So you want to teach?

“As an experienced teacher, what is your advice to teachers who are just starting out?” I have been asked this question many times. At times, I dispensed with a bit of advice, often I have either had no time, tact or heart to really tell it like it is, speak my mind. This is an attempt to connect a bunch of lose but common threads in my answers over the years in conversations with hundreds of pre-service or recently graduated teachers, many of them my close friends and colleagues. This is a broad conversation, not a gospel to go by but if you if find it useful – please help yourself.

For the record, I’ve been a professional high school teacher for 16 years in mostly government schools, in one of which I work full time. I worked for three years at university running workshops for pre-service teachers and I hold a full Bachelor and Masters by Research in education (my PhD never saw the finish line). I have also actively mentored probably over 50 practicum students. I have been writing, talking, thinking about education for close to two decades now. In short – I am far from ‘knowing everything’ but I do have a few runs on the board. Enough padding …

Whether you are just curious about teaching and want to give it a go or you have a fire of inspiration burning inside you – you first need to seriously, brutally honestly answer this question – why (do you want to) teach? When I ask this question, I get the usual array of ‘making the difference’, ‘change things’, ‘give back’, ‘challenge myself’ and the likes. All good, noble predispositions. But they are the starting points, not the ends of your work and conversations. Chances are they will undergo tempering, changing, dissolving even in the heat of the days (and nights!) of being a teacher. There may be times you’ll realise that the “difference” you want to make is not exactly one desired by the student or his family, there may be times where “giving back” will be replaced by mostly frantically taking in. And more. But please – as hope-less as it seems sometimes, education rests on the premise of hope. A necessary trap that we all fall in sometimes too. That’s OK.

The urge to help people is a must in teaching. It is precondition to set foot in class. But please – don’t try to ‘save’ the world or people, especially those in the lower socio-economic areas. I say that not because I would not want you to inspire young minds or because I doubt the agency of people (including myself) in trying to do so. I say that because I have seen the ugliness of well meaning middle class salvationism so many times, ignoring kids stories and context to lead the charge to be ‘more like me/us’.

Even if you don’t fall for the seductive saviour trick, you will face so many ethical choices about who you save, at what cost do you stand on one side that it will seriously mess with your mission. I for one have often said, written about, that one of the hardest things in teaching is choosing which student(s) you are going to care less about.

Please, think twice before wanting to be a hero teacher. This impulse can be very strong and seductive but please – lead an examined teacher’s life. While you are trusted with an enormous power, influence and, if nothing else, time with the young ones, you are not some demigod with magical powers that will make disappear the effects of things like poverty, abuse, even privilege in students’ lives. It does not mean you are helpless either but be brutally honest and constantly revise what you can and can’t do and achieve in your teaching. Less is sometimes more  when you ask some hard questions that begin with ‘why?’.

And just what do you understand “teaching” is? In his outstanding book The Beautiful Risk of Education (highly recommend!), Gert Biesta calls teaching as bringing something new to the educational situation, something that wasn’t there before, a form of transcendence. But, as Biesta points out, always know that whether you achieve that as a teacher and someone will be taught what you teach is beyond your control. You are giving a gift that you don’t have because teaching is “not an experience that can be produced by the teacher” – that experience is only ever produced by the student. Building relationships with students will definitely open the possibilities, but not guarantee, that your gift will be received and done so in ways intended. This is an inherently uncertain, messy, dynamic process and often depends on factors way beyond your control, awareness even. And it is this existential ‘weakness’ of it that makes teaching such a great profession but one so hard to explain in a world obsessed with control and predictability. Whatever you do, please don’t turn into a real estate agent saying ‘I sold them the house perfectly but they didn’t buy it.”

The next of the few ‘core’ questions I ask you to honestly wrestle with is this: What do you see teaching, school is for? Straw poll time … Choose your favourite from the following four statements, borrowed from Symes & Preston’s seminal work:

A) Teaching is about preparing kids for the world of work out there
B) Teaching is about cultivating independent mind based on collected human knowledge.
C) Teaching is about allowing kids personality and interest to flourish.
D) Teaching is about getting kids to learn how to make the world more fair and just for all.

A is the instrumentalist, ‘human resources’ view of education as primarily preparation for work. Loved by business and politicians and in strong ascendancy over the past few decades. B is a liberal, often labelled conservative, view of education that privileges cultivation of independent mind based on collected human knowledge. Ancient Greeks, rational thinking, high culture spring to mind. The ‘progressive’ C wants to allow kids’ interest and personality flourish. Enter passion-based learning, discovery, progressive labels. D, the emancipatory view of education, has at its heart equity, fairness, social and environmental justice.

Chances are you favoured one or two, or perhaps couldn’t decide because they are all important. They are indeed! What is important in all this is not so much that you know the finer details of these goals and approaches (I do invite you to read these works though and ponder further). What I think is important is that they sometimes overlap and complement each other but often they also grate against each other, in spikes and lulls of tension, depending on the context. Don’t believe it? What do you make of a Principal of a blue-collar school ditching Philosophy & Ethics programme with the words “that’s not for our kids”? What do you make of cries of ‘dumbing down’ when the reading requirements replace a classical text with film? How about the frenzy around PISA results? Curriculum wars? Chasing standardised NAPLAN scores versus individual flourish? A colleague that is drilling kids “for their own good” to pass tests while you see their creativity and passion crushed (and vice versa!)? The speak of business ‘competitiveness’ and ‘agility’ while paying lip service to issues of social equity? Examples are endless!

So why is it important to wrestle with this question? Because just about everything you do, everything your school, system, even country’s entire education system does revolves around this question of utility and purpose of educational efforts – the ‘why’, rather than the much more talked about ’what’, ‘how’ or even that bean counting ’how much’. It is rarely a case of one clean purpose and there is a good chance that during your teaching career you may have to dislike a particular purpose and bite your tongue to feed your family but equally stand on the barricades for things and ways of teaching that matter to you deeply. But it is rarely a clean cut. Get used to it.

The talk of things in and beyond your control brings me too my next ‘go to’ line. Be aware that for all the talk of teacher professionalism, you are increasingly at the mercy of people who are largely the least learned about education and want to make things easy, controllable, predictable, especially for their own progeny and/or agendas – parents and politicians. Many times you will bury your face in your palms, curse, worry, rage, shout helplessly (at your school administrator or with them too) about what they demand. They will ignore your professional competency in understanding how you or kids you are in charge of work or would like to work. You will be asked to comply and be encouraged to climb up the ladders of teacher proficiency, where, like your students, you can be measured, evaluated and governed (well, you will govern yourself, from inside by what is stated as desirable by various professional standards bodies…look up ‘governmentality’ for more). You will be cornered by parents who are increasingly positioned as consumers. You will be placed on the pedestal by pundits, who think that your ‘teacher quality’ (important nuance of language of here – see this post by Corinne Campbell) always and necessarily makes up for all other individual and/or structural inequalities that affect you, your students and their parents. Many of them, with good intentions, no doubt, will assign you those mentioned demigod powers … in being an effective, efficient and preferably easily measured technician of the empire they run or want to create.

Definitions of professionalism as something based in trust, sound knowledge and good judgement change with every new lot of ‘accountability’ measures. If you think about it, these measures sit right opposite of trust. In the extreme, we end up acting as a bunch of risk-averse and litigious business partners, ticking boxes to cover our backsides. In the daily reality, we more likely end up with a ton of paperwork. Transactions replacing relationships.

Related to this trend is the increasing importance given to ‘data’. These are ‘data driven’ times, no doubt. Please be aware that data by itself is meaningless, we breathe meaning into it. It also raises more questions than it often answers and there are increasingly sophisticated ways and incentives to manipulate it.  It can be extremely useful but it can also lead to the “business capital view” of good teaching (credit Andy Hargreaves) as something that is technically simple, a quick study, can be mastered readily, should be driven by data, is about enthusiasm, hard work, raw talent and measurable results, and that it is (even) often replaceable with online instruction. Speaking of data – I for one know very little about what and how big a difference I make as teacher in a single kid’s life. How would anyone else know, even ‘measure’ it? Metrics give us the seductive sense of knowing. Education is not a science and there are many problems in seeing it that way.

So what do you do in case “this is not the gig you signed up for”? Just be a good boy/girl, grin and bear it while stewing inside? You don’t have to, no. Pick your battles carefully, embrace the absurdity of institutional life and sometimes laugh subversively. Sometimes that is all you will be able to do, sometimes you will genuinely shift things. Good colleagues and support will be invaluable in doing that. Join a union.

If not already, you will be bombarded with ‘what works’ in teaching. My default short reply to such a complex question comes from Dylan William: In education, everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere. Yes, there are some very appealing, very good but also very dodgy, unsound theories, practices and operators out there (usually but not necessarily making a buck out of it). It always helps to read critique of a particular technique, theory, approach and you can weed the chaff either by yourself or with a colleague or two.

Another good question to ask before adopting ‘the best thing’ is: at the expense of what? Like life, teaching is a stream of trade offs and opportunity costs. Stories of overworked teachers abound. If you just keep adding – you WILL burn out like a moth on a flame! “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle got that one spot on.

This is not necessarily to pooh-pooh everything that comes across your desk. I simply wish that you wisen up and be more circumspect than the chanting Kool Aid crew on board the latest (or recurring) bandwagon. Your skepticism may make you look like a smug bastard who is ‘not a team player’ sometimes but your integrity is worth more than a few extra warm and fuzzies. I hope so.

Check how your colleagues work, learn from and with them – but don’t beat yourself about being them or beating them. In my experience, teachers (myself included of course), have this terrific tendency to find grass greener on the other side. We see a colleague doing something well and think ‘why aren’t I doing this as well’. This is while we are doing something else, and possibly far more important, as well or better that that colleague or another teacher. This breeds a kind of highly corrosive and confidence-sapping ‘status anxiety’. Yet, it only attacks when we compare ourselves with our like-teaching peers. For example, a teacher in a poor school with unmotivated students might genuinely like, even admire stuff done in a well resourced school with highly motivated students but (s)he is not going to lose sleep over it as there is chasm between the two contexts. She will however, fret about not doing something as well as her colleague in the same school, as she ’should be doing better’. Similarly, a new grad might not compare themselves to a veteran of many years but (needlessly) worry about something she is (not) doing as well as her younger peer with the same cohort of kids.

Share and be proud of the good stuff you do, the wins. Absolutely. But it is probably as important if not more important to share the bad stuff. If your lesson fails, you just can’t work with some student or group, you are struggling with demands of a particular kind – say it, honestly so! I remember a young colleague feeling, in her words, “liberated” when she asked a far more experienced colleague to handle a particularly challenging student. The expert came, worked in that class and, when asked by the younger colleague on what to do, replied: “I’m stuffed if I know what to do with this kid.” Eventually the two together worked out a good strategy but the honest admission was the first step to it. In the environment where teachers are sometimes explicitly but mostly implicitly asked to ‘put their best and shiny work forward’ to inspire, get a promotion, make school or themselves look good and similar ‘work on themselves’ (look up Stephen Ball’s seminal work on the notion of ’performativity’), sharing the downs and fails is a brave, not sexy, but essential thing to do.

As a young graduate you are or will be out looking for and getting a job soon. I sincerely hope you get one but don’t forget that sometimes you get a job not because your fantastic grades, or new inspiring ideas or your funky prac or great application. You are simply cheaper than a teacher with years under their belt. And “when education is about the money we have to spend on it, efficiency is the vision, sadly so.” (credit Will Richardson) Evidence of that abounds, sadly so too.

However, when working in a school I sincerely hope that you will and should be afforded at least the same if not more support than someone more experienced. Do not be afraid to ask for a mentor. A good mentor and a bit of extra time to work on your teaching is gold. But please do respect the colleagues who have been at the school before you by neither adoring nor belittling them. I have actually learned many things from new graduates and have been grateful to mentor them in a mutually beneficial way. Plan your lessons but always be prepared to change the plans. As you go along, you will develop your repertoire, your style, own ‘bag of tricks’ that will suit you and only you. It takes time.

Speaking of growing and charting new ground – try to be at the ‘bleeding edge’ of something new. Not (just) to boost your CV but to experience how difficult it is to get adults excited using or doing something that you think it is valuable. Don’t forget those lessons the next time you are sitting in some PD and the speaker is droning, passionately so, about their bee under the bonnet. It is humbling.

You might still be at uni reading this or you have just finished your degree. You are hungry for strategies and tips and ‘what works’ … but a lot of what you have (or had) at uni was about the theory and the pondering rather than the nitty-gritty you are now screaming for. Sounds right? Dear colleague – teaching is so, so incredibly broad that uni will not and cannot prepare you for and how to deal with all eventualities that will happen to you, sometimes in a single day. There was never a lesson to prepare me for what to do when a 13 year old boy starts masturbating at the back of the class, another smearing peers with poo, a refugee with no language, first hand war experience and a bad temper thrown in your hardest class, or thousands (mostly less graphic) examples like that. University is a framework, a base, there to broaden, deepen your horizons, not merely reduce you to the matters of instructional technique with a smattering of essential content. Uni is there to make you think, question, grow, explore, build upon, ideally so. I also understand that my idealism may be misplaced as you just want to get it over with and land that job. I just hope we can have a respectful, stimulating, adult professional conversation in the staffroom.

I could continue on dispensing advice here but you probably have a lesson to prepare or something else. That’s OK, I understand – so do I (I am a teacher, remember). I finish with a plea for you to be kind. To yourself, colleagues, kids you work with. Sometimes the kid who is wrecking your lesson is fighting a battle you know nothing about. It is a hard thing to do because you are fighting your own battle. Seek support, actively so. Unwind regularly, have a hissy fit, laugh a lot, even inappropriately so sometimes. You will be tired (here is why) in this ‘bipolar’ profession as the highs are high and the lows are low. Or as someone (lost the name, sorry) on Twitter quipped: Teaching is like a hangover – after a bad day you swear you’ll never do it again, then you recover and you do it again.

Just do know that teaching is a great profession that the world needs and will continue to do so. It’s a people business. Risky. Messy. Beautiful.

If this post resonates with you and want to chat on, let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @lasic but please do not be offended by the lack of immediate reply – I do have a (teacher’s) life. Cheers.

UPDATE: I have had a response to this post like no other, mostly on social media. Among the congratulatory and grateful comments, these two stood out. They were written by a close friend currently in his first year of teaching and a colleague I used to work with and remains one of my favourite and dearest educators anywhere. Have a read below …

6 comments

  1. kelli

    Yes, a thousand times yes.

    I had some half baked work-life balance ideas in a post this week, but your eloquent reflection here takes the cake.

    For the record, my answer is C. It used to be D. But now I think you can only get to D through C anyway, soooooo…yeah.

  2. malyn

    Mammoth post with so many nuggets. Well done.
    My answer is E) all of the above ….but not all at once and not necessarily for each kid.
    I personally went into teaching for practical reasons and can honestly say, I’ve fallen in love with it. Many I spoke to who went into teaching as a second career would attest that “it is the hardest work I’ve done”.

    It’s not always pretty but if you look at the big picture, it is beautiful.
    It’s not always enjoyable but it doesn’t take much to find joy.
    It’s not always wonderful but seeing wonder in just one kid now and then is filling.
    It’s not always rewarding but then again, which human endeavour really is?
    Not everything is worth it but there are moments that are priceless.
    For now, that is enough.

  3. Tomaz Lasic

    Sure, E is what we’d like to see but, as you say, at different times. And that seems to be the hardest thing to understand by those who ‘know the answers’.

    As something rooted in hope, ‘moments’ is all we have to carry one, especially when the going gets tough.

    Thanks Malyn 🙂

  4. Tomaz Lasic

    E is desirable but unlikely at the same time, so we always work in overlaps and tensions, yes. Absolutely.

    I wrote the post for the space between (or rather beyond!) the polarising rosy-eyed, ‘inspirational’ view of education that gives me small vomits in the mouth when I see it and the negative, educator-bashing and endlessly blaming view of it.

    Thanks for your comment Malyn 🙂

  5. Tomaz Lasic

    How things change eh? As I said in the comment above – see and embrace, work with the tension and run from the solutionists sitting in one camp or another.

    Cheers Kelli, thanks for your comment. I’m off to read your post 🙂

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