I’ve been thinking about the educational contexts I find myself in… have found myself in… and how my work is influenced by my life in education…
My own early education wasn’t that unusual I suppose… I can remember the things I learnt from my mother, and from adventuring in the rural world I lived in, far more clearly than my formal education in a catholic primary school in Worcestershire. I remember occasional unfair punishments… several hard slaps on the backs of my thighs because I wouldn’t eat pickled beetroot (which I still loathe). And having to cross the playground to the church to find the priest in order to confess I had slapped Desmond. (can’t remember why I had slapped Desmond, but you can bet he asked for it, horrible boy!) I remember the peripheral things… warm milk in real bottles with straws …pretend to drink until Terry had drunk his, then swap his empty bottle so he could drink mine too (still loathe milk).
To a couple of teachers, I know I was a nuisance. I know they hated having me in their classroom. I was occasionally disruptive, but, I think, incredibly insightful, funny and clever (what did I know? I was seven!) Some teachers, I know, loved me for it. Those are the ones I loved right back. Mrs McEnnis, Mrs Marsh, I salute you!
I took, and passed the eleven plus, which confused not only me, but the people who then had to educate me. A clever creative – dear God no! The grammar school I attended I suffered fairer punishments in, for rather typical teenage infringements: for outlawed heavy black mascara, black tights, obscene poems in my geography notebook, and forged letters to get out of PE… apparently writing my lines with a calligraphy pen and purple ink was seen as a subversive act. My teachers were either guitar-playing hippies, or ancient, injured war heroes with a propensity for occasional and unheralded violence.
The careers advice was non existent, they clearly didn’t want me to stay to do A levels, and I didn’t want to stay either… so I was packed off to Art College over the hills in Herefordshire… oh the joy! But I didn’t want to do what they told me either, really…. and scraping my way through that for two years, ended up at Birmingham Polytechnic, doing a course that someone else had done, that they had enjoyed, but not really looking at what I might enjoy myself, so I lasted a year, and stormed out before they threw me out.
After a while as a card carrying member of the UB40 club, I got a job teaching a variety of crafts to patients in the Occupational Therapy dept of a psychiatric hospital, until I had my first son about five years later, then as he grew, I found myself painting and making play dough with a bunch of toddlers in a college nursery. The college needed a tutor for some special needs adults and someone found out about me, and I sort of landed a job, where I sort of taught art and crafts, until my son went to school. And then I sort of had to do a teaching course, or lose my job, so I did. After swearing I would never go back into education, there I was… Higher Education, whether I wanted it or not… and the irony of it being a teaching course was not lost on me.
But I found I liked it. I’m still not really sure why. I taught at the same time as I learned, for several years. Then it all got a bit too much, being not only told what to do, but how to do it, and with what resources. The creativity fell out of the whole process and I snapped…
After what appears to be a fifteen year interview at my sons’ school… another catholic primary school… I landed a sort of teaching job there, as an artist teacher, doing quite a lot of what I wanted, painting walls, making stuff, getting over-excited with a bunch of children…especially the ones that found it hard to sit still and conform. For ten years I did that, also learning at the same time… I did an Open University degree, did the Artists teacher scheme (twice), and then, good grief… MA in Art Practice and Education…
Until someone new came in and started thinking she could tell me what to do…
I snapped again, and eventually, a term later, walked out of the school and into my studio full time.
The educational environments I find myself in now are those that suit me. I go in, make stuff with children, talk to them, laugh with them, and walk away. I don’t have to do as I’m told for too long at a time. I don’t have to tell them what to do either… and actually, within that structure, I can affect small changes and make things how I want to… interact with them how I want to.
Or, I talk to adult students, mostly about my own work, experiences, and thoughts. I think, because of my age and experiences with education and its limitations and the way it hasn’t always suited me, either as teacher or learner, I am ideally placed to encourage.
My favourite ways to interact with people in these educational environments are very low key, chatting to children while they manipulate clay, either about the clay or the not-clay. Not really looking at them, just side by side, playing and talking. These are the best bits. This is when you hear the good stuff.
With adults, actually, particularly women, I like the fact that I can show them that whatever they think is ok. They don’t need my approval or anyone else’s. I like the authority that age appears to have conferred. I have done a lot, often the wrong way round, often at odds with the establishment. It is possible to do that. I like seeing the art that women produce that stems from their lives and their thoughts. I like it when they stop apologising for it.
My work has developed from my life, and these children and these women. I steal their stories sometimes, and mix them in with mine. I sing the songs about them and for them. I like that now, my teaching and my learning, and my practice is all the same thing. It’s taken me a long time to get here, but the beetroot, the mascara, the play dough, the songs and the bras…. they’re all part of it.