On the first day of my PGCE course, my tutor at the UCL Institute of Education asked the group a seemingly innocent question: “What makes a good teacher?”
Sensing our hesitation, she added that we would be asked the same question again at the end of the course. Our answer on the first day wouldn’t be perfect, but neither would our answer on the last day.
It was not the answers, but the distance between them that mattered: between the expectation and the reality. Somewhere in that gap lies the answer to the question.
None of us, on that day in September, could have foreseen quite how large that gap would turn out to be. No other cohort has ever experienced a year like this one, with our second placements coming to an abrupt end, together with the crucial opportunity to spend the rest of the year in classrooms trying, and failing, and failing better.
Explaining the unthinkable
But when, in years to come, I look back on the last few weeks, I won’t be brooding on something that I’ve lost.
I’m confident that, with the help of the consistently excellent, fleet-footed team at the IoE, rules will be rewritten, people will adapt and even the most rigid systems will find ways to flex – as will be necessary in so many areas of life. We will get our QTS, and all the worries we felt over this will fade.
What I will remember instead is everything I’ve witnessed over the past few weeks in my placement school, Westminster Academy in central London.
I’ve seen teachers find ways to explain unthinkable things and answer unanswerable questions with honesty, respect and an intrinsic sensitivity to the light and shadow in a teenager’s understanding of the world.
I’ve heard talk in the staffroom progress through mild curiosity, rumour, speculation, fear, anger and silence to practicality and resolution (sometimes in a single conversation).
Reinventing the work of centuries
I’ve heard teachers – against their own interests and wellbeing – grow increasingly certain that schools must not close, even as the rest of the world self-isolates, works from home and locks down.
I’ve seen them contemplating how the most social job in the world can work without people and the interplay between them.
I’ve seen teachers (already stretched to their limit before any of this) question how everything they know from their own experience of teaching – how everything we know from hundreds of years of teaching – can change overnight, then sit down without ceremony and reinvent it all in a 20-minute meeting.
These same teachers have still gone out of their way, in the midst of all this, to come and observe my lessons, and offer advice and support right up until my last day in school.
Above all, I’ve seen all of the stresses and complications and ambiguities of the job boil down to the simplest thing: teachers worrying about their kids, because they know their lives, and deep down they care more about them than they know how to say.
I’ve heard the voice of a principal – a self-described “tough one” – falter as she talked about her fear of what might happen to children in a world without school, then find its strength again as she expressed her determination that the school would not fail them.
Resilience, calm and compassion
As a trainee, it’s a rare pleasure to feel that you’ve stolen a march and completed some small scrap of work ahead of a due date. But, when it comes to my second attempt at “What makes a good teacher?”, I already know what I’ll write.
There have been times on this course when I questioned why I was doing this, whether I had made the right choice – whether this, after all, was the job for me. But, in the darkness of the last few weeks, the answers to all of my questions have become abundantly clear, and what I’ve seen all around me has dispelled all possible doubt.
When you’re training to be a teacher, words like “standards”, “duty of care” and “professionalism” can seem like empty buzzwords. In the past few weeks, I found out what they really mean. There are hard times ahead for teachers, but everything I’ve seen has instilled me with confidence that they, together with their incredible students, will meet the challenges we face.
The resilience, calm and compassion of teachers in response to this crisis will be an example that I will take with me as I begin my career, and for as long as it lasts.
Who knows what new and unexpected forms that career may now take, but one thing is clear: I’ve never been more certain that I want to teach.
Peter Langdon is a PGCE student at the UCL Institute of Education, in London. He tweets as @langdonhistory