Wednesday: 15.40, 2004, in The Red Lion
Your confidant is waiting in the pub for you: cider and black on the table- chair stretched out. He has heard there has been an incident with big Shane Lofield and knows you’ve had a mare. You regale the tale of why you thought it was a good idea to swipe his books off the table in front of the whole class while he lights up his second fag. By the time the third fag has been stubbed out, you’ve found your humour. Your mentor, Birch, has arrived and vowed to help you resolve the issue tomorrow. Your face crumples up in laughter as you recall your pathetic moral indignation. 17.30, and you secure the deal with Birch. For the price of a pint, he has agreed to use his powers to help this struggling NQT out. With that, you vow to do better and trot off home to plan your A level lesson.
Wednesday: 18.50, 2019 and you are still at school.
You are handing your colleague their third tissue, reassuring them through bleary, tired eyes that it was an easy mistake to make and that yes they are still a great teacher, but to little avail. With only 10 mins till they shut the school, you avoid any meaningful conversation and instead opt for the ‘tomorrow’s another day band aid approach.’ Before you leave, you check your emails and find another email from another teacher who is struggling. As the caretaker kicks you out, you slope off home, thinking you still have to plan your A level lesson.
On the train home you muse back to the early days, and at the risk of looking back through rose tinted spectacles, you can’t help but think there is a lot you miss about the ‘Birch’ approach. You smile as you imagine how Birch would react to the latest insistence that all marking must contain a feedback loop of red pen, green pen, purple pen…all the colours of pen, and can’t help but think that whilst he certainly would have been pulled up for his fondness of the pub, you feel a strange sense of liberation whenever you think of him. You feel that perhaps there was some wisdom in the Birch approach that is lacking today.
But what exactly is this wisdom that is lacking? What explains that frown of exasperation on your forehead that has found a new home as a neat wrinkle? You suspect part of your problem rests with those adverts: the ones where the new teacher looks out to a sea of wonder as she cunningly lets the balloon explode; the ones where the fashionable new English teacher inspires with just the opening of a book; the ones where the new teacher glides out the school gate with a bed of roses scattered at their feet by adoring pupils. Why? Because they raise the stakes even more…they suggest that if you are not transforming lives everyday, drowning in a sea of ‘thank you for changing my life forever cards’, and inundated with Oxbridge offers for the Year 11s you really turned it around for, you just don’t quite cut the mustard.
Has the glamorization of teaching and the cult of the ‘hero’ teacher made us slaves to a new master? An insipid and more dangerous one?
Today, just one innocent scroll through twitter can leave you with the feeling that you are failing your pupils if you have not prepared 30 personalized name cards for your class, hand painted a curriculum map on your wall, absorbed and made a beautiful dual coded summary of the all the latest edu research, and knowledge organized the living daylight out all the units you will teach. ‘It’s all about the kids you see; if you really cared-you would be doing it too’, your screen screams at you. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that in a recent survey on twitter, most teachers voted that, above all else, their biggest fear was ‘not being good enough’.
Now I am certainly not saying twitter isn’t a great tool for CPD; that we shouldn’t aspire to be the best that we can be, or want to make a difference. Merely, that I do miss the days when you didn’t have to be perfect, when it really was ok to laugh at your mistakes, do things your own way, and dare I say, even enjoy it.
New teachers – let me tell you a secret that us oldies have known for some time. There is little dignity in teaching, let alone much space for heroics, and sometimes it is a slog. But, most of us don’t even try to be perfect – we recognize the folly. We know it is enough to care and reflect, and that sometimes it is a good idea just to shut the door and do things your own way. You know your kids and have a hunch, and most of the time you will be right, even if it does (dare I say it) contradict the way everybody else is doing it. Most of the time your students will be so much better for it. However, when it does mess up, there is always time to correct it tomorrow because we are agents of our own classrooms. You don’t have to be a ‘trad’ or a ‘prog’, there is wisdom in both. And most of all, you certainly don’t have to be a hero. The best teachers aren’t.