Today is Transfer Test result day in Northern Ireland, and thousands of 11-year old children will know by now if they got the scores they need to “get in” to the next level of their education. It is a process of “academic selection” that seems to fly in the face of ensuring access, equity, and excellence for all children – all children – yet still it continues. Why?
I know I have been away from Northern Ireland for a long time, but having spent the better part of 30 years as a teacher, professor, and school principal, I have learned what matters and what doesn’t. It’s very simple: the kids matter, good teachers matter, and good teachers know that the most important subject – their students – is what matters most. Good teachers know – and show that they know – that students enter a classroom sharing a basic need to feel safe, to learn, to matter. That’s all that matters. No brainer, right?
Except that test scores matter. Tests matter. And, sometimes test-taking and test preparation seem to matter more than the kids. Maybe this is because we don’t always fully understand the purpose of the test. I know that when used appropriately, a test can be an invaluable tool to help inform instruction and guide a teacher to best support a struggling student. I know that a test can help parents understand how their children are doing and that a test can provide evidence that all students within a system are receiving good instruction. Understanding the purpose behind a test is important, which is why on Transfer Test result day, I find myself struggling to understand the purpose of “academic selection” for 11 year old children at a time in their lives when they are experiencing – or about to experience – dramatic changes associated with puberty, all of which significantly impact cognitive, emotional, physical, social, and mental development.
On Twitter this morning, I spotted a letter from the staff of Harmony Hill, a County Antrim primary school. Addressed to those children in Primary 7 who are awaiting Transfer Test scores:, it reads:
In fact, we believe your attitude and who you are as a person is much more important than any mark on a test.
I believe that too, but I know- and these teachers know too – that it may bring only a little, if any, comfort to an 11 year old who is struggling just with being eleven never mind a post-primary school destination.
As I read this, I was reminded of why I became a teacher. Teaching had never occurred to me as a career, but someone sensible, probably my mother, had told me it was “a great thing to fall back on.” It would be a contingency plan, my Plan B. I must have only heard “great thing,” because it was enough to send me off to teacher training college in Belfast without a Plan A.
I didn’t know a thing about pedagogy. I was only 18 when I first sat in a lecture about curriculum and lesson planning. Nonetheless, I knew what great teaching looked like. It looked like Mr. Jones. When I first encountered him, it was at Antrim Grammar School, and he was a young man at the beginning of his career. Every day, he came to school in a tweed jacket with leather patches on its elbows and a “Save the Otter” badge on the lapel. Naturally, he was well-read, but more importantly, he was accessible. Always the best reader in the room, be brought vividly to life Chaucer’s Pardoner and other questionable characters, knowing the bawdy exchanges that would most appeal to our adolescent sensibilities. With impeccable timing, he knew when we’d our fill of Richard Church’s Over the Bridge or the Great Expectations of Charles Dickens. At such times, he would pause to wax philosophical or he would direct us to underscore in red those chunks of text we should learn by heart:
That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.
For emphasis, he would add “Great stuff!”also making sure that none of us had a reason to ask “Why do we need to know this?”
He indulged, with good humor, the odd red herring. I remember one day I raised my hand to ask what “pre-Raphaelite” meant and I jotted down the definition in the margin of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. A few minutes later, I asked if I could use the toilet, and when I returned to class, Mr. Jones asked – but not unkindly – if I had asked to get out of the classroom so I could look in the mirror to ascertain if perhaps I too had pre-Raphaelite features like the coquettish Eustacia Vye. Of course that was why. And, I remember too the day I said that I was surprised one of the women in the novel had turned out to be “that type of woman,” and Mr. Jones, glasses balanced on his head, looked right at me and said, “Yvonne, there is no type. Remember that.” I have never forgotten it.
In those seemingly random conversations, Mr. Jones revealed some of the stuff of his life beyond the classroom and his taste in music – Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Canned Heat, Jackson Browne – thereby influencing my own. Then back to business, he would painstakingly guide us through the required reading for O-level and A-level English, the routines and rituals of his classroom elevating an ordinary space into a place of possibility. Every. Single Day.
Conversely, I encountered teachers who didn’t seem to like children very much – the PE teacher who watched as we showered or questioned us about the validity of the notes our mothers wrote to excuse us from swimming because we were menstruating and who asked for evidence. There were some teachers who used sarcasm and big words as they gently undermined working class parents like mine who lacked a formal education but more than made up for it with hard work and a desire to know the things to do and say that would help ensure their children a place in university, a competitive edge in a world foreign to them. Thinking of my parents as they observed me, university bound, I am reminded of something Seamus Heaney told Dennis O’Driscoll:
Even Belfast was far away to me. In those days, I was outside the loop, my family had no familiarity with universities, no sense of the choices that there were, no will to go beyond the known procedures, no confidence, for example, about phoning up the local education authority and seeking clarification about what was possible – no phone, for God’s sake.
I remember the pride my mother took in all aspects of our education, from sewing labels on our uniforms to “backing” our school books. I can see her in my mind’s eye, at the kitchen table in our house on the Dublin Road. It is late on a September evening after our first day back at school. She places each book carefully on the middle of a sheet of brown wrapping paper, and with a few quick snips, folds, and tucks, she has it covered, ready for us to write our names on the front. One September, she was ill and in the hospital, so I took it upon myself to back my new history textbook. Like so many things, this was something my mother had made look easy, but of course I couldn’t do it right. Clumsy, I could not fit the brown paper neatly under the spine at both ends, so I gave up and went to school, my book un-backed. For my sins, I was subjected me to a memorably sarcastic tirade from a teacher who made me stand up while he berated me in front of everyone, told me I was useless, and that he didn’t want to hear one word about my mother who was lying in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. She may as well have been on the other side of the world in that instant, and over forty years later, I can still feel the sting of embarrassment on my face.
No. I never really wanted to be a teacher.
That changed when I encountered Mr. Baird. I was late for my first college class with him – a Modern Irish Fiction Since Joyce seminar. I opened the door to the sound of a familiar voice coming from the front of a classroom. There was UTV Newscaster, Brian Baird, sitting behind a desk, reciting poetry with the same gentle gravitas he also reserved for reading the news. Out from the television screen in the corner of our living room on the Dublin Road, Mr Baird was larger than life, and over the course of that year, he changed my life as only the best teacher can. He introduced me to the poetry of Seamus Heaney. “Professionally unfussed” like Heaney’s Diviner, Mr. Baird led my classmates and me in and out of those poems, wondering always and wandering through rural places and practices I knew well, but had until then taken for granted. I felt a new pride, almost boasting that I belonged to Heaney’s places and that they belonged to me – Castledawson, The Hillhead, The Lough shore, The Broagh. Indeed, I found a new respect for the craft of certain men who peopled those parts and Heaney’s poems – The Thatcher, the blacksmith at The Forge, The Diviner, men like daddy who I once observed divine water, the pull of it so strong where he stood, that the stick in the shape of a wishbone, bent and almost tied itself in a knot, “suddenly broadcasting through a green hazel its secret stations,” and women like my mother, who covered their children’s books with wallpaper or brown wrapping paper.
Mind you, my newfound appreciation for the ways of life in the townlands of rural Derry did not make me more punctual to class or timely with submission of homework. Mr. Baird always called me “the late Miss Watterson” which only encouraged my tardiness. I liked the attention, and I saved all my hand-written papers in a folder, because I loved his red-ink comments. I used to imagine him reading them on the six o’clock news: “A very sound survey, which I was pleased, at last, to receive. I had had oral evidence of its existence.” Or, “This was received very late, so I can’t guarantee this mark.” (I got the mark anyway).
In April 1991, I wrote to Mr. Baird from Phoenix. I wanted to thank him (because all good teachers should be thanked) and to ask if he would share with me his course outline and a reading list for an Irish Fiction course I was scheduled to teach. He obliged, and I was delighted to find recently his elegant hand-written letter folded between the pages of the Collected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh.
Seven years after I received that letter, Mr. Baird died. He was 69, and it was cancer that killed him. I wish I had made the time to thank him properly for the life-long gift of Heaney’s poetry. There has not been a day of my adult life that I have not been grateful for it.
When Mr. Baird died, then manager of UTV, Desmond Smyth, described him perfectly:
To a TV generation Brain Baird was the voice and the face of UTV news. He was a totally professional broadcaster and a charming work colleague with not an ounce of ego about him.
Like Heaney’s men – not an ounce of ego.
Like all good teachers.
In the classrooms of Mr. Jones and Mr. Baird, I mattered, and I knew I mattered. So I became a teacher and remained a teacher for many years, driven I suppose by a hope that kids in my classroom might feel they mattered too.
May those children who didn’t receive the scores they wanted today, find themselves next year in classrooms where they matter, where every day they are held up by teachers who will honor them and teach them well and encourage them to:
Grow up to be kind, caring, generous loving adults who make a positive difference in this world by how you live your lives.