I must’ve been about eight when I planned my first ‘lesson’.
Lesson objectives were laboriously detailed in a little notebook. I would tinker around on whiteboards with mind-maps. The register was meticulously checked, even when the only ‘students’ in attendance were my stuffed animals (and thus the actual process of calling the register was rendered somewhat redundant). I was young, bright, and in love with learning – and more importantly, in love with teaching.
Something about being given the platform to hold the attention of thirty people for a prolonged period of time really appealed to me (what can I say, I was a self-indulgent child), and so my teachers at school were a source of endless fascination. There seemed to me something so impossibly impressive about someone who was able to reorder complicated and alien ideas into something I then understood. I decided teachers must be a kind of magic.
Of course, I now know I was incredibly privileged to have teachers who made the process of learning magic. Teaching is a difficult and often underappreciated profession, with teachers working long and often emotionally draining hours for very little tangible reward. It is increasingly becoming a labour of love – with the emphasis on labour.
My fascination with teaching lay dormant for many years as I grappled with GCSEs and A Levels and miniskirts and boys – until I came to university, during which time as a daunted and cripplingly anxious fresher I was introduced to Transformations.
Transformations is a programme at Warwick run in association with Widening Participations, in which undergraduates are trained up and sent into schools in and around Coventry to teach creative writing seminars with a focus on a particular literary genre (usually dystopia).
I remember at the time privately noting how unsuitable for the programme I was. I hadn’t creatively written since I was about thirteen (and even then, it was a completely horrendous attempt at fiction that I hesitate to even call ‘creative’), and five consecutive years of formal assessment had completely squeezed any kind of desire to return to structured education. However, it was quite literally the only extra-curricular pursuit at the university that appealed to me, and I forced my nervous self to sign up.
Subsequently, I’ve found that this programme has shaped me quite unlike anything I’ve ever done, and I uphold now a sustained appreciation for those who venture into teaching. It has revived my passion not only for presenting and performing in front of a class, as obnoxious pre-adolescent Olivia so enjoyed doing, but also for academia itself.
I think there’s a tendency to assume that in order to teach, one needs to want to be a teacher; or one needs to feel that they are not sufficiently talented to enter their academic field and therefore resort to imparting knowledge on the younger generation. I wholeheartedly rebuff that notion, particularly after my involvement in this programme.
Preparing lessons is not easy. Standing in front of thirty pupils and having them stare blankly back at you when you direct a question their way is tough. Fiddling with a laptop desperately trying to get your PowerPoint up onto the projector because all your notes for the session are on there can be embarrassing. And yet it is immensely, almost indescribably, rewarding. I remember reading over pieces of work my class had submitted in that first year and marvelling at how eloquent and thought-provoking they were. There is nothing more affirming than seeing physical evidence of your influence in lessons, particularly when a student develops on an idea you helped them form in a session in their final piece.
The programme became one of my outlets for confidence and creativity in my first year, where adjusting to an alien environment and way of learning made me constantly question and reevaluate not just my place in university, but also in the world. First year has a funny way of drawing the existentialism out of us, although as I’m typing this I’m realising that’s not an exclusive characteristic, as a finalist who never stops worrying about where she’ll end up next.
Planning every week gave me a sense of purpose and responsibility, and that is when I’ve learned I thrive. (I am pitifully reliant upon structure and validation.) In my second year, I became a member of the exec, and being involved in the administrative side of running the programme heralded a new passion. And now, in my final year, I’m thrilled, honoured and somewhat bewildered to be the programme’s student President, with a frankly remarkable exec behind me, speaking in Open Days, promoting the programme and organising training sessions. Every now and then I feel the compulsion to return to school teaching, but the frenetic nature of my timetable makes it difficult.
What I find incredibly fulfilling now is being given the opportunity, on open days or in articles like this, to champion the programme, and the pursuit of teaching, whether you consider it as a career option after partaking in Transformations or not. It’s important to keep an appreciation for the art of education alive, and if our undergraduates this year take nothing else away from the experience but that, I’ll be happy. Because this programme is as much about the teachers that facilitate it as it is the students we end up teaching. The endorsement of collaboration, innovation, free thinking and individuality that teachers offer by allowing their students to take part in the programme should never be taken for granted – particularly in a world that seems increasingly intent on quashing creativity. And it is quite easy to imagine that they chose this over any other profession, rather than falling into it out of convenience, because when it’s put like that, nothing sounds more exciting and rewarding than teaching.
There is a reason this programme is called Transformations. There is no better way to describe it than as a transformative experience, on all levels – for students, for undergraduates, for the teachers, for the exec. It’s a huge exciting conversation in which we are all teaching and learning from each other, regardless of age, experience or professional rank.
I think that’s why I’m so quick to hit back against people who claim that those who can’t, teach. Because I would argue that on some level if we claim to be academics, we are always unwittingly educating those around us, just as we are accepting education in return.
by Olivia Fahy