Being a teacher: from idealism to responsibility

August 14, 2016

I remember that when I decided to train as a teacher, it was because of my love of reading and literature, and a desire to pass this on to others, to share my enjoyment. It now seems rather naive and idealistic, but it sustained me through training, teaching practice, and ultimately a career which was very satisfying and which I would not have exchanged for any other.

I always wanted to encourage students to think for themselves, to discuss, to argue, to disagree, and come to logical conclusions. I wanted them to enjoy my subject, as well as to learn how to read critically, write accurately, and express themselves in public. I hoped to foster a spirit of independence; I wanted students to use their minds and intellects; I wanted to challenge them, and – just as important – to be challenged by them. I often succeeded in this last aim, and it was one of the things that kept me on my toes, as I strove to remain one step ahead…tiring but very rewarding.

I also worked with trainee teachers and new teachers, and saw many have problems establishing the right rapport with pupils and students, who actually don’t want their teacher to be their friend or equal. I also initially had some problems with striking the balance between familiarity and distance, but I also understood that I was an expert who had knowledge to offer and impart. Students need to know that there are clear boundaries, and what these are, before any good relationship between them and a teacher is possible; once the parameters of that relationship are clear, then a relaxed atmosphere for real learning and discussion will be established. I could and did erupt with great fury if certain limits were transgressed, and never did feel guilty about this (it was a rare occurrence); the point is that if the class were clear about why that happened, once the incident was over we could all heave a sigh of relief and get back to where we had been before. This also led me to realise that it’s really important for a teacher – who is the grown-up in the classroom after all – not to bear grudges or hold resentment or dislike of a student, who must be allowed the possibility of starting over again.

In a classroom, everyone should respect everyone else; in a discussion, all have a right to express an opinion and not to be mocked or shouted down by anyone. And if an unacceptable opinion was voiced – racist, sexist or whatever – then it should not go unchallenged, yet the challenge must clearly be to the idea not the person. It’s easy to say this; clearly I achieved some of it by being a male with a loud voice and the initial power of authority, but that’s not the basis for a sustained and healthy learning situation; I think I usually managed to make it clear that I objected to an idea rather than the student.

I believed it was always important to be honest and truthful – although there were questions which I felt were off-limits (usually personal ones – again, I have the right to a private life without being too precious about it, and “that’s none of your business” isn’t really a helpful line here) and this meant that there could be no censorship in my classroom. I would explain that we could discuss any subject that came up, as long as the class was capable of approaching it sensibly, with an appropriate level of maturity and sensitivity. And they almost always were; if not, we moved briskly on. And so, many topics were explored in my classroom that I knew other colleagues would not touch, that produced raised eyebrows if mentioned in the staffroom. If given a safe setting, year nine pupils were perfectly capable of discussing homosexuality, drug use, abortion, race or any other hot potato quite rationally and sensibly.

I suppose I never really attempted to conceal my left-wing views; given what I said in the previous paragraph, it would have been difficult. Equally, I knew I had a responsibility not to propagandise or indoctrinate. I often used to play devil’s advocate in order to broaden the scope of a discussion or range of views; if asked my opinion I would explain it clearly and then invite questions, comments, challenges; I would often state that “other views are available”. Only once do I recall being taken to task by a parent who felt that I was pushing my views onto a class because I had criticised a certain Margaret Thatcher. We had a lengthy and interesting exchange of views, and I think she accepted what I was trying to do, in the end.

I accepted that students didn’t have to like me, and some didn’t; they didn’t have to enjoy reading, and quite a lot didn’t; they didn’t have to like my subject, though many did, and I will admit to many moments of disappointment when English wasn’t on a student’s list to continue into the sixth form, but students have career choices to make and they would always continue to read, anyway…

It’s only with the passage of time, as my career drew to a close, that I gradually came to realise what an immense responsibility I had. It took quite a number of years before I realised that I had garnered a wealth of knowledge and experience about relating to and dealing with awkward teenagers, whereas parents were meeting issues for the first time as their offspring hit the teens, and that they often sought advice. It became trickier when I saw, from a student’s perspective, unhelpful things parents were saying and doing; nevertheless it was often possible to advise them, at the same time as telling them I’d deny ever saying it if challenged by their parents…

In my previous post I mentioned that my teachers were ‘characters’; I think there’s something eccentric in most good teachers. I’m sure my former students would have much to say on this topic; I’m aware that I sneezed extremely loudly, and that I had a good line in seventeenth century verbal abuse…

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One Response to “Being a teacher: from idealism to responsibility”

  1. Saki Says:

    Oh, if only all of our teachers had the same, level headed and logical approach to the classroom and engaging each child the way you do! Wonderful insight and perspective…and yes, most of my amazing teachers are to some degree, eccentric, but well- loved all the same😉

    Like


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