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  • There can be quite a lot of negative things said about education. Some say there’s nothing worth learning in school that they didn’t learn living in the working world. Others have said that school is too little about practical skills that they can use and too much about subjects like the humanities, that serve no demonstrable service to businesses. Then there are those that think that there are too many ‘mickey mouse’ courses in higher education, (and I’m not talking about the courses offered by Walt Disney World Center for Hospitality and Culinary Art at Valencia Community College – yes it’s real). And there are still more people who find that schools, in their curriculums and in their teaching methods, are too restrictive and aren't nurturing young minds in the right way.

    There are certainly occasions when teaching is done badly, for one reason or another. Perhaps the teachers are too tired or disillusioned or disheartened or even, let's admit that it happens, too lazy to get children excited about their subjects. Teaching, I believe, requires a certain level of creative thinking and an appropriately measured degree of discipline to be done well - and even then it depends on a class that is at least slightly open to the idea that learning can be useful. It's certainly not an easy profession, not by any means. Given the level of criticism levelled at the education systems, it's a wonder why they bother at all.

    But then, I am not a teacher. I am a 34 year old student. Please bear with me...

    When I was 18 I finished my A levels and went on to the University of Bangor in Wales to do a degree in History and Religious Studies. I hated it. I'd been good with these subjects at A level and this was mostly because I'd had some great teachers. I'd had Mr Ormerod for Religious Studies, who got the whole class in to debate about the nature of the universe and our place in it. For History, I forget her name but not her character, for she was hugely passionate and irrepressibly left wing. As much as she tried to let us make up our own minds about our political leanings, her own allegiances were well known and not at all well hidden. Both of these teachers just oozed enthusiasm. I'd expected to be able to bottle that enthusiasm within me and let it carry me through my degree, but the professors at Bangor – at that time – were as stiff as starched shirts and as characterful as, um, all those unmemorable people I can't think of because they're so unmemorable.

    In any case, I failed that degree. Completely flunked it, effed it up. It was 90% my own fault. The other 10% of the blame for my failure I do feel rests on the staid, uninspiring, unhelpful, couldn't-care-less jobsworth attitude of the staff there, who couldn't recognise a cry for help from a student when they heard one. Please let me state for the record, though, that this was in the late 90s and may well have changed significantly for the better. I wouldn't wish to slander a university today for crimes of banality it committed back in the day.

    The point is though, being without education, being without the possibilities it presented me with, that changed me. I went from crappy job to crappy job after that. I felt trapped. I felt like there was never going to be anything.... better.

    And it wasn't just the jobs either. I yearned for nourishment. I played guitar for a while but I never seemed to get any better and had no way to mark my progress. I drew and I painted and I wrote poetry and short stories but I never knew if they were really any good. I watched a lot of movies and I read a lot, and I thought about what I'd say about them, if only I had someone to give my ideas to that really knew his stuff. I had no faith in myself, and no way to tell if I had any skills within me that deserved to be respected.

    Then there came a time about six years ago where there was another significant change in my life – the time I decided to go back to university. Manchester Metropolitan University. This time I went back to study English and American Literature. It turned out to be, absolutely, the best decision I have ever made in my life. In seminars, they couldn't shut me up I got so excited. In my essays, I was hugely competitive, always aiming for the top marks. I submitted my stories and poems to the University magazines and got them published, and even though it was such a small victory compared to those lucky and/or talented enough to be regularly published and printed and available in shops, it was still a victory to me. I was proud of myself.

    Education let me down in the nineties, then set me free in the noughties. It was fantastic to read a book or watch a film or listen to a song and see/hear/feel/think about things I'd never thought about before. Books in particular seemed to look heavier on my bookcase, as now they didn't just have the words on the page in black and white, they had all those invisible words too that had fallen from my head, all those feelings and connections and questions and answers and dreams and beliefs and ideas. Suddenly the world didn't seem to have the same boundaries any more. The outside world looked the same and it behaved as it always had, but my world was different. My world was free.

    First time round I failed my degree. This time round I got a first class honours, and the Programme Leader Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Life of the English Department. The difference between the first time and the second time? The second time I knew the value of passion for education – and my tutors knew it too.

    I've learned many many things from my time in education, but one of the most important lessons I've learned is that although it is essential to have a passion and a drive of your own, it is also important that there is someone there to nurture that passion, to show that it is worthwhile just to have something to aim for, something that is personal and precious and full of possibilities. Teachers can be a huge part of that. When the world that surrounds us today looks grim and pointless and devoid of hope, teachers can remind us that there's still so much to explore. So if you know, or ever find, a truly fantastic teacher, make sure they know how much they mean to you. Because we need them now, and we have always needed them.
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