Don't be fooled by the cynics

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Mike Fielding on how to stay fresh and get the most out of your job

The curmudgeon in the corner is a well established staffroom character. He or she seems to have lost all enthusiasm for the job and is only too keen to share with anyone who will listen to bitter views on how the school, the children and most other things in the world have deteriorated and are getting worse.

These are the teachers who still regret the passing of corporal punishment and the advent of comprehensive schools. They think they can teach without preparation and mark just with a tick and scores out of 10. Their vehicles are always well placed to lead the end-of-school race out of the car park.

The effect can be very demoralising as every initiative is rubbished, more senior colleagues criticised, government and the local education authority denigrated and, most damagingly of all, children uniformly dismissed for their lack of discipline, interest or desire to work.

Young teachers provide good sport for these cynics: they can either be drawn into the net of complainers or ridiculed for their naivety and enthusiasm. The "I was keen like you once" argument can be difficult to counter for the teacher just starting a career. And, sadly of course, it's probably true; although sometimes difficult to imagine what the burnt-out case must have been like as a new teacher.

The pose of worldly-wiseness can also be seductive for the new entrant. The coruscating remark about 9C, the glib judgments on dislocated families, and the jokes about an individual student's foibles can seem like the young teacher's subscription to the club of experience. It goes with arbitrary use of authority and lack of serious commitment to the nurturing of young people which, if not countered, leads insidiously to the curmudgeon's chair.

So how does a new teacher stay fresh and impervious to the blandishments of cynicism ? First, of course, by recognising that most more-experienced colleagues they meet are as disenchanted with the grouch as they are. And by distinguishing between the really corrosive kind of diatribe and the more common occasional vitriol which is a protection against disappointment or an expression of short-term frustration.

It is also important to accept that teaching is a very wearing job. However experienced, energetic or enthusiastic, most teachers are physically, mentally and emotionally shattered by the end of a term. It's usually towards the end of a term or when the weather is particularly bad that people are most tempted to believe that school and pupils are all heading downhill. That's when the "Armageddon Syndrome" sets in - the anxious feeling that disaster is just over the horizon.

This is almost a natural phenomenon, part of the inevitable rhythm of the school year and not to be taken too seriously. But also, it is not a time when the new entrant should express too many opinions. Quiet withdrawal from the main centres of complaint is the only sensible course.

To help with the wider problem of staying fresh here are 10 tried and tested strategies that should see you through: * Keep clearly in mind your reasons for becoming a teacher. They are probably idealistic and represent you at your human best but can easily be forgotten in the rush and tear of the average day. Reminding yourself why you came into the profession can refresh parts that some other strategies don't reach.

* Take part in as much of school life as you can manage. Your involvement in sport, plays, trips, residentials and so on will help you understand children better and enrich your classroom persona in their eyes.

* Meet other new teachers. Newly qualified teacher induction schemes usually include some meetings of like-minded people but also make your own links: a drink with someone experiencing the same difficulties as you can be mutually beneficial.

* Model yourself on the livelier and more committed of your experienced colleagues. They'll be the ones who will make time to talk properly with you about the skills, problems and pleasures of teaching.

* Be confident about your own opinions but sensitive in the way you express them. You may not have experience but you do have a fresh eye and most good school leaders recognise the value of the naive question as a tool for improvement.

* Work seriously at your time management and organisation. A lot of stress comes from disorganisation and its a short step from there to disenchantment.

* Have a life outside school. Too many teachers eat, drink and sleep the job and never get away from the pressures. So make sure your non-school activities are as demanding and fulfilling as you can manage in the time available.

* Take a real interest in children as people. It's tempting to think of them in groups because that's how they mostly confront you, but talking with individuals will improve your understanding of them and keep you in touch with the real reasons you're there.

* Make sure you meet parents. Most are very supportive of school and teachers, and getting to know their hopes and fears for their offspring can give you insights that you might not gain from the hothouse of school opinion.

* Laugh a lot. Teaching is fun, even though it can be grindingly difficult at times. Children are always doing and saying funny things and a relationship in which teacher and students can laugh together is almost bound to produce effective learning.

Perhaps the most important strategy for staying fresh, however, is to monitor yourself. Listen to what you say and how you say it. Check your levels of enthusiasm and optimism. Be aware of how much pleasure you gain from your students' achievements. And any time you are scoring lower than your acceptable level on any of these measures just look at the scowler in the corner and ask yourself: "Do I want to be like that in 10 years time ?" Because that's all the time it takes. If you succumb, you're heading for year on year of increasing emptiness until the release of early retirement. What a thought.

Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, Devon

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