yours.

I probably regret not pushing back a bit more, being too accepting of a lot of the stuff that was coming from above and from government. It probably wouldn’t have made any difference, but I regret being a little too accepting of it all, spending so much time poring over spreadsheets and data. I tended to do that quite compliantly. You’re told by a manager that you have to, but I would at least try and argue the case for there being other, more helpful things that you can do.

5. What would your perfect staffroom be like?

One of the best teachers I worked with was Liz. Her title was professional mentor, and she looked after us when we were NQTs and junior teachers. I learned so much from her about compassion and emotional intelligence in teaching. One of the things that she did was walk that line between being strict but also friendly, and she just walked it effortlessly, a bit like Mrs Weir, my English teacher. She would tell kids off, absolutely, and have really high standards and not put up with any nonsense, but she just did it in a way where she was clearly doing it respectfully, and that was a line that I never managed to tread. But also, she was so invested in the kids, so interested in them.

I was observing her teaching French verbs and she had these sentences up on the screen where they had to conjugate the verb, and the sentences were all about the kids, so they were about somebody’s funny haircut they were laughing at the week before or about how somebody was good at a football match, just totally engaging them. Where French verbs could be utter drudgery, she just made it engaging and fun and interesting. She greeted all the kids as they came in and asked them how their day was going, and little personal things about what they were doing, how their brother was or how their mum was – that lovely style of teaching. So I would definitely have Liz and people of her ilk.

6. What are the best and worst aspects of the school system today?

The worst I would say is the obsession with data, the obsession with results, the obsession with outcomes rather than the journey to get there.

The best? It has to be the teachers. I’ve only worked at two schools but obviously I trained at others; absolutely everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve just been left in awe of the amount of work people put in, the investment they feel in kids, the positivity in spite of it all, the perseverance, the humanity, the ability to bear with a kid even when they’re being not that easy to work with. I think it’s quite humbling and it’s remarkable, really – while it feels like the government is stopping them from doing their job sometimes – to keep doing that in the face of constant undermining.

7. Who in education has influenced you the most, aside from your own teachers?

There’s a deputy head I worked with, and she was responsible for discipline in the school. She sort of inhabited the role and the kids were quite scared of her, as were quite a lot of staff. She was super-strict, and she could absolutely deliver a telling-off like nobody else, but she was so compassionate with it. It’s that thing of tough love and discipline, which is absolutely for the benefit of the child.

I just thought: every school needs somebody like her. I learned so much about the different forms compassion takes. It isn’t always about putting your arm around a child and comforting them; sometimes it’s taking a slightly more “stick” approach. They can tell if it’s done with compassion. They like boundaries, they like to know consequences of action. There are a lot of kids who would never speak up and never really let you know their opinions, but they like to see there are consequences for people who break the rules.

8. If you became education secretary tomorrow, what would you change?

The big thing would be to trust teachers more to get on with their jobs. Of course, there are poor teachers and they need to be supported to improve or weeded out of the profession if they can’t or won’t. But they are few and far between, and the energy that is put into surveillance and monitoring is colossally disproportionate.

We could use the energy saved to listen to teachers more, to value their opinions and show them respect. That includes funding schools properly and paying teachers properly. But it’s about much
more than just money.

I think the pandemic has shown us that the government is very happy to treat teachers as a resource that can be moved around and used and disregarded at its whim. The way they made massive policy announcements on the last day of term and expected teachers to set up test-and-trace centres in schools with minimal support; the way they showed total disregard for students and teachers in the exam results debacle. It all just beggars belief.

So, it boils down to showing teachers more respect.

9. What will our schools be like in 30 years?

I hope there will still be real-life teachers in classrooms. So much of teaching involves reading students’ body language, their posture, their mood, and that’s infinitely harder when you only have faces staring back at you from a screen. I think the last 18 months have shown us the value of face-to-face learning.

I wonder if there will be any writing things by hand. My instinctive hope is that we don’t lose an emphasis on handwriting.

My other great hope is that we still allow individuality in terms of teaching styles and approaches. In the past decade, I feel like there has been a lot of homogenisation in approaches and resources, and so on. That can have its advantages, of course, but I baulk at the idea of every child in the country being taught exactly the same material in exactly the same way.

There has to be room for individual creativity – that’s where the joy lies, in my experience.

10. Which one person do you think has made the most difference to our schools over the past year?

What a year it’s been! In these bizarre times I think teachers have been total heroes, but I suppose I would single out Joe Wicks for leading the way on teaching from home. He showed how it’s done, he championed fitness and PE, and he kept it fun.

Ryan Wilson was speaking to Tes reporter Catherine Lough. His new book, Let That Be a Lesson: a teacher’s life in the classroom (Chatto & Windus), is out now

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