The seven deadly sins of teaching

22nd May 2015 at 01:00
Are you a glutton for punishment? Prone to prideful self-promotion? Sweet on a colleague? We're all vulnerable to temptation, say the teachers who confess to the transgressions of the profession


After you've answered all the questions; once you've sorted out the missing shoes (and thrown away the stray vest no one will claim); when you've dealt with the quarrels, the dinners, the emergency first aid; after the students have disappeared into whichever realities they inhabit outside school - that's when the real work starts. The data, the planning, the triple marking. The paper.

The only surprise about the government's Workload Challenge (the survey launched last year to identify everyday burdens on teachers) was that it took so long for ministers to notice the numbers leaving the profession in England, taking their headaches, rashes and racing heart rates with them.

And for those of us left behind, there is temptation. How quickly we tumble into the trap of relying on other people: we hand over the children with special educational needs to teaching assistants and assume that's that. It's so easy to let someone else, someone kind, take the strain. After all, they know the children better than we do, don't they? We hand the pupils over and press on with teaching the rest of the class. Job done. Out of sight, out of mind.

But as we are rushing to meet the ever-increasing demands of parents, politicians, inspectors and senior leaders - reducing the paper pile as fast as possible - what happens to those we have passed on?

What happens to the little girl who is becoming isolated from her peers and her teacher, despite being in the same classroom? What happens when we attend pupil progress meetings or parent meetings and realise that we don't really know the child at all?

What happens to us? What happens to them?

Nancy Gedge is a teacher at Widden Primary School in Gloucester


When I fell over Paul in the staffroom, knocking my cup of coffee down the front of his trousers, I thought "Wow, he's hot" at the same moment as he yelped "Ouch, that's hot!"

Grabbing a tea towel, I started dabbing at his trousers, then realised that the entire staffroom was silent. I brandished the tea towel with a hearty "Nothing to see here!"

Rapturous applause broke out, along with a few cries of "Woop! Woop!" And so, in true Mills and Boon style, a romance was born.

We had our first date in a McDonald's car park, sharing nuggets and fries. A 40-minute lunch break and a round trip of 20 minutes there and back didn't leave much time for romance. My overriding concern after wolfing down my food was not to belch in his face as he made his move.

We hatched a plan for some more-productive quality time. Paul was an art teacher with a storage cupboard and we had one free lesson that coincided, which meant a whole hour together. A tryst was scheduled for 9.15am on Tuesday. If rumbled, the plan was that I would exit the art cupboard with paintbrushes in hand, explaining that we were painting tricolore flags to raise cultural awareness in Year 7.

Tuesday morning came and I was determined that nothing was going to stand in the way of our rendezvous. Paul was beckoning me from along the corridor, but out of the corner of my eye I could see the cover supervisor heading in my direction.

"Noooo," I mouthed as I tried to outrun her. But my outfit was too tight and I was being pursued by Usain Bolt in a sensible skirt and brogues.

"You're due in Year 11 PE," she said as she snared me, yards from the prize.

Despondent and thwarted, I trudged to Year 11 and left Paul seeking solace in reorganising his pencil drawer.

Later, as the teenagers in front of me attacked each other with hockey sticks, I ruminated on the difficulties of a workplace romance and realised that I'd had a lucky escape. The thought of love in the office is exciting, but the reality is that we should avoid dalliances with colleagues: cross-curricular hanky-panky is doomed. Privacy is out of the question and we take enough of our personal lives into school without having relationships there, too.

Besides, store cupboards are not the most accommodating places - or so I've been told.

Corinne Ross (not her real name) is a secondary teacher in Hampshire


Schools should be full of pride. We want learners to feel proud of their achievements, staff to feel proud of their work and their school, and everyone involved to feel proud of each other.

Yet we need to take care that this pride never slides into something less laudable: ego. Former US president Harry S Truman is said to have quipped: "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." We need to remember this. If a teacher is only concerned about kudos, rather than sharing a good idea and allowing others to benefit, then ego, not pride, is at work.

This is why I've always liked the TeachMeet principle of "leaving your ego at the door". These informal professional development gatherings - where teachers of all levels of experience share their ideas - rely on generosity of spirit and a willingness to support others. Teachers are proud of their achievements, and even prouder to share them so the success can be replicated.

The line between pride and ego is not always clear, of course. People can bring baggage to the way they perceive others: the same teacher sharing a resource can be seen as generous or self-important depending on who is judging them.

It may be helpful, then, to distinguish between "proud" and "prideful". Proud has positive connotations: a sense of merited self-worth; an appropriate recognition of effort and achievement. Prideful, however, is linked to the idea of superiority and a tendency to be disdainful or dismissive of others.

Being prideful has no place in a school. If we feel that it's all about us, then our students and our colleagues will seem less important and of less value. All will suffer, both personally and academically, as a result.

Jill Berry is a former headteacher who is currently researching and lecturing on leadership in education


Teaching is meant to be a profession of Zen Jedis imbued with compassion and patience, but it can make you rage with a temper that could boil steel. If you haven't experienced your inner Mr Hyde clawing his way out from behind your ribcage, then I suggest you've been double-dosing on Prozac.

We deal with people. And people, it has been said, are far easier to love as a concept than they are in person. Hell isn't just other people - if Sartre had finished the thought, he would have added "and other people's children".

I love teaching. I love my subject. I love teaching my subject to children. But thank heavens we don't have the power to incinerate with our minds or prisons would be bulging with penitent teachers and schools would be empty.

Wrath, like all vices of the classroom, is dangerous precisely because it is so seductive. Dante called it the perversion of righteous anger because it seems, feels at the moment of ignition, to be glorious and moral. When we're in the grip of wrath, our cruellest instincts are filtered through a lens that makes them appear to serve nothing but good. It is the sin that wants no remedy. The wrathful teacher unleashes the kraken on the class, on the pupil, and enjoys it. Repenting later is too late. The damage is done; the children see you as a tyrant - or worse, an emotional train wreck.

I won't judge. I've been burned by wrath myself, particularly at times when I've felt useless: as a new teacher, being harrowed and jeered by classes for sport. Stress occurs when there is a gap between what we desire and what we have the power to do. In a prehistoric jungle we could lash out with a club or simply flee up a tree, but there are no trees in the classroom and clubs are frowned upon. New teachers can become overloaded with stress; wrath is one way for the steam to escape.

Unchecked, these moments can become routine, especially if the teacher doesn't learn how to avoid or respond to situations that trigger wrath. The habit is formed and the wrathful teacher is born. Anger is the acid that dissolves good intentions, reason and love. It may seem like power at the time, but it's toxic. It's the last mad shriek of the helpless.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London and director of the ResearchEd conference


I don't believe teachers are guilty of gluttony in the traditional sense (although the fleeting lifespan of a packet of biscuits in the average staffroom may indicate otherwise). But when it comes to being gluttons for punishment we are undeniably sinners of the first order.

Over the past five years, especially in England, teachers have soaked up unprecedented levels of criticism and change and continued to teach on, bloody but unbowed.

The inspection system, performancerelated pay, sweeping curriculum changes and an obsessive belief in the power of data are just some of the reasons that teaching today can feel like being stuck on a high-speed hamster wheel, while simultaneously being clubbed around the head.

Many teachers are simply opting out, and those who remain are being pushed to breaking point.

Indeed, even when we're not in school, we might as well be. Where once it was normal to sacrifice Sunday afternoons to school matters, it is now common to hear of teachers rising at 4am to mark, neglecting their loved ones, working through the holidays and even missing the funerals of family members in order to be there for GCSE revision classes or Year 6 booster groups.

Of course, we are easy prey for punishing and disproportionate workloads. Since your average classroom teacher possesses the guilt complex of a stripper-turned-nun, we are desperate to ensure that we don't let anyone down.

We don't do it for praise. When the school year ends and the data is good, we hand all the credit to the children and obsess over the few who didn't make it.

When it all goes wrong, we wallow in despair, completely forgetting all the progress the children have made - academically, socially, emotionally, morally and in so many other ways that will never show up on the system.

So why do we do it? For the sake of the kids.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher


I work at a good primary school with a philosophy of providing the best learning outcomes for all pupils. The staff are committed to working in a mutually supportive way, and the principle of sharing good practice is at the very heart of all our CPD and training. We can say categorically: there is no place for envy here.

"The best way to improve our teaching is to learn from those around us," the headteacher explains. "We all have strengths we can share with others. And many of you have a weakness that should be addressed before my next round of lesson observations."

Watching other teachers has taught me many things, but the most valuable lesson has been that I'm not too bad at my job. Unfortunately, this belief has been undermined by the one person our leader encourages us all to observe.

Witnessing Ms Perfect's mastery of the art of classroom teaching has relegated my self-esteem to the lower leagues. I apply the same strategies she uses to establish effective learning and I'm just as meticulous in using rewards and sanctions. So why don't my pupils, like hers, fall silent at a single word and hang on every one that follows?

The truth is that Ms Perfect is no mere mortal. Imagine, if you will, a team of hard-working professional footballers playing week in, week out in the Championship. They train every day and give their all for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon. Then one day their manager sends them to Barcelona's Camp Nou to watch Lionel Messi and tells them: "Next week, lads, I want you to play just like that."

There are hundreds of thousands of teachers plying their trade in state schools in the UK, and although most of us strive to be the best we can, we can't all be Ms Perfect. We can't all glide effortlessly through every lesson like a swan, leaving ripples of inspired learning in our wake. There will be times when kicking, splashing and general floundering are the only ways to keep our heads above water.

So I ask you, can it be a sin on days like this to look upon Ms Perfect with envy? To think jealous thoughts about her? To mutter peevish words under our breath? Surely not. Give us that, at least.

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield


From an early age, I had a habit of wanting to be the decision-maker. My 102-year-old grandmother tells of how, at the age of 3, I stood with my hands on hips, on the bithrn of her farm in Ireland, as she beckoned me to hurry up. "I will not! I'll take my time," I bellowed.

No wonder I became a headteacher. School leaders make decisions, drive policy and influence others. I was a natural. But the line between leading and being a control freak can be a fine one. It is all too easy to become greedy about making decisions.

I once worked for a headteacher who decided everything, down to the colour of the toilet paper. Anything that was not exactly aligned with her way of doing things was immediately dismissed. I learned this lesson fast.

We all met at the end of every day to discuss the students and assign scores. It was not unusual for the judgement of any one of us to be publicly overruled in a heartbeat. The school suffered, the staff suffered and the students suffered.

In my early days as a headteacher, I replicated this style. I had become exactly what I had always pledged not to be - a greedy leader. I clutched at problems I should have delegated to others.

Thankfully, I noticed the habit and broke it. I banished the phrase "leave that with me" from my vocabulary because it breeds dependency and a lack of responsibility and accountability. Plus, it kills risk-taking and innovation in schools.

Worst of all, it makes for disastrous succession planning. When the headteacher is no longer there, what happens? Nothing. I've seen it.

Jarlath O'Brien is headteacher of Carwarden House Community School in Surrey

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