Methink he doth protest too much*

When I linked to The Spectator article by Anthony Seldon in my previous piece on personal qualities, I actually used an article I hadn’t seen before, the content being the same as that reported elsewhere. It repaid further reading, and is worth quoting from here:

“I pay absolutely no heed to whether someone has a teaching qualification or not. What I do look at is whether someone has the human qualities to make a great teacher. They need energy, passion for their subjects and for teaching, a readiness to learn, an altruistic nature, integrity and intelligence. Some eccentricity definitely helps, though is not a necessity.

Lack these qualities and you will never be a great teacher, regardless of how many years you have spent in training. Those who do have them may be raw and naïve. They may have a difficult first year in the classroom – the best teachers I know often had a difficult start, because they are sensitive and vulnerable, and they had the courage to be themselves in front of the children, as opposed to retreating into a safe and manicured persona. They learn how to retain their own characters and vulnerability, while not letting themselves be squashed, and the children love them for it.”

My confidence in his argument began to grow, and I even felt some latter-day comfort as I did indeed have a difficult start in teaching, yet consider myself to have become at least an adequate teacher and hopefully reflect those qualities. Note the phrase, “An altruistic nature”.

Altruism is a difficult concept, but it has practically become the Nicene Creed of teaching. It is a sine qua non to be ‘only here for the children’, to be ultra-dedicated to one’s work, to place it above all else in one’s life – and to say so at every opportunity. Particularly if you want to get on.

To my mind, this didn’t always ring true, the more so as I married, and have aged and tired a little. I think Anthony Seldon  realises this too. What’s more, such messianic dedication – if that is what it is – comes at a sometimes self-defeating price, as the ever-reflective John Tomsett has recently realised. Apart from anything else, as with all cult mindsets, you eventually start to believe it yourself.

The scope for double, triple and quadruple-think here is mind-boggling . But I’m not setting myself as any kind of enlightened Buddha. The fact that I quietly give thanks most weeks that I have never ascended the staircase of power does not mean I claim any prescience in that respect. As a young teacher, I too applied for promotions, got interviews and received good feedback – but somehow it never felt like the right thing to do, and I know from that same feedback that the uncertainty showed. It has only been in the last few years, not least while watching colleagues of my age bending under the pressure to deliver initiatives I knew they didn’t agree with, being moved further away from the class teaching they loved, sometimes getting the wrong end of bad career moves, that I felt that such relief not to be part of it. If nothing else, I have retained the relative ability to remain true to my own values and motives. It also made it (marginally) less guilt-ridden to take a day off on Friday for the first time in terms, when I had a bad stomach bug; s*d the bottle of cheap wine for 100% attendance…

It also means that I feel no shame in saying that sometimes I get sick of teaching itself. It’s just the sheer intensity of it all, the way it infiltrates your every waking moment – and when you wake at four in the morning – on a Sunday of all days – with a lesson plan in your head, you know something is out of balance. Not that thinking about writing an edu-blog helps in that, I should add.

But this does not, in my honest belief, make me a bad or uncommitted teacher. It is a simple recognition of the fact that everyone needs a break from the coal face, and to deny that is at best unwise, and even damaging, as Tomsett has had the courage to admit. Obsessiveness tends not to be healthy.

What’s more, as a perpetually-inquisitive person (which I would hope is considered a good product of education), my interests don’t stop at the school gate. (My wife says ‘driven’ is a better word). I am just as active in a whole range of other fields: several full-on hobbies and a number of personal intellectual and practical interests. I have been published and have even fronted commercial DVD’s in one utterly trivial field and am reasonably accomplished locally in another. I say this not through hubris, but because they are the kinds of things that one might expect many supposedly educated people might do – in other words, take their roving, energetic minds well beyond their work. That – surely – we could count as a success for education. One school I applied to some years ago published mini-biogs of its leaders on its website; one deputy also led the local county orchestra. I wonder how many teachers – especially senior ones – do such things today. I also remember that my old head of History was working on the county’s Victoria History, while the Head of Music was also choirmaster and organist at the local (large) parish church. To me, these activities were just as altruistic as their classroom commitment – and again, I suspect that Seldon knows this (after all, he has many other irons in his own fire, not least as a biographer of Blair, writer of other books, and pro-social activist).One might even hope that schools would still recognise all this as good role-model stuff.

What none of these people did was fly their colours from their personal battlements at every opportunity. As I have said elsewhere, maybe this is where I was too naive. I assumed that ‘quality would out’ – without the uncomfortable need for self-promotion. But this was not so. I can say hand-on-heart  that Career was never anything I did for self-aggrandisement. If I’m honest, given the means I would rather spend my time pursuing those other interests – but I need to eat, and therefore I wanted to do a job that was also contributive, socially useful and not damaging in a societal or ethical sense. I also wanted professional responsibilities and some intellectual self-esteem. But that’s all.

Mr. Chips-style old-school teaching was seen by many as a dead-end job – but that was not necessarily so, if your priorities accorded with those outlined above. What you didn’t expect was a meteoric rise in power and influence with a salary (but also stress) to match. In some implicit sense, you traded those things for the sake of your pupils’ education (you were genuinely there for them) – and to some extent your own ability to be relatively self-directed.

I fear that a combination of social change, the machinations of Affluenza, and the particular pressures that have been put on the teaching profession have changed this forever and rendered people like me dinosaurs before our time. But it may also have perverted the notion of altruism in the process. There is one thing that no present-day  ‘successful’ (for which read senior) teacher in the country has sacrificed for their pupils – and that is their career.

With the promise of great career progression, (always accompanied by lots of adverts with good-looking young teachers leading classes of equally good-looking and racially-representative happy young children) – and, without apparently seeing the irony, management progression within just a few years – teachers’ loyalties were instantly divided. A conflict was set up between what the teacher wants from the situation (i.e. rapid career success, more pay) and what the pupils might notionally want (i.e. caring teacher/role-models and a stable, well-founded education). While that tension was always there in the background, the outcome of any educative process is now just as much about the teacher (and the system) demonstrating their own efficacy as what the pupils get out of it. This is seen in both the need to demonstrate spurious results from each lesson or class, no matter whether the actual impact will be many years more in showing (when the teachers have moved on and up, of course) – and the need to trumpet your own amazing, undying, martyr-like commitment to being the personal champion of your pupils at every opportunity. I’m simply not convinced that this is the win-win situation that is suggested by those adverts.

To my eyes, the level of self-absorption of some teachers is quite alarming – almost as though they are the ones on test, which in career terms, of course, they are. Their lessons and indeed many other interactions with pupils are designed to demonstrate ‘good practice’ as much as a genuine interaction between two admittedly unequal people – and to be seen by others to be so. I don’t blame them for this, least of all in any individual, personal sense – it is what the system has demanded of them in return for the promised golden egg. But whether it delivers altruistically good effects for pupils is another matter. Apart from anything more substantive, I suspect most people, children included, can sense when others are being genuine and when they’re being manipulative.

I also happen to believe that you should aspire to a job because you are suitable for it, not vice versa. Maybe my early lack of self-belief accounted for part of my own experiences in that respect. But when people talk about getting a new job in the sense of getting a new car, I fear that it is just another exercise in commodification, just another trade-up and suitability, let alone altruism, doesn’t come into it. A one-year driver can, in theory still buy a Ferrari. This is all the more so when you hear of people covering their own weaknesses or inexperience by getting others to provide not just the odd insight but whole blocks of the application form, or covering up weak written English by getting others to deep-check it. That’s trading-up using a dodgy credit card. If you get a job, in my humble opinion, you should get it on your own merits, warts and all, and for a teacher poor English is a pretty big wart. Even here, I don’t really blame people for doing this; after all, the rest of the educational system is gaming just about everything else it can, it’s possibly just the wider culture anyway – and when the system is gaming you, why not try to get your own back?

But whether it does much for the notion of true altruism is another matter entirely.  Certainly, I know a good number of younger teachers in several schools who claim to be in teaching simply because it suits them – and they say they will be perfectly prepared to walk away as and when it ceases to do so. Whether they mean it is another matter of course. Again I don’t remotely blame them – it’s the way they have been forced to be – but again altruism, as a quality, is the casualty.

And does the system reward such altruism? Well, martyrdom is nearer the mark from what I can see – read John Tomsett again. In darker moments (like recuperating from illness) I am uncomfortably reminded of a scene in Gandhi (the 1982 Ben Kingsley film)  It’s here – if you can bear it:

To summarise, I believe that altruism is connected with honesty; it is what is done unseen, and certainly should not be conflated with martyrdom, least of all when the quality actually on show is intended to be neither. The altruism of the teacher is towards society, not just a particular group of children –  not forgetting that the teacher, too, is part of that society. In some senses, even a teacher’s charity should begin at home – but quietly.

*which is know is a misquote…

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