Whitney Houston’s Guide to Teaching

When I was in third form (Year 9) our English teacher decided we should do a close reading of Whitney Houston’s song Greatest Love  of All.  I wasn’t very cool in third form – my coolness peaked for two years in seventh form and early uni, which really means I was at my most deluded, self-absorbed and vain at that time – but I was cool enough to know that Whitney Houston was pretty uncool.  Whitney’s problem was that she was American and often sang a certain type of song that just came across as saccharine in self-effacing, ex-British colonial outpost New Zealand.  I can remember me and my mate laughing our arses off over the first verse:

I believe the children are our future

Teach them well and let them lead the way

Show them all the beauty they possess inside

Give them a sense of pride

To make it easier

The fact that I can remember these lines 30 years later without looking them up probably gives the game away.

What I was laughing over in 1986 were the following points: (a) everyone knows adults are in charge of everything not children, for example an adult was in charge of us reading that daft song which we would never have done of our own free will, and (b) everyone knows that teachers don’t teach to show you the sense of beauty you have inside because, firstly, what does that even mean, and secondly, nowhere in any test have I ever encountered the question “Please explain the beauty you possess inside as shown to you by your Maths teacher”.

There’s also the problem that the later verses could be read as a big ego trip of self-centered, self-love.  Which is not really fair and comes mostly through the American-ness of the song.  It was the same problem We Are the World had outside America.  Outside America it sounded a lot like a stadium chanting We Are Number One, and not the slightly deeper concept that We, in America, are Also the World, in the Sense that We are All Brothers and Sisters, which is admittedly a much worse song title, but might have helped non-Americans to embrace the song a little more.  Likewise, the later verses of Greatest Love of All shouldn’t really be paraphrased as: when things get hard later on just remember that loving yourself is paramount over everyone else so everyone else can go and get effed.   What Whitney is actually saying is: if you know who you are it helps a lot.  Also, love is very, very important.

So here we are in 2014 and I can admit, for the first time, that Whitney was right and that her opening verse makes a pretty good teaching philosophy.  I would probably change that last line quoted up above to “Help them find themselves, to make it easier”, but maybe that’s just my knee jerk Anglo-Saxon repression that thinks we shouldn’t go tooting our own  horn too much thinking how proud we are of ourselves.

I suppose that one of the reasons that I have spent a lot of time scoffing at the lyrics of this song is because it is talking about things that I don’t like to talk about.  It’s talking about emotions and vulnerability.  I realise that opinion is divided on human nature between the two broad camps of: (1) civilisation is a thin veneer concealing the primal urge to rip each others heads off, and (2) people are basically communal and good and civilisation naturally evolves out of that.  Because I am in the second camp it makes sense that I should agree with the lyrics of Greatest Love of All.  People in the first group probably would prefer,

I believe children will inevitably get our jobs

Teach them Science and Economics and keep them in their place

Show them that the world is a brutal race

In which only the strong survive

To make it easier

To be honest, it’s not an either-or choice in education.  You should both teach students things that are steps towards employment in the brutal race, and the beauty they possess inside.  That second thing often gets left out.  You can see why.  The possession of beauty inside won’t get you a job.  Actually, it might, but you can’t write it on your CV so you won’t get an interview.  On the other hand, people with beauty inside are vital to having nice societies, classrooms, and families.

This Wednesday just gone was the last day of school for the latest group of Year 13 students at my school.  We sat around in a circle with some food on their last lesson in a classroom at a school.  It’s a long, long journey from Year 1 to Year 13 and although more education is ahead in Universities, Colleges and Techs  those places are not the same as being in the (dreaded) school system.  I asked the students to bring a primary school photo and tell us two things they learnt at school.  As I suspected it turned out that for most people the enduring lessons of school tend to be personal and not academic.  I say “most” people because some people learned other things like “don’t wear cat ears in Year 10” or “it’s handy being the principal’s daughter at primary school” which are actually useful things to learn about conformity and power.  And while no one said something like “how to form letters, spell, write sentences, and continue to develop my writing skills to the point where I can create a well structured 2000 word essay” they also learnt that.  Generally what people talked about were relationships and/or identity.  That identity thing that Whitney Houston was singing about.

I suppose my one criticism of the song that still stands (except for the fact that I can’t quote it without sounding sarcastic) is that she sort of implies that you will eventually find your identity and then you’ll be all done, which is not my experience at all.  Things keep happening.  Things like leaving school, going to Uni, living in Japan, having people die, getting married, having kids, becoming a teacher… life keeps on happening and you keep having to think about what that means and how you learn from it.  For example, it took me a long time to become comfortable with the idea that I was a teacher because for a long time I wasn’t sure what a teacher was, or how I best functioned in that role.  I still don’t know the answer to that last part.  In some ways being a teacher is learning to live with frustration.  The frustration of the student you can’t seem to help, and the frustration of not always being right in your in-classroom calls.  Of being too lenient or too strict, too demanding or not demanding enough.  You have to live with “mostly right” in your thousands of daily interactions and decisions and that can be hard to accept in something as important as education.

Still, the fact that you are in a never settled business means you always find yourself amid something new to challenge you.  This was something I reflected on this Thursday as the end of year prize-giving for my school reached a certain point and I found myself, along with the Kapa Haka group and the rest of the staff, standing on the stage of the Michael Fowler Centre performing the Maori action song Nga Iwi E to about 2000 people.  While the Kapa Haka group were in front of me I would like to make it clear that the male staff were in the front row of the teachers on stage and that this particular staging arrangement would be happening was not made at all clear in all of our previous rehearsals at school.  There was also the slightly odd fact that the staff were performing this action song in their academic gowns which is, well, a little odd-looking. Never mind. What was happening on stage was a lot of people far, far outside their comfort zones doing something they never thought they would be doing in such a public space, because that is what teachers often have do to keep up with their students and the ever evolving world they live in. Sometimes you even get thanked for it.

A little earlier in the evening I had gone to the front to read the second half of the list for prize-winners in Year 10 (I am the co-Dean of Year 10).  As you read the names and the subject awards the award-winning students trot across the stage and receive their certificate and a handshake before trotting off again.  Seeing as we were halfway though reading the list and then had changed presenter (all the other year levels just have one Dean) I thought I would say who I was and that I would be continuing to read from the Year 10 list.  This proved to be a fatal mistake because it caused one of my students to call out from the audience which then snowballed into a long, and enthusiastic round of applause from the student body just for me, which is not generally how you are greeted when you flap up to the podium in your gown to read a long list of names.  Let me tell you about that moment.

It was embarrassing.  It was embarrassing because I don’t like being the centre of attention, and because I feel like singling teachers out in the collaborative business of education is unfair.

But, yeah, it was also one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me, so thanks for that gift, it meant a lot to me, and was further proof that Whitney is right, and is always right when it comes to the future, and beauty, and pride.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō