At the age of about 12, I saw a priest smoking a cigarette around the back of a church and knew from the look on his face that God probably couldn’t exist. Ever since, I have questioned Christian iconography, mildly suspicious of its ability to get everywhere. A crucifix or collared man decorating the walls of an Oxford college isn’t a sight exclusive to St Stephen’s, but the piety adorning every surface took a second to get used to when I first arrived. (It was the eyes, by the way; the bleak, unblinking eyes as he sucked the cancer right in, like a protest against God themselves.)
St Stephens will relinquish its PPH status later this year to focus on the Church and ordaining Anglican Priests. Having been founded with that purpose in mind, it was only their kindness (and our bursaries) that widened their remit to accept students like me into their arms. But with the highest PGCE (the Post-Graduate Certificate needed to become a teacher) intake of any Oxford institution, where will the trainee-teachers next year be taken in and homed? I worry for them, perhaps unnecessarily, as any mother-hen figure would; there’s a decay in teaching, its core being cut out by years of underfunding and widening socio-economic divides.
My first thought on hearing that St Stephen’s would no longer be associated with the University was to stash as much merchandise as I could.
Whilst Oxford merch may not have a fabulous resale price, its potency—underlined by every ‘Look-at-my-subtle-indicator-that-I-go-to-the-oldest-university-in-the-English-speaking-world’ puffer jacket, or the ‘Oh this old thing? Yes, Balliol’ fleeces—means that I still want the crest on my chest. There is a lineage of people going back to 1260 for, say, Merton college students. There will possibly be hundreds of thousands of students that can claim to have attended any one of the older colleges. St Stephen’s, on the other hand, will upon closing have had total numbers of admission closer in order of magnitude to those of All-Souls. This is limited edition merch, the type no one else can get. I wouldn’t like to make any direct inferences, but is that where the similarities end between All-Souls and St Stephen’s?
And of course I wanted evidence that I was actually at Oxford. I’d worked hard to get here, and the year I get accepted I am told the whole building will stop taking on people like me?! Charming. How will that work on a CV? It will look like I faked the whole thing! I may as well have gone to Aberystwyth at this rate; they have a fantastic PGCE course, and a beach and it’s not a 6 hour journey home. No—the merch will have to be the central evidence that I was ever actually here.
St Stephen’s is not a well-known ‘college’ and I think that’s done on purpose. It is so hidden you would never guess there are 2 chapels, a church, a library, a garden, a small quad and some cloisters, all clustered just off Cowley Road behind the Sainsburys. I’d call it quaint, if I didn’t know how many of my friends from back home would think I sounded so overtly Oxbridge that the bullying may never stop. But certainly it is a very inward-looking place, a self-contained unit of self-sufficiency, and like any hothouse without enough cool air to go around there can sometimes be a feeling of getting on each other’s toes (which I escape by living almost entirely at school).
Among PGCEs, St Stephen’s has the reputation of being where the dregs are collected: it accepts those who didn’t get into the real colleges (even in this privileged institution, it seems, the onion has further layers of privilege still.) It is also where the party lives; we will invariably be the most fun teachers that Oxford produces. We all likely applied around March and have a scattered approach to our pursuits. We also have the brains to just about pull off a really quite admirable portion of them, entirely on the fly.
In wider Oxford circles, asking which college you are at, people will look to you politely and say “Oh no I’m not really familiar with that one”; they will then continue the conversation with a tone that suggests they think I must have meant Brookes, which I find awfully elitist.
The alternative, however, is that they have heard of St Stephen’s, and that can often be worse as they gleefully inform you about what they know about “Staggers”.
“Did you know that the word Staggers is associated with an oddly closeted homophobia?”
Yes, I live there.
“Apparently, there’s a joke that every cohort year photo from Staggers will have one priest who’s dead, one who lives in Rome and one who’s in prison.”
I know, I live there.
“Have you heard about that thing where [Redacted]”
Yes. I lived there.
Among the Ordinands, I can only imagine how the PGCEs reputation precedes us. Every year they inform the new cohort “The PGCEs last year were quite difficult, but this year we hope will be different.” It’s an interesting way to phrase it. For such an educated group of individuals, their mathematical reasoning needs refreshing; the PGCE course is one year, the training to become ordained is 3 years. If the pattern of slight tension felt between the two cohorts repeats every year, and the PGCEs change every year, then they may need a maths lesson in common factors. A lesson I am happy to provide.
However, I am willing to accept that we can be difficult. That we are loud, we don’t pray, some of us may even have sex, if we are not too tired and ask very nicely.
I understand that, for the religiously inclined, watching someone not adhere to your beliefs with the same vigour and respect that you do yourself can be difficult. Yet I still believe that us future teachers and future priests have more in common than we could ever have in differences. We believe that the thing we are doing is the best way to serve our communities, and to build a future that is better than the state of the world today. As the ancient Greek proverb goes “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” In our hearts, we both feel a calling to meet the needs of those who need us. I’d like to think that is why they have accommodated us for so many years.
I do have a scepticism about the practice of organised religion, but I am an open-minded Scientist at heart, an agnostic. I would like to believe there is nothing stopping meaningful and productive relationships between the secular and sacred. Religion has been an engine to feed the poor, educate the masses, and give hope to the hopeless, and I hope that if Jesus can associate himself with prostitutes and lepers, that the Ordinands might be able and happy to associate themselves with PGCEs.
I digress. There are some wonderful people that come through those cloisters and I’ve drunk wine with a lot of them. And danced loudly in the common room to the justified annoyance of ordinands, and the teaching staff in the Department of Education the next morning, as they try to cajole some teacher trainers who should take the whole thing a bit more seriously, it is a weekday after all.
The food is plentiful, and the chats are interesting and diverse. The visiting students from all over the world, from a great number of disciplines, the lazy Saturday mornings and after-dinner conversations ebb and flow through any topic of their specialities, their interest and devotion to knowledge is something I truly adore.
And sometimes I’m expected to talk. Sometimes I will be asked: “Why have you decided to go into teaching?” My answer is usually always “I enjoy it” or “I couldn’t stand an office job; I’d kill myself a week in” because if I told the truth people would think I was trying to passionately sell them snake oil.
The reality of the matter is, I had a hard time coming to the conclusion that teaching should be my vocation, even though I have always loved it. I love working with young people and watching them develop, watching how funny and wise and awful and magical they are. I love trying to help mould someone into an infinitesimally kinder or more knowledgeable person than they may have been a lesson before.
But I knew how my people might speak about me. On a trip to the library during my second-year undergrad at Bristol, we saw the beaming PGCE graduates standing outside the Wills memorial, having their celebratory moment. My friend leans over and whispers “Well, their futures have gone down the toilet.”
I saw them and wished more than anything to be among them. Secretly.
I laughed along and procrastinated for a couple of hours in a leather-backed chair.
Is this how I’d be seen if I chose to teach? Not just by my friends, but by society?
I’d be seen as someone who opted for this career, not because it’s the only thing I can imagine myself getting up every single morning to do, but because I wasn’t actually able to do much else.
Not because educating the people who will inherit the earth tomorrow is our only hope, but because I was uncertain about what to do after university, so I thought I may as well give it a go.
Not because I’m the first person in a decade to get into Oxford from my languishing state secondary and I feel fire at the injustice, how many of my classmates were ignored by places like Oxbridge regardless of the stars they clawed down for themselves on their results sheets; Jaina, Jessica, Carys, Dolan, Tilly, Megan, Daniel …
No, it must be because I like the long holidays.
So when people ask me “Why did you choose to get into teaching?” I want to grab a soapbox and throw manifestos at them about the liberation of the masses by investing in quality education. I want to slap the drooling tones out the mouths of the privately educated, home counties collective that makes up so much of this city. I want to shout, knock down the bursar’s door, collect the chancellor and round up the kitchen staff, shaking them into submission: We need teachers. We need them so aggressively. Carry on housing the educators as they learn their trade. Keep these doors open for them. Please!
Instead, I eat my broccoli and tell them “I just think it’s quite fun!”
St Stephens closing its doors seemed to me like another loss. Another change, a degradation, in our attitude towards state educators that we’ve been seeing long before the pandemic.
That tells us how much we value being educated, but not who educates us.
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t teach.” Those who can’t teach, teach [insert disliked subject]. We really have to thank G.B Shaw for framing the cultural zeitgeist so concisely.
Maybe I wouldn’t have put these thoughts to paper if I’d just got into Jesus like a good little Welshman. But for me, St Stephen’s has become a home, and it will be sad to know that no other future teachers will know the delights and curiosities of this quaint little corner of Cowley.