Many of Pears Foundations programmes take place in schools and we always enjoy meeting the inspiring teachers who deliver them in the classroom. Ben Fuller is a teacher of history at Tapton School, Sheffield, which is part of the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education’s Beacon Schools programme. We asked him to describe a day in the life of a history teacher and he has chosen to talk about a day that made history itself.
When it was suggested to me that I might like to write a ‘day in the life’ piece I had a look at the types of people that had written them before, and thought to myself ‘goodness, my days are pretty ordinary compared to these guys!’ As a teacher of History in a Comprehensive secondary school in Sheffield, I don’t encounter wild animals on my way to work (maybe some at work mind!), I don’t worry excessively about tropical weather, and I don’t have to know a second language to get the bus to work. But, no day in any school is ever really ordinary and the day I’d like to talk about certainly wasn’t.
Friday June 24th 2016 was by far the least ordinary day of my education career. At around 5am that morning enough results had come in from counts around the country to know that the people of the UK had voted to leave the EU. A poll held in school, the previous day, had found that students were firmly in the ‘remain’ camp (80% – 20%). When I arrived to my form room I was greeted by a group of year 9 students who can usually be found sat on tables, giggling and making jokes, but today were sat in their seats, facing forwards, silent and with a look of confusion and concern on their faces. They were waiting for me to say something, to help them understand the decision that had been made for their futures. I could only explain that this was a historic moment, and whilst we didn’t know really what it meant yet we had to look at the world around us and remember that we can be a part of shaping it in the future.
This set the tone for the day as an atmosphere of uncertainly pervaded the school. Students in my year 11 class studying for their controlled assessment on Mao’s China worked quietly, but their conversation was somewhat off-topic. As a teacher of history I accepted that in this instance it would be worth allowing the discussion to develop for a short while. It’s not every day you witness an event that will become a focus of history lessons in the future. The student’s views and knowledge were impressive, in fact their engagement with the process was something which put some of my own friends to shame.
My next lesson of the day was with a year 9 class. We were reaching the end of a unit of study on the Holocaust, which I had designed in partnership with the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education . The lessons produced by the UCL do what I think all history lessons should – that is they work on a pedagogic principle that embraces complexity, and help students develop their understanding through enquiry, create their own questions and find their own answers. In doing so students feel a sense of excitement, develop the crucial skill of critical thinking and own their learning in a way they can’t when we give them the ‘answers’. In this lesson we were addressing the period after the Holocaust and the void that was left. Like many of the UCL resources, this handed the students some difficult concepts to grapple with. Usually we teach about things that happened, people who lived and their consequences. This lesson asked the students to consider what was no longer present, how communities had been robbed of their future and what that absence looked like. Lessons like this are daunting for the teacher, let alone the students, but they also bring huge satisfaction, as when given stimulus material and the opportunity to think openly, students so often come up with deep and considered responses. Lessons like these develop historical knowledge and understanding, but also train the skill of critical thought, and independent thinking in a way that makes them genuinely engaging and rewarding.
Over lunch my colleagues and I were trying to make sense of the news of the referendum. Phones in hand to get the latest information, we discussed implications and potential consequences of the unfolding news. Walking around the school there was really no other conversation taking place – staff or students.
My final two hours of the day was with my lovely year 12 class who having recently returned from sitting their AS level papers, were settling into the groove of the new Unit on Civil Rights in America 1865-1992. Again, we couldn’t ignore the historical significance of the moment we were in, so half an hour was given over to the discussion of contemporary events. I hear people condemn young people for not being engaged with politics or aware of the world around them. We are told it’s the case in the news and sadly the turnout of 18-25 year olds in elections suggests the theory is accurate. However, I’d suggest that the awareness, engagement and opinions of the students I spoke to on that day were as knowledgeable, considered and important as any I had heard in the many conversations I had with friends, family and colleagues. Students care profoundly about their future, and in this instance had done their homework on it too!
It was a strange day to be a teacher, but it would probably have been a strange day to be a nurse, a taxi driver or shop keeper too. There was only one thing to talk about wherever you were. But it was also a day that reminded me of the privilege of being a history teacher. Where else does one have the opportunity to encourage thinking in such a way? Where else can one help people to illuminate the past and see them make connections with the present? To say that students don’t care about politics is a myth. They may not care about politicians, but they are aware of and concerned with the future that is being laid out for them. My message to the students that day was to not sit passively and watch the world go by, but to use the skills they learn in school, to be critical and independent thinkers and continue to engage, act and be part of making future history.