As the school holidays near the end and I look forward to starting a new role that doesn’t include classroom teaching, I have sworn to myself never to forget what it sounds, looks and feels like being the teacher in the room, staffroom, community. I do so because despite the many years of experience, it may become easy to push back, gloss over, ignore or perhaps overcook something that not only gives me credibility when talking to the graduates I will be working with but keeps me grounded in the lived experience of teaching. This is not an exhaustive list and feel free to add. It’s for me and it is for you, for all of us who teach. Here we go.
Never forget …
That teaching is a people business. Everything else comes second.
The sheer number and lightning speed of making decisions that could make or break a lesson or, more importantly, relationships with students, staff and others. If there was one unit that I’d include in, and love to have had, as pre-service teacher it would be ‘thinking on your feet’. As Larry Cuban points out, and backs by research, teachers play jazz, for hours on end every day. Schools are busy, dynamic, every changing places and stuff one needs to process happens at lightning speed.
Related to the first point is a sentence (thanks Larry Ferlazzo) that saw me through many crises and stopped many bridges being burned: “Is what I am about (not) to do or say going to bring me closer or push me further away from this person or group?” Thought of initially as a classroom management maxim, this goes further. It’s an act of awareness of the moment, of you and that person and all that has gone, is going and will likely be going on. An almost out-of-body experience with full awareness of what is going on inside you. Being aware of it is one step, controlling it is another.
The realisation that ‘emotional intelligence’ of thousands of culturally appropriate, genuine, welcome and positive but also possibly inauthentic, forced responses require an enormous amount of emotional labour (managing our emotions) to do. Don’t get me wrong – the rewards we get from this emotional labour, the warm and fuzzies of ‘making the difference’ are one of the primary drivers for most of us in teaching. However, they can be hugely negative and draining if masking or manufacturing responses to suit others (students, fellow staff, parents…) or the working conditions make it impossible to perform the work well (see Hargreaves’ seminal article on this). I would not be the only one to have experienced these occasions and forgetting or ignoring them when working especially with recent graduates, would be downright irresponsible and ultimately unwelcome and unproductive.
Interruptions. Constant. In my experience at least, school is a place with no polite queues. Could be a colleague or a student who wants to talk to you interrupting your precious five minutes of lunch with ‘something urgent’ to a dealing with attention seekers, students with arising special needs (and yes, every single student student has special needs at times, not just the ones with a medical label next to their name). The ability to say ‘no’ (and sometimes literally hide, just to eat or take a break) is essential in this job. Other phrases like ‘dropping a (juggling) ball or two’ and ‘picking your battles’ come from the same territory. In all this, one can say that only ‘no’ so many times, especially when new to a school or a group before digging a hole for yourself.
The importance of clear communication. I have never been much into posters, but always wanted to (never done it…) print out a poster with McKay’s 10 Laws of Human Communication. Of course, each of these needs unpacking but McKay has rolled empathy, listening, assertiveness and economy of words rolled into a few points that I have tried to, and mostly but not always managed to observe. Assumptions without checking can be very, very dangerous and costly.
Tedium. Of countless procedures, forms, marking, boxes to tick, data, tracking, reports of all kinds to write and initiatives (mostly not of our own making) to follow. Of course, this is certainly not limited to teaching but there are some time-sucking tedious practices that are unique to teaching. Some of these are actually essential for orderly and timely well being of humans, some are pure, unnecessary drivel that requires that timeless question: Why are we doing this? See the point about picking your battles though … ‘Embrace the absurdity of institutional life and laugh subversively’. Yes, I did have that one pinned above my desk.
The importance of Little Things. Yes, deliberately capitalised for they are important. A notice of and comment on new shoes during yard duty to a student you don’t know too well yet. Remembering what sport another student plays outside school and asking them about the game on the weekend. Not forgetting a recent traumatic experience for another child that probably makes her act just a little (or a lot) differently that day, week. Small nods, high fives, dad jokes, non-verbals like friendly shoulder punches – the stuff that doesn’t cost much but pays a lot.
Valuing one’s integrity above else. Teens especially have industrial-strength bullshit detectors and they DO use them. Clean slate every morning but standing firm and consistently, sometimes by keeping the smallest promises is invaluable.
The importance of developing what C Wright Mills called ‘sociological imagination’. This is the act of stepping back and realising the connection between the immediate and personal context of individuals and broader context in which their actions, or lack of, takes place. The bigger picture and interrogation of established routines, norms and ways of thinking, what they do to people and what people do with them. While the development of sociological imagination takes its pint of blood through noticing and frustration with things one would be otherwise happily oblivious to, it is a form of living an examined (institutional) life. It acts as a bulwark against what Bruce Levine called ‘depoliticisation of human suffering’, manifested at one end as the unrealistic positivity of ‘you can do, be anything you want’, and the apathy of following established expectations on the other.
The importance of planning and expecting things not to go to plan. Sure, like many of my fellow teachers I’ve had some terrific, half or even unplanned lessons and teaching moments over the past two decades. However, most of my failed lessons (some spectacularly so) were a result of poor planning, sometimes due to cockiness, sometimes tiredness or something else. And they hurt.
Never forget what swearing, insults, deliberate ignoring, malice even and assaults by students look, sound and feel like. Had more than a fair share of these over the years of working in mostly ‘hard to staff’ schools. Or the look, sound and feel of parental views and practices completely foreign to what I have grown with and believe in, yet as a teacher had to largely accept as their (increasingly) powerful prerogative and expectation. Or practices by fellow staff members that hindered much more than helped not just me but many others, out of naivety, callousness, jealousy, aspirations or more. People business.
Never also forget the absolute beauty of teacher’s work. The dynamism, joy and privilege of working with youth. The sometimes smallest acts of gratitude, personal connection and meaning. The positive impact on people’s lives that goes largely unknown, uncounted, unrecognised – but we all know it is there. And when it manifests itself in the ‘thank yous’ years after perhaps, meeting or re-connecting with an old student, it shows that teaching is a truly magnificent profession and one I simply cannot imagine our society without. Yes, sure, it is just a job that pays the bills but it is an important one. People business.
So, at the end of this ever incomplete reflection, I ask you: What else would one need to always remember about teaching if taken out of the classroom? I would love to hear from you here and/or on social media.