Just one student…

Another post from the unpublished archive of Ellie Trees. This one is from July 2013, inspired by Lou Mycroft’s keynote at the TeachDifferent conference. I’m not sure why I didn’t post it at the time. All I’ve done today is delete one half finished sentence and add a clearer reference to the Angel Olsen quote.

“If just one of my students goes on to change the world, all my hard work will be worth it” People say versions of that sentence all the time and I tend to believe them because I believe it about my own work too, though I might phrase it slightly differently.

My teacher Lou Mycroft, speaking at the Teach Different conference at Northern College on Friday gave me a deeper understanding of the idea by following the statement with “For Myles Horton at the Highlander Folk School, that student was Rosa Parks”. Lou has a knack for bringing huge names–and with them powerfully inspirational victories–in social history into the room with us. Into our everyday thoughts and actions in a way that instils radical confidence in our own ability to step up to the challenge laid down by Myles, Rosa and countless others.

What really struck me about Lou’s words were that they crystallised something I had been thinking about for months. That any great teacher sets their aspirations for their students higher than they know they themselves are capable of reaching. This is especially true for those teaching world changers.

It reminds me of a drama teacher I had in high school. It was common rumour that she had tried to be an actor, but had in some way failed and so had become a teacher. But she was the best damn teacher in the school. She taught us confidence, she drew out talent and brilliance and her love of the work lit up every moment. She must have known how hard it would be for those pursuing an acting career. Surely she was aware that her dreams for her students were the dreams she had failed to live up to. Of course in this case she didn’t fail really. Even if none of her students became successful actors (and one or two did) she taught generations of people that their creative expression was important for the world.

But what about me? Teaching young people about the need to dramatically reduce our dependency on fossil fuels is hard when I know that my generation is failing spectacularly, and that for their generation it will be exponentially harder because of our inaction.

This summer when I support a group of young people to discover the power of collective action to change their communities for the better, I will do so as someone who has felt the paralysing heartbreak of activist burn-out through trying (and failing) to do the very thing I expect from them.

Is there any truth to the old saying ‘those that can’t, teach’?. From this perspective it seems like there might be. People want to be empowered. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy doesn’t want to be overthrown. Bringing the values and experiences I had found in activism to teaching helped me recover from disillusionment and burnout. I found my lost hope in the brilliance and potential I saw in people who the authoritarian school system had all but given up on. In effect what I was doing was looking to others to take on a battle I had no energy left to fight.

Depressed yet? Don’t be. I didn’t write this a month ago because I didn’t want to leave it there.

In Counterpower by Tim Gee I found a way through in the form of ‘accumulated heritage of resistance’; the process by which social movements grow and develop, sometimes seeming to die only to spring back stronger armed with what has gone before (a community of praxis, one might say). To illustrate the point he quotes Joe Slovo, a South African anti-apartheid activist: “until the moment of successful revolutionary takeover, each individual act of resistance usually fails”.

Angel Olsen’s ethereal country track You are Song illustrates this concept beautifully with the line   ‘You are silence now but you are always song’.

As a recovering activist, this idea was incredibly redemptive. As a teacher struggling to find personal integrity whilst demanding the impossible from my students it was just as powerful.




A Student Inquiry

This afternoon I am multi-tasking.

I am reading a few texts about militant research and worker inquiry.

I am having a facebook conversation with someone who is finding doing an MA stressful.

I’ve been emailing a group I’ve been doing some action research with.

All these things are connected.

Here is some questions I wrote, inspired by Karl Marx’s ‘A Workers’ Inquiry, by my conversations today and oh, a million other things and people. They, like Karl’s questions exist both to discover the conditions of the people who answer, but also to expand the answerer’s understanding of their own conditions. I think this is a fascinating concept because it implicates everyone in the process of learning. If I had a single goal in life it would be to implicate everyone in the process of learning. Ok here we go… (again these are hurried sketches and aren’t very concise. In my defence, Karl’s questions aren’t exactly brief!).

How much time do you spend reading per week?

How much time do you spend writing per week?

How much time do you spend thinking about the subject matter outside of reading and writing time?

How do these times compare to each other?

Do you feel you have enough time to think through your ideas during the reading to writing process?

If you were designing the course, would you give yourself more, less or the same amount of work?

If you had more or less work, what effect would that have on the quality of your thinking?

Do you think the timetable of deadlines is conducive to your best thinking?

How much time do you spend trying to understand what your lecturers expect from you?

How much time do you spend trying to understand what is most important / useful to you?

How do these compare?

What are your goals for the course? Do they match the expectations of lecturers?

If there is a mismatch, is there anything you can do to remedy that?

What would success on the course look like to you?

What do you need to do now to achieve that?

Is your definition of success related, the same or different to the university grading system?

If there were no grades would you behave differently?

Would you produce different work?

What effect would that have on the efficacy of your work and its broader application?

If there were no deadlines would you behave differently?

Would you produce different work?

What effect would that have on the efficacy of your work and its broader application (beyond the course)?

Do you feel the work you are producing has a broader application?

If yes, please describe

If no, why?

If no, what would you have to do differently to make it so?

Queer Feminist Values – Update

I thought I’d posted this two weeks ago but apparently I haven’t. Its a bit out of date but I don’t have time to re-write it.

Hello magical internet world!

I wanted to check in and say thank you to everyone who commented and talked about my last post. I have genuinely changed my practice because of the conversations we had and have more confidence in myself as a teacher. You are the best.

So where am I? First a story to illustrate how far I’ve come:

Yesterday I was digging alongside two learners, one of whom suggested we use a prostitute (meaning a hoe… ha) to which I happily started up a conversation about how its called a hoe and anyway the more respectful term is sex worker. In the end the lad apologised for offending me which wasn’t entirely my point but I did get the feeling it was a productive and non-confrontational conversation.

There have been other moments too. I am particularly proud of an incident where I calmly channeled anger in reaction to a young person’s sexism by accidentally using NVC speak ‘When you laughed at that comment I got really angry…’ but I won’t recount that whole story, it would take a while.

Using a potent mixture of social media and real life interactions I’ve been able to make these interventions because I’ve felt there’s a group of people that have my back. There’s a space to reflect and grow, and its not just the inside of my own head. Its the secret of resilience and it reminds me of the best moments in activism. The way you get braver the more connections you make with other activists, and the more you trust each other, the more daring you all become. “My veins don’t end in me”.
What I’m learning…
  • ‘I don’t know if I can change you, I don’t know much about you yet’ This is me adapting the words of the wonderful Sarah Kay saying ‘I don’t know if I can change the world, I don’t know much about it yet’. I’ve learnt that feeling like you are building a relationship of trust with learners means that it is easier to question and challenge; to have a dialogue that changes people.
  • You never know until you ask who your allies will be. Its probably worth finding out.
  • The fear of conflict and of being disliked or disrespected is one of the things that blocks me from challenging attitudes but it fades the more I think about and discuss all this.
  • How active I am in challenging sexism depends very much on who the staff I’m working with are. If they are men, I am much less likely to speak up. I think this means my fear described above is so much more with colleagues than it is with learners and that I have this assumption that the men I work with won’t be on my side. This is definitely an unhelpful assumption, but I haven’t worked out how to move through it yet except that all the above certainly help.
There are other things, like why I never trusted Ray Mears that are less directly related to my teaching but are still interesting and useful.
My favourite poem….

Like You by Roque Dalton (original is in Spanish and a bit more beautiful)

Like you I

love love, life, the sweet smell

of things, the sky-blue

landscape of January days.

And my blood boils up

and I laugh through eyes

that have known the buds of tears.

I believe the world is beautiful

and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

And that my veins don’t end in me

but in the unanimous blood

of those who struggle for life,


little things,

landscape and bread,

the poetry of everyone.