How long before you feel like a teacher?

19th December 2012 at 15:53

Tom Bennett
Tom Bennett is a man who believes that the beginning of wisdom lies in understanding that you know nothing. In other words, he knows nothing, and he knows it. Every week he'll be chasing his own tail or shouting at the laptop about some damn fool idea in education, or else he'll be writing about classrooms, students, or why teaching is the most important job in the world. This week he tries to answer that question all trainees ask; `how long before I feel like a teacher'?

A question I'm often asked is `How long does it take before you start to feel like a teacher?' This is usually from greenhorns, but it can also be heard from teachers with a few more rings on their trunk. Analogies with pieces of string are redundant, because no one's happy with that kind of answer; people need concrete explanations.

Unfortunately the answer is more fluid. I had a particularly bad start in teaching, and I couldn't say that I was in any way comfortable with calling myself a real teacher until two years had passed. That was the first time I noticed that a new level had been achieved in a slightly cruel and odd computer game.

The many stages of teaching.

Many teachers experience a gear change - maybe from first gear to 1.000001 gear - after the first term, as students start to realise that you're not a supply punch bag after all.

The two-year hurdle accompanies your first cycle of reflecting on your first year's teaching. As you enter the third year of your tour of duty, you enjoy the benefit of prepared lessons that have been improved on (or at least repeated) once.

The teacher in their third year has just begun to put both their hands into the clay of their careers. The first few years are an accelerated childhood, as the trainee teacher adopts numerous guises and methods that belong more to their parents and mentors than their own personality. But during this time, green shoots sleep, waiting for winter to end. Through time, and the gentle warmth of practise, they sprout. The teacher in their third year is a teenager: confident enough to know what they don't want, but often inexperienced in how to achieve what they want, or even to know what it is.

Two steps forward, one step back

I've been teaching for almost ten years - neither a veteran nor a rookie. In that time I have seen, through careful reflection, a slow process of improvement. The main improvement is in character. I've acquired some of the personality traits you need to be a teacher: organised, forward-planning, calm, kind, professional. But I've also seen regression, during periods when I wasn't trying hard enough, or preoccupied with other matters, or simply getting too comfortable. For example, it took a long-term IT failure to shake me out of my IWB addiction. And it took a bright kid to comment sadly that he `hadn't expected' me to have marked his brilliant piece of homework so quickly to highlight my lack of industry in that area.

The craft of teaching is a process, a river. It never ceases, although it can slow if you dam it enough with indolence and indifference. You never truly `make it' as a teacher. There will always be another summit to climb.

I spend half my waking hours, it seems, writing about behaviour management, but you never achieve Jedi Mind Powers. Difficult classes require slow, careful structures and routines to bed in, and that takes time. It can take up to a year for even the most experienced teacher to turn an unfamiliar class around, especially if they work in a school where behaviour is choppy. There's no point at which you ever look at yourself in the mirror and say `Ah, now I am a teacher.' The closest to it is the day you get your certificate, or perhaps the day you get your first job. Maybe it's the day someone asks you for advice because `they wish they could run class X' like you do.

Or maybe it's the day your first kid says `Thank you for being my teacher.' Maybe it's then.

Read Tom's previous blogs;


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