So, I've been nominated for the Global Teacher Prize. It's such a surreal situation to find myself in that I wasn't going to write about it, for fear of being buried in an avalanche of hubris. Then it seemed to me that, given I blog about anything larger than buying a new pencil case (even then, I've got form), it was simply affectation to not write about it. So here I am, writing about it.
If you're even vaguely British, you'll wriggle like a worm in a jam jar of vinegar at the thought of public self-aggrandisement. It seems from a distance like the aim of everyone who puts sweat into anything, but the minute someone grants you that external validation, a lot of ghosts are raised. Fraud syndrome for one. Tall poppy syndrome for another. Guilt of course, like survivor guilt. "Why you?", the ghosts wail like Marley's wraith. They probably have a point. I'd sooner self-immolate than consider myself anything like a world-class teacher. There are better teachers, I'm sure, in any school in the kingdom. Hell, there are probably better teachers in the service lift of my local mini-market.
It's an honour of course, even to be nominated, and I'd be both a liar and a hypocrite to say that I wasn't blushing to the tip of my coccyx with pride. I look at the others on the top 50 list, like Andrews Nchessie Or Vese Vesela Bogdanovic, and I think, good god, these are some astonishing people. I'd be lucky to share a table with them, let alone a list.
The only way I can bear the laurel wreath is by acknowledging what the prize is really trying to do: raise the status of the profession internationally through the lens of something that catches the eye and the imagination: a competition. But it isn't a competition, of course. Everyone there has already won. Nobody is competing with anyone. My Dad asked, "What do they make you do in the final?" like it was the last episode of the Apprentice. And the children of the list teachers, whether they know it or not, they're winners too.
The nominations were announced on the same day I slipped a vertebrae, which I can assure you is no picnic. As I was grimacing in A&E at 4am I was getting texts of congratulation. I can only assume the universe was having a little chuckle at me; apparently God is a Karmic entity.
It's interesting – a lot has been written and said about how we assess the quality of teaching and, at the same time, what makes a great teacher. This competition doesn't devalue that debate because it doesn't seriously make an attempt to empirically answer that question. It's more of an Oscars than an Olympic track event. It's a pageant more than a marathon. And that's fine – the point is to hold up the profession to the world as something valuable. Maybe we don't need a million dollars to focus our attention, but in a world where talking dogs and trivia compete with earthquakes for the news cycle, it helps remind everyone else.
My Teacher Oscars
What I can do is mention some teachers who, to me, are Olympic athletes in their own way. What better way to reflect on a teaching prize than by giving out a few of my own to the people who would be standing on a podium if I ruled the school?
When I started teaching, I met George Wrigley, the Head of Department at the Ellen Wilkinson School in Ealing, London. I've met many kind, patient men in my profession, but George was the right man at the right time for me. When I was exploring the paths less travelled, he was the difference between me packing it all in and diving in boots first. Wise, deep and tall, without his careful, considerate introduction to the game, I would have gone back to running smoky discos. It was an honour to watch him being ordained a few years later in St Paul's Cathedral; now he runs a different classroom as Reverend Wrigley in the Lake District.
Joe Dawson was a man who started a few years after me at Raine's Foundation School; young, ambitious and bursting with ideas and enthusiasm for students, he was like a Teach Firster without the implants and ninja training and blood sacrifice. He made head of sociology and head of year in about five minutes after he qualified, and for once it wasn't a battlefield promotion of expediency and witlessness that led to his advancement. He was brilliant at both, and I'm not ashamed to say that even though I was technically his line manager, I learned more watching his lessons than I ever did on a PGCE. True to form, he achieved escape velocity and now he teaches children in Vietnam. Teachers like him are rarer than diamonds; you could fuel a small town with his energy.
Anna Chruszczyk came here from Poland seven years ago; from a standing start of nothing, she began as a teaching assistant until her qualifications could be recognised here (this was pre-loosening by Gove, when such things were an impediment to recruitment). She leaped over every barrier that migration could throw at her up until she became, quite sincerely, one of the best teachers I have ever worked with; structured, prepared, possessed of bottomless levels of patience and altruism. I often compare my own ragged, apparently formless, maverick teaching with hers and use it as a baseline with which to remedy my more obvious defects. I'll also confess an interest here; reader, I married her. Not because of her teaching, I'll add.
I could mention dozens more. They – and many more – walk away with my gold statuettes. They're as different as rubies and pearls, and they have their own style as much as any artist or maestro. And there are teachers just like them all over the world, if we don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs by vain attempts at standardising excellence. Like all forms of excellence or genius, we nurture it; we give it soil in which to blossom, not desiccate it in a hothouse or clip it into a supposed ideal form like a Bonsai.
That's world-class teaching.