It's a Wonderful Life is as close to my Desert Island movie as I can imagine, if the island were off the coast of Norway in December. Sometimes written off as being as sweet and sickly as a melted marshmallow, the film contains moments of pure despair that makes The Seventh Seal look like The Care Bears. This is something I wrote about it, and teaching, a few years ago, and every year I repost it because I still mean every word, and sometimes it's time to put down the sabre and stare at the snow falling.
Finally watched Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life last night, and if you are one of the two or three dozen who haven't yet met this charming American filmic myth, then let me be the latest in a long line of people to say, somewhat redundantly, that it's a masterpiece. (In other news: fire is hot.) It is, for those of you living in Survivalist communes in Nebraska, a tale of the little guy who makes a difference in his community, being rescued from the brink of despair by a poignant Christmas Carol meme of 'what if?' Lionel Barrymore, I'm afraid to say, is as wooden as Patsy Kensit as the Guardian Angel. But Jimmy Stewart can play likeable everyman characters in a way that makes Tom Hanks appear edgy and controversial.
What stood out for me as a teacher was a central theme that rang a tuning fork in my hard heart: how we barely notice the differences we make in other peoples' lives, and, unlike George Bailey, we rarely meet a divine messenger to point out how things might have been, unlike say, Scrooge, or Saul of Tarsus, both of whom got special supernatural assistance to guide them back onto Straight Street. Coincidentally, yesterday two things happened that, figuratively speaking, showed me the ghosts of Christmas past and future.
The first one was a simple card from an ex-pupil, one who had left several years previously. Because I'm not entirely an ass, I'll spare you the details, but in summary it was a kind, thoughtful thank you for helping him get through his A levels and for contributing in some small way to his present position at university. I suspect that in years to come I'll be greeted by boxes of flaming avian offal pushed through my letter box once students appreciate the debt they now enjoy thanks to my university goading, but I'll deal with that when it comes. It was a lovely card, and came at the end of a day when I had to deal with some difficult behaviour that, while entirely routine, required the routine responses, paperwork, and colleague-bothering that we know and love when it comes to working the system. All resolved, lots of good outcomes and conversations, but tiring and time-consuming. The sort of thing that eats away any spare time you might have jealously accumulated in the noble hope that you might actually be able to achieve something you want done, as opposed to meeting the endless requirements of working in any hierarchal institution.
The second thing was beautiful: a reply from a correspondent on the TES Behaviour Forums to whom I had offered some of my unworthy advice several days back. Normally I don't expect replies, because, well, because everyone's busy and frankly I (and many other regulars) do it because we enjoy it, and perhaps because we should. I shouldn't be amazed -- but I still am -- how frequently behaviour in an internet context can degenerate so quickly into oddball aggression and nastiness. Mostly the forum is calm, mannered and polite, and it feels like a Platonic exchange of ideas between adults and professionals. But sometimes, just sometimes, some miserable troll rocks up, no doubt sitting at home in their underwear, eating chocolate, staring at their empty calendar and sweating. Their odd antics are too unlovely to be called strategies, but they usually revolve around posting creepy, near-the-knuckle questions that often have a frighteningly sexual tone to them, or reacting to any suggestions like cranky children, taking offence in the strangest of ways. They're like the big hard guys in pubs who spill their own pints and then say, 'Did you spill my pint?' Except these cyberscoundrels wouldn't dream of challenging anyone unless it was through the curtain of anonymity that broadband affords them.
Every week or so, amongst the grown-ups and the professionals, you get one of these, and they can make you think, 'Why do I bother? I don't have to take this sh*t,' especially if you've spent 20 minutes of your valuable, non-reclaimable existence crafting a response to their questions. But once in a while, you get a response like the one I got yesterday. To be brief, it was a teacher I advised who responded by saying thank you, that what I had said had helped, and that it had given her a bit of confidence to carry on when things looked a little bleak.
I'm under no illusions about the depth or the quality of the advice I give on the forum; I'm just another teacher, like many others, plugging away and hoping that what we do is the right thing. I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, nor do I imagine that my opinions are either definitive or final. The same with my teaching; I work my ass off, care my ass off, and try my best to make sure that I'm doing exactly what I'm paid to do at least, and then some, if there's time. Why? Because there's nothing more important than what happens to the kids in our care; that's our duty, and it's a sacred one. This isn't a job, that you walk into, and punch out at five o'clock; this is a vocation, like the priesthood or cabaret. You have to love your subject, love working with kids, and love teaching them. If you don't, you won't ever be truly happy doing it. But if you do, then you'll see that it's one of the best, most important roles you can ever have.
Many new teachers enter the profession wanting -- demanding -- to change the world, to transform the lives of children like Messiahs in cardigans and flats, and good for them that they want to. But then they find their passion and enthusiasm are cold currency in a climate that requires tenacity, dedication and rigour before they can often even reach the ones they want to help. Many give up because their illusions are shattered. Many more persevere, but smoulder with resentment and disappointment that things weren't fair, that things weren't the way that they expected them to be; they stay on, they teach, they end up hating it. I have nothing but sympathy and professional camaraderie for both groups.
But teachers should realise that they will never change the entire world by themselves, no more than you could push the earth out of its orbit by putting your shoulder to a cliff side. That's not what we do; that's not what anyone does. The way you change the world is one square metre at a time; look in front of you and say, 'What needs fixing? How can I help?' Then you do what you are capable of, no more, no less; and you go home and sleep at night, not kept awake by guilty demons that whisper at you, 'You failed, nothing has changed, nothing is better. Give up.'
That's what we do: we plug away and we try to make the world a better place. You might never 'transform' a child's life; but that's not the benchmark of good teaching. You do your best, and you give them the best damn education you can. You provide them with safe, supportive environments characterised by discipline and tough love. You do your best. And mark this: your best will not, sometimes, be enough, and you will fail, and children will pass through your care and fall off the map, seemingly no better for having encountered you. But we must -- we must -- keep going, because many of them will be helped, and some of them will be helped a lot. We play the odds, and we play a long game.
We are small, but significant links in other peoples' lives, in a chain that goes on for ever in both directions; but links we are, and as supporting characters in the melodramas of the lives of others, we are required to ask one simple question: do we want to help, or harm? Everything else follows from that. It is an honour to be able to assist a student into adulthood; it is an honour to be able to offer advice to a fellow professional when they need some TLC, because I remember the times when I have needed support and assistance, when I was weak and when I failed. Like George Bailey after his illumination, I am grateful every day for the chance to play the smallest part in the lives of other humans. That, dear friends, is why after moments like yesterday I felt like running down the High Street of Anytown, America, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and laughing in the face of Mr Potter.
It's a wonderful job.
Tom Bennett, 2009