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Life Lessons I Learned Teaching in the North East of England

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[Editor’s Note]Lucy Kellaway left London, where she had lived for more than 60 years, and moved to the Northeast of England to start a new teaching career.

With the spread of a new life, it is not just the cold climate in the north that brings impact. Compared with the British capital, which has concentrated elites, diverse cultures, and emphasis on high pressure and competition, the north shows a completely different social scene, including the reality of uneven resources and the gap between the rich and the poor in the north and south.

Lucy experienced all kinds of differences and felt the different lifestyles and values ​​of the local people. At the same time, she also began to think about whether there are more possibilities for the so-called meaningful life.

I have seldom prayed in my life. When I was a kid, my family used to talk about those guys who always asked God with contempt. I grew up in this kind of home, and now I find that in the job I am doing, I am bothering God in some way almost all the time.

I moved to the North East of England earlier last year and have been teaching at a Catholic school on the outskirts of Newcastle since September. At first, praying was not something I was comfortable with. I can roughly say the “Lord’s Prayer”, which has been seared into my memory since elementary school, but even if I can memorize this scripture, I still have embarrassment. At the first assembly, my solitary voice wafted through the air, chanting my favorite part “For the kingdom, the power, the glory, is yours forever. Amen” – I didn’t notice everyone Stop after saying “deliver us from evil,” which is exactly what Catholics do.

Now, I’ve gotten the hang of it and discovered that I love to pray. Reading with others is one of the secret pleasures of life—it creates an instant atmosphere of unity, camaraderie, and uniformity. I also really like these words: peace, grace, hope and light. It feels especially good to say the last word, because it’s a rarity here. Here at 55 degrees north latitude, there is hardly any light on the cloudy days around the winter solstice.

While I didn’t feel like I was getting any closer to Jesus, I started to believe in a slightly different view of education than I had before, and after a semester of assimilating into Tyneside society, about how life is best , my concept has completely changed. The values ​​that our school espouses are derived from the Gospels and they are creeds that even the staunchest atheist would agree with – I did a little googling and these values ​​are: Forgiveness, Honesty, Trust, Family, And above all love.

The first time I attended a faculty meeting, I heard it said that our job is to love every student—especially the hard-to-love students. I didn’t believe it at the time. It was a far cry from the successful public academy I trained at in east London, where staff meetings were known for having no room for excuses, test scores and value-added comments.

The emphasis on love strikes me as very profound because everything else stems from it. If you force yourself to care deeply about each of your students, you will work harder for them and you want the best for them. All the other things I learned when I quit my job as a FT columnist to train on how to be a teacher, like differentiated teaching and learning assessment, seem trivial.

It wasn’t just the Gospels that prompted me to reflect, but also the experience of teaching and living 300 miles away from the capital, which I have called home for the past 63 years.


I don’t quite remember what to expect when I moved.I know the north-south difference. I know the South doesn’t understand the North, and the North resents the South hogging money and pretty much everything else – which explains both why the North voted for Brexit and why we Southerners didn’t see it coming.

© Bill Butcher

In Hackney, where I used to live, 78% voted to remain in the EU; in the north-east of England, 58% voted to leave. I moved from the wealthiest part of the country to one of the poorest, from the best educated to one of the least educated.

I thought it would be strange; I thought it would be suspicious. But, over 6 months later, and while I still feel weird in my new surroundings, I haven’t received an iota of suspicion, let alone resentment. My fellow faculty members treated me the same way they treated each other—without scruples about making positive jokes, only occasionally revealing that they thought I was weird.

The other day, I asked a co-worker what he was doing on the weekend, and kept asking until he protested, “My God, Kellaway, you’re asking too many questions!” By contrast, None of them asked me any questions. At first I thought it was a bit tedious, but now I understand why. They just accepted me without judgment.

The same goes for my students. No one laughed at my pronunciation, and no one seemed to judge me in any way, at least not negatively. They seemed to just search me perfunctorily, and it was enough to find one thing they were interested in. Earlier, one of my more mischievous grade 12 students stormed into my class and said, “Teacher! There’s a rumor about you: you’re rich.”

He said he checked my net worth online and found that I had $1.3 million. I told him that I don’t know how this number came from, but it is determined by the house price anyway. If you bought a flat in London for £27,000 in 1985 and worked professionally for decades, there is a good chance your net worth will exceed £1 million. This is not uncommon in a capital city with more than 800,000 millionaires.

My teaching on house prices was not popular. He ignored my words, and he liked the idea that his teacher was a real millionaire and therefore didn’t want me to belittle my own wealth.

In a way, I should be familiar with this situation. Students at all the schools I have taught in London are obsessed with money and have a desire to have more. But in other ways, this new group of teens does seem very different.

The first difference is that at the school I went to, only 2% of the students were white, and at this school, about 90% were white. The second difference is that they have lived in this place for generations. I was talking about structural unemployment the other day, citing the example of the coal mines, shipyards, and steel mills that have closed in the region. On a whim, I asked if their grandparents were born nearby, and almost three-quarters of the class raised their hands. I remember someone at my school in Hackney posing a similar question to the students, who were asked in the auditorium if their parents were born in London. Fewer than 10 raised their hands out of 200 people, most of whom were of Afro-Caribbean descent.

The data also bears this out. According to the University of Essex’s Understanding Society study, the North East is the least mobile region in the UK, with 55% of respondents living within 15 miles of their mother, more than three times the rate in the capital. And, if my students are any guide, that stat won’t change, as few of them plan to leave. They may go abroad for a while – I try to warn them that Brexit makes that more difficult – but then they go back home. No one is interested in moving to London. They know they can’t afford it and don’t like London anyway.

In my opinion, London’s high mobility and the North East’s lack of mobility largely explain the differences between the two places, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each.

This stability runs through everything. It may explain their lack of curiosity, or it may lead to a narrow and naive view of the world. All students in London are very aware of different cultures, while my students only know their own. Last year, their beloved Newcastle United football club was bought by the Saudis, some of whom took to the streets wearing tea towels amid jubilation. Supporters were baffled when the club issued an announcement telling them to leave their tea towels at home. Any teenager in London could tell them what cultural appropriation is, but when I tried to explain, one person shook his head in disbelief: “Master, we’re showing respect! We’re thanking them for buying our club.”

The bigger difference is competition. Every day in London, nine million people fight over scarce resources: for a seat on the Tube, for a flat to rent, for success, work, money or fame. Everyone is fighting for something, and immigration exacerbates that. When many families travel far away just to give their children a better life, they don’t leave their children idle to do almost nothing.

The school where I teach in Hackney, London, is a great example of hard work and, as a result, the children do really well. Last month, I held a Zoom meeting with some of my most motivated students to hear how they applied to Oxbridge, the London School of Economics and the Russell Group. I suddenly feel sorry for my current students who, despite going to one of the best local schools, have few such ambitions. Most of them are doing the homework I assign, and most of them are doing almost enough. But, for most of them, that’s about it.

Previously, in an effort to change this, I told my Year 12 students that in order to do well in their exams they would need to study independently for 6 hours per subject per week. The whole class was dumbfounded and couldn’t believe it. One of them patiently explained that he couldn’t do it because he was working at a restaurant in the metro center on weekends and needed to meet friends and watch football.

© Bill Butcher

I replied that in this case the best he could get would be a C, or maybe a B if he was very lucky. “What’s so bad about getting a B? I’d rather get a B than spend six hours a week learning about business,” he said.

I was deflated. Speechless.

Some students aim higher. I was told that his father had been pushing him that he wanted to go to a top university in the South. “Some of my friends are really smart — smarter than me. But they don’t care about going to college because they don’t have the drive, they don’t have the passion. They don’t want to challenge themselves. They stay in their comfort zone and don’t want to go out,” he said.

He thought it was a disgrace and a waste – and I thought so too in the past. But now I’m thinking maybe it’s not a sign of failure and reprehensible low ambition that no one wants to go to the best university or move to London to make a fortune. Isn’t that a sign of the opposite — a tight-knit community where people stay not because they lack imagination, but because they like it?


I’m reading a book by Fiona Hill, the book tells how she grew up in poverty in the nearby constituency of Bishop Auckland, went to Harvard University and eventually the US State Department. Her father was a former miner who later worked as a hospital handyman. Her father once said to her, “There’s nothing for you here” (“There’s nothing for you here”), hence the title of the book. But for my students, I think there’s a lot here for them. They want to be midwives, construction workers, primary school teachers, make-up artists and police officers. A student wants to study law at Northumbria University – for that he needs and will get a B. I don’t think he’s going to be a senior partner at a big five London law firm, but so what?

Who’s to say these aren’t good aspirations? And, who wouldn’t envy them the stress-free way of realizing their ambitions? Even in the past 6 months, I’ve been acutely aware that my stress is decreasing. In the five years I have been teaching in the capital, every day when I step into the school gate, my stomach tightens. Now, I drive 9 minutes, park outside the school, and walk in without my stomach tightening.

At my current school, the teachers seem to be happy and have no plans to quit. Many have been teaching there for 20 or 30 years, and the parents of their students have also been their students. In fact, the teacher turnover here is so low that I almost couldn’t find a job. When I started looking for a job last spring, there were 120 vacancies for business and economics teachers in London; across the North East of England, there were only three.

At London’s top-performing colleges, a quarter of staff quit every year – not just because they can’t afford flats, but because they’re overwhelmed by the workload. It can only be said that there are pros and cons: this system achieves the best GCSE results, but teachers, and sometimes students, are exhausted trying to achieve this.

Last week at school, when the third Advent candle was lit – which I now know represents joy – it dawned on me that, despite the cold, lack of light and lower income, this is what is called Something the North East of England folks in the ‘Highlanders’ (Geordies) are really good at. At least they seem to be doing better than me.

The week before Christmas, when everyone was winding down for the holidays and getting ready for a school trip to the local movie theater, I gave my students some homework and said I would grade it the next day. One of the boys, who was not at all difficult to love, suddenly said, “Miss, I think you should relax. Then you will enjoy life more.”

I told him straight up that I actually enjoyed my life very much. But just as I started preparing for my first Christmas in the North East of England, I started thinking: what if he’s right?

The writer is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and co-founder of Now Teach

Translator: He Li

Edit email: zhen.zhu@ftchinese.com

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