Living Contradiction is an extraordinary book about education and also the adverse of it.
It is full of very powerful arguments and poses the essential question to teachers: 'Is it possible to build good, positive relationships with pupils without sacrificing order and discipline?' At its centre it has a profoundly honest and lucid narrative about the conscious classroom odyssey of a teacher.
One of its authors, Sean Warren, is also its main protagonist. The book tells his story, how he went to school in East London while living in Coventry Cross Estate, one of the worst estates in Tower Hamlets, and coping with very challenging family circumstances; how he left school at 16 and became a builder's labourer; how through his own determined volition he eventually qualified as a teacher.
He tells, self-critically, of his embrace of classroom authoritarianism, how he became a champion of behaviourist approaches and 'quick fix solutions' based around zero tolerance, 'assertive discipline' and rigid sanctions, and how he 'patrolled the corridors and had the undiluted support of the head teacher.' He became the exemplar of the New Model Teacher advocated by OFSTED and took on the state-approved and teacher-pressurising role of the'county's behaviour and attendance consultant'. His own practice he describes as 'increasingly draconian' and admits: 'Control.... had come to define me. I was contributing to a climate of fear masquerading as respect.'
Yet all this power-centredness was having a contradictory effect upon his own psyche, and he began to realise 'in my arrogance there is clear evidence of my administering sovereign power over others. I also actively suppressed myself.' For he began to recognise, what he was demonstrating to others was also gradually pulling him down. 'I psychologically adopted a bullish mask of confidence, assurance and assertiveness. It manifested in my walk and in my stance; it exuded from my personality.'
Such realisations made him determined to change his methods and behaviour as a teacher, and the book charts Warren's struggle to shake off this authoritarian persona, which he began to understand was destroying any opportunities to achieve a self-activated learning, student cooperation and a democratic classroom. As such it is a teacher's story which is entirely gripping and relevant.
For me it was a revelation, as 14 year old Sean Warren, now approaching 52, was in my class in Poplar in the late Seventies, and was a powerfully creative student - the co-author with Paul Parris, a black classmate, of a fine anti-racist play called 'Moonlight' which was published by the Inner London
Education Authority. When we showed it in his dressing room to the great Caribbean actor Norman Beaton (of 'Desmond's' fame), who was performing in Mustapha Matura's play 'Nice' at Theatre Royal, Stratford, E!5, Beaton was strongly impressed by the text and offered his own brand of generous encouragement. 'Keep on keeping on!' he said with a huge smile. It seems that Warren never forgot that, hence this powerful book, some 38 years later.