Stop pretending you’re perfect in every single lesson, and be honest about when teaching is hard
Teachers tend to bottle things up. Bombarded by quotes, slogans, adverts and prizes that lionise and romanticise the inspirational classroom practitioner and their impact on their students, it’s easy to see why if you don’t have that magical classroom experience you wouldn’t want to talk about it.
We probably all set pretty high standards of ourselves and our practice. We want to be brilliant: creative, inspiring and motivational figures who remain in our students’ memories for years to come. Trying to live up to that standard can be pretty hard, especially when it’s probably unrealistic most of the time.
We don’t really talk about failings. You hear lots of teachers saying things like ‘I taught it to them yesterday: today – completely gone!’ or ‘how many times do I need to tell them that delocalised electrons aren’t the answer to everything?’. But these comments are student-focused, they aren’t reflections on where we’ve found things hard or got things wrong.
For me, the big one has been behaviour. I doubt I’m particularly remarkable in saying that I’ve struggled with student behaviour. Dealing with difficult classes can be debilitating, leaving us feeling frustrated at the lack of progress and guilty about the way we managed the behaviour. Sleepless nights and malicious dreams of itinerant classes utterly out of control have, at times in my career, been the norm. Do we talk about the impact of that on our mental health? Are we full and frank with our colleagues in person and online about how we feel about it?
We need to pretend to be superheroes a little less
This problem gets exacerbated by the ease with which some blame teachers for poor behaviour: the lesson wasn’t engaging enough, learning wasn’t active enough, relationships weren’t good enough, didn’t praise enough, didn’t cater for their needs enough… and so on. The problem with all of those statements (and we’ve all heard them) is how open to counterexample they are. Somehow, students who I’ve just met manage to behave fine in our first lesson, despite no relationship. Students who I have fantastic relationships with still manage to mess around. Active, engaging lessons result in my students turning ‘work talk’ into what is clearly ‘Love Island talk’. Lessons that are dry, boring and feature lengthy periods of silent independent work seem to feature no misbehaviour when they are delivered by the deputy head.
So I don’t buy it. Saying things like the above doesn’t help: it makes things worse. Instead of saying ‘oh man that’s awful, I get that a lot too’, you are saying ‘it’s actually your fault, and you need to be less like you and more like me’. The former statement is empathetic, supportive and healing. The latter is narcissistic, suppressive and harmful. If we were more supportive when our colleagues spoke about their problems, we could really help them try to cope with a maelstrom of negative feeling and emotion. If it isn’t just me that struggles with this, then I can afford to feel just a little bit less bad about myself. We might even get better at bringing the issues into a wider light and finding solutions that lie not in individual teachers battling within the classroom, but in political and social change at the school or nation level.
We need to be more open, and pretend to be superheroes a little less.
Leading by example
I’m starting at a new school in September and will be leading a department. I’m surrounded online and in various networks by people who have been running departments for years and are smooth, slick and totally in their flow. In my day-to-day life, I probably come across as confident and assured, but to tell you the truth I’m pretty damn nervous about the whole thing. I’m worried about leadership: about my teaching needing to be exemplary, my organisation on point, my long-term vision crystal clear and my management of colleagues deft, perceptive and maximising their performance.
I’m not looking for advice when I make this confession. Please don’t tell me I’ll be fine or that I just need to make sure I do x, y and z. All I want is for you to say ‘yeah, it’s going to be hard – but that’s normal. Let me know if I can help.’ No more, no less.