Kate Clanchy has been teaching in schools for thirty years. In Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me, she tells the story of her most memorable pupils, and how her life has been shaped by them.
One of the most notable aspects of Clanchy’s book is just how angry it is. She does not hold back on the issues that rile her; teachers that wilfully misunderstand students, church schools with hypocritical entry requirements, a government that puts test results above a genuinely useful education. Her righteous passion is bracing; a fire that powers the book through even the less compelling moments.
And yet the emotion that is most prominent here is love. Clanchy really loves the kids that she teaches. She is their most fervent cheerleader, most supportive mentor. This never comes out in a self-aggrandising fashion, rather in the devoted way that she writes about her young charges; so full of warmth and admiration. The full title may be Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me, but it’s the ‘And What They Taught Me’ part that takes precedence.
The stories within these pages cover a wide range of the school experience; some are funny, some are sad, more are a combination of the two. As Clanchy has spent most of her career teaching in schools with a high number of refugees, as well as in units for kids who have been excluded from mainstream classes, much of her book is dedicated to outsiders. Those that need the most help. She has boundless empathy for even the most troublesome of children, always making an effort to understand why they are the way that they are. Still, she doesn’t shy away from the fact that her smart but disadvantaged pupils don’t always go on to greater things. In fact, they rarely do. Another source of that righteous anger.
Clanchy’s specialism is poetry, and she waxes lyrical about the ways that both writing and reading poems have helped the troubled children in her classes. She also includes some of the poems they have written, and they are remarkably good; evocative, moving, humorous. You can feel the emotion and catharsis drip from their words, sense the relief of those who are finally able to express what they’ve experienced in their difficult lives. Truly powerful work.
Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me is most enjoyable in these specific case studies. Individual kids and their individual struggles. When Clanchy pulls back to look at the bigger picture, her book tends to lose, rather than gain, potency. The chapter on grammar schools isn’t particularly absorbing. Neither is the chapter on church schools. Whilst the context she offers in these passages is important, they lack the zest of the child-centred stories.
Happily though, there aren’t too many of those sections. For the most part, Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me is an engrossing read – a fascinating memoir of a career dedicated to educating a generation of young people. Highly recommended, and downright essential for fellow teachers.
Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me is published by Picador on 4 April 2019