No teacher is perfect - so stop beating yourself up

It's easy to undermine your own ability as a teacher. It's time to accept the chaos and start believing in yourself, writes Sarah Simons

Even confident teachers can easily find weaknesses in their work and undermine themselves, writes Sarah Simons

The sneaky language we sometimes use to undermine ourselves can stick. Without planning to, it can creep past the "what I feel like on a bad day" narrative and furtively rest as our own accepted norm. Though my self-esteem grows ever more solid and my skin’s now as thick as a Roman wall, I still have many a mean little brain-trick to play on myself, just to reinforce that I’m not really good enough.

One is about how I negatively compare myself to other teachers.

Evidence tells me that though I would never claim to be a consistent grade one-er (doesn’t exist, mate) my students progress, and I know what I’m doing – and if I don’t know I have the confidence to ask for help. But I am lacking in organisation skills.


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Administrative prowess 

Because of this, I always regard teachers I admire in the classroom and who possess administrative prowess as proper teachers. The ones with an immaculate filing system, who can pull out a resource on something very specific with a magician’s flick o’ the wrist. The ones who use their scheme of work as a well considered prescription, rather than a loose guide (as I do). They are the proper teachers.

When I’m giving myself a kicking in my mind, the skills of efficiency and self-management are far more important than the ability to help students grow, develop, learn. In reality, planning and organising are definitely important but not necessarily the most important aspect of teaching. But of course, on off days, I dwell on the ostensible tidiness of mind that proper teachers must have, because my own is lacking.

I gallop through sessions, roaming wildly off on different tangents, and end up a horizon away from the initial plan. But if I see an interesting opportunity for learning about something near to the point of the session (or sometimes, just something exciting and useful) then I find it hard to stick to the path. I would like to have an uncluttered brain, I would like to be a proper teacher.

Subject specialist

Another habitual self-booting is on how I negatively compare myself to people I think of as clever.

I sometimes perceive people who’ve delved deep into a specific subject, perhaps their teaching specialism, or those whose careers are based in academia, as the grown ups. I know! GROWN UPS? I’m forty friggin’ five. How grown does one have to be to reach the point where you don’t feel like a daft kid who’s winging it? A light sprinkle of "They’re cleverer than me" can clamp chains on you without you even realising.

Here’s an example. I love a story, a turn of phrase, a word in just the right place. But I’m a slow reader and have the attention span of a wasp, so I didn’t find out that I love studying literature until taking an Open University course a couple of years ago. The fact that almost everyone seems to know more about literature than me has held me back too.

The Handmaid's Tale

One of the many important books that has passed me by is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Though I haven’t seen the TV series either, I know the broad themes. It’s hard to miss the quiet symbol of red cloaked, shielded faced protesters as a statement of resistance in this world of seemingly diminishing female equality.

I was too scared to have a go at the book though, and assumed it would be too difficult for me. Even though I’m only a few months away from finishing my literature degree and logic would suggest that even if it was difficult, I could manage it, I secretly saw it as a "grown up" book, so obviously not one for me…

I’d like to say that the reason I eventually caved and had a go was because I couldn’t not read it. However, it was actually because one of my theatre mates and his husband have been filming little parody versions after they’ve had a few wines on a Friday night, posting The Homemade Handmaid on Facebook. They are hilarious. Oh I’m ROFLing LOLing all over the place with every new episode.

Diving in

Anyway, I finally purchased a copy, the big solid hardback one. If I was going to dive in I wanted it to be an almost ceremonial event. So I wedged myself on the sofa a few Saturdays ago, ready for a fight. I was stunned to discover that it is as terrifying and beautiful as it is easy to read. 

I loved it. I immediately became an Atwood super-fan, booking to see her live interview at the cinema (she was magnificent), getting tickets for another interview, this time in real life, next month and of course hammering my current account by going Atwood-bonkers at Waterstones. I’m a bit gutted that my assumptions about myself kept me from her all this time (and yes I know that sounds a bit creepy, but in my admiration list she’s gone from unranked to Bruce Springsteen level in a single weekend). Eh, maybe that means I’m a grown up now?

I might even stop telling myself I can’t be a proper teacher. 

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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