This post follows on from two previous posts, found here and here about teaching metaphors. This is by no means a new metaphor but I think this character allows a great perspective on our role as primary teachers.
Writing about where the story of ‘Goodnight Mister Tom’ came from, Michelle Magorian described how she started by “thinking about a slim beech tree, and a sturdy oak, and then I wondered what sort of person would a beech tree be, or an old oak? The picture of a young boy, small and slim, then came into my head. He had a label round his neck, he was an evacuee and he became the character: William Beech. And the man William was billeted with – the sturdy oak tree – became Tom Oakley.”
An alternative metaphor
The comparisons Magorian makes between types of trees provides a great starting point for a metaphor of (specifically primary) teaching.
Let’s first look at the idea of an ‘oak tree’ and it’s embodiment in Thomas Oakley. Re-reading Goodnight Mister Tom in preparation for the coming academic year, I was struck by the early chapters and the way in which he supports William Beech. In sum: He challenges deeply engrained mind-sets embedded in William’s identity; he enforces strong, disciplined routines; he has exceptionally high standards and does not make excuses for William’s upbringing; instead, he scaffolds his home environment in order for this fledgling young sapling to grow.
There is definitely some artistic licence to assume that ‘an oak tree’ as a metaphor implies all of these things. However, the heart of the metaphor proposed here is found in the question that Magorian poses: What sort of person would an oak tree be? Throughout her narrative she answers this through the form of Mr. Tom. Subsequently, she establishes traits that I believe sit at the heart of strong teaching character, long before any strategies or methods kick in.
William Beech, at nine years old, arrived at Little Weirworld emotionally bruised and battered. Up to that point, he had lived in poverty in the slums of London. Through his frail and malnourished appearance, it is clear he had not been looked after correctly when he first appeared at Mr. Tom’s door. Magorian’s description of William’s outward appearance reveals much about his inward character. He is shy, uncommunicative and petrified of his own shadow. William even feints early on in the story due to fright! Beyond the outward appearance and behaviour shown in Magorian’s description, what we see is that William has no self-worth. Unfortunately, he is not the only nine and ten year-old I have met who lacks confidence and sees themselves as not having any ability. In only two years of teaching, I have now met many.
William Beech, the young, fragile sapling pupil of our metaphor, embodies a particular type of child. I’m sure we’ve all taught them. Different schools use different words to describe this sort of pupil and the care they need: nurturing, mentoring or soft-skills; whatever support we provide it’s clear that they need more than just Maths and English intervention. These sorts of pupils are difficult to teach. They might arrive grubby to school, look very tired, have no lunch, be alone on the playground or sometimes not even turn up for several days. I’ve found myself at some points this year REALLY worrying about this sort of pupil under my care. The ‘William Beech’s’ of our classrooms turn up with mind-sets that are fixed* and display curious behaviours – but I don’t think this is on purpose.
There is a heart wrenching part of the novel where Mr. Tom opens the bag that William brought from London to reveal some of the items his mother packed for him. ‘There was one small towel, a piece of soap, a toothbrush, an old Bible a letter from his mother…and a belt’. The letter from his mother makes clear that Mr. Tom is entitled to use it when William ‘is bad’. Evidenced by the bruises all over his body, it had been used a lot. William’s environment in London had made him labour under the impression that he ‘was bad’, which had filtered to the very core of his being, hence his frailty as a young sapling of a boy, who looked tired and grubby when he arrived at Mr. Tom’s door. But what about Mr. Tom? What does he do to combat this entrenched stereotype that William’s mother had laboured upon him?
It is hard not to shed a tear on these pages (After reading the letter explaining William was a bad boy):
Tom was angry.
‘We can forget that ole belt,’ said Tom. He lifted the bag from the table and took it out of the room. (p.27)
(In the film version, Tom throws the belt out of the window and into the graveyard outside his house.)
Tom rejected the mind-set that William had allowed himself to have. He abhorred the stereotypes that this young boy’s mother had placed upon him. He removed them, ‘throwing them out the window’ and into the graveyard.
Once Mr. Tom has rejected this mindset, he begins to embed strong routines into his home. William eats well, he reads often, he learns to write beautifully and he has the freedom to paint and sketch. I wonder whether this is significant to teaching. As teachers, do we have to explicitly ‘reject’ the mindsets that our pupils have in order to help them make academic progress? Is there something to be said for making it open that certain attitudes are inexcusable in our classrooms for the sake of using education as a form of social justice? I’m not sure. Needless to say, I love the way that Mr. Tom, the strong oak tree, makes it his mission through Magorian’s novel to make sure William has the very best upbringing, regardless of his background.
How then should we teach? In the primary school, with pupils like William Beech entering our classrooms each and everyday, I think it starts with changing mind sets; pointing our vulnerable pupils towards a life they might never have imagined and enabling them to grow.
*By ‘mind sets’ I am referring to the popular psychological understanding of our brains proposed by Carol Dweck. For more details, see: Dweck, C. S. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.