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Another post from the unpublished archive of Ellie Trees.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.