Life lessons: A colleague criticises my teaching style

If a colleague finds fault with your teaching, the problem may be theirs, rather than yours, says Tes' maven of manners

Thomas Blaikie

Tes' life lessons: A teachers' guide to manners and etiquette

Dear Thomas, 

It’s never a good sign when a colleague wants to “have a quiet word” – even by email. It was meant to be helpful advice: “Never admit that you don’t know something in your subject area. Your pupils will lose confidence in you.” 

I can’t imagine how this person got to find out what goes on in my classroom, but it’s true, I’ve always been very upfront where I’m not absolutely certain of my knowledge. Is this wrong? How should I reply? 

Halima Khan 

Is it wrong to admit subject ignorance to pupils?

Dear Halima, 

If it were me, I’d be absolutely furious at the interference and feeling of being spied on. Has this teacher been discussing you with pupils? But perhaps it’s best to overlook that aspect and try to understand what’s really going on. 

Everybody knows that education is the key to progress. Yet clichéd notions persist that teaching is a fallback profession for those who can’t think of anything better to do with their lives. I overheard in a restaurant once a smart executive type saying to her companion, of some mutual acquaintance: “She’s only a teacher.” Only!  

This was some time ago. Now, at last, maybe our skill and expertise are beginning to be recognised. But there are many miles to go. 

So I’d be the last to say that teaching is just technique, that knowledge is marginal. Quite the opposite – particularly at the secondary level, the more people with outstanding credentials in their subject who come into teaching, the better. 

Although saying that might not have a good effect on your colleague if, as I suspect, insecurity is the underlying issue. In my 25 years as a teacher, I found anxiety about not knowing things to be rife. Several colleagues stated quite adamantly that they would never admit to ignorance. 

Now, not having prepared the lesson – that’s something else. There was that wicked teacher who was asked if she’d read a certain book: “Read it?” she replied indignantly. “I haven’t taught it yet.” 

No such thing as a body of infallible knowledge

But when pupils ask questions slightly beyond the immediate topic, as we hope they will, and you’re not quite sure of the answer or can’t quite remember, why on earth not say so? Can’t they be encouraged to find out for themselves? 

Or, maybe now and again, you’ll give them some information that is quite definitely wrong and they’ll come back the next day and tell you so.

As we know all too well from recent experience, experts disagree or make predictions that turn out to be false. This does not mean that they are worthless or can be dispensed with. It is simply how it is. To give young people the idea that there is some body of infallible knowledge never to be questioned is not just misleading, but positively dangerous. They will not be prepared for what they have to confront in adult life. 

If you can manage it, I suggest a sympathetic approach to your colleague. Really, they’re the one with the problem, which I think is quite commonplace among teachers. As I’ve said many times, it isn’t just the low esteem in which we are often held by society and the difficult working conditions (especially now) that can make us feel undervalued – teaching is an art, we work in isolation, we often progress is by slow degrees, we never really know if we’re doing a good job… 

So you can understand that your colleague might have a complex about admitting to even the tiniest lapse of knowledge. But it’s the cover-up that’s disastrous. Pupils will smell out a weakness at once.

By the sound of it, you’ve got the right idea. Be upfront. Don’t be ashamed. You’re a fine example. You liberate your pupils. You’re giving them a proper education. To promote real solidarity among teachers, you should encourage your colleague to see it that way, too. 

What to do about those who constantly criticise others?

What to do about those who constantly criticise others? Factions, gossip, even gangs – adults are supposed to be adult, but rarely are. Finding fault with others, making outrageous claims, might be entertaining – or just grim and smug. 

The appeal is the same – you’ve got somebody to look down on from a superior height. It’s a comfortable position. For some, it’s the foundation of their existence, without which they might, in fact, cease to exist. 

Keeping up the idea that the world would function perfectly if only others met their responsibilities properly, if only so-and-so had done this or that, holds at bay the more frightening possibility that much in life is contingent and random. 

Social media abounds with motivational homilies (“Starve your distractions, feed your focus”) calling for virtuous conduct, condemnation of the selfish, the immature. “Get toxic people out of your life” is a routine exhortation. 

There may be a rap beat, a cool rhythm, but really it might as well be a lot of 19th-century vicars moralising away. The older I get, the less I can stand all this effortful striving for perfection with its accompanying intolerance. Maybe I’ve gone soft in the head, or given up. 

It’s an odd position for a manners correspondent, you might think. Judgementalism, if I can call it that, is passive aggressive (or pass ag. You see, I have heard of the modern world). Criticisers love to criticise. They’ve got a vested interest in things not changing. They have the same conversations, complaining, over and over again. But they never do anything about it. 

The really awful thing is – how about this? – could it be that those persistently dissatisfied with others are really most dissatisfied with themselves? How much better it would be (here I am, falling straight into the moralising trap myself) if we all thought, “What can I do to make things better?

Thomas Blaikie was a secondary English teacher for 25 years. He is author of Blaikie’s Guide to Modern Manners (4th Estate)

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