To thine own self be true

8th September 2006 at 01:00
Figure out who you are and be yourself, because pupils will learn more from you than any phoney teacher character you portray, an old hand advises new staff

If you have been teaching for a thousand years, look away now.

Read no further. In your first weeks back in harness after the kind of long hot summer reminiscent of your carefree days as a callow pupil, you will only get depressed.

What follows is, in essence, a true story, aimed directly at those who are taking their first tentative steps into the classroom, primary or secondary. It is a salutary lesson, but one not to be found in any teaching manual or educational psychology textbook.

After four years grafting as a mature student at university, I qualified with a 2.1 honours degree in English. Postgraduate teacher training college was next. My "crits" went particularly well. Apparently, I was a bit of a "natural". Overall, I'd done well enough to be the only student of my intake to be offered a permanent local secondary school placement for the start of the new session. It seemed I was all set.

And so it came to pass that on a dreary August morning I waited, with something akin to interview butterflies in the stomach, to welcome my first pupils, in my first classroom, on my own as a newly qualified teacher.

It was a second period, S3 "with really positive potential", I'd been told by my principal teacher, words which had me wishing I hadn't dogged so many lectures and actually written all those lesson plans myself. Still, too late; the moment of truth was upon me.

The school bell rang for change of period and there was a rush of noise as classrooms disgorged their human contents into ever-burgeoning corridors.

My own classroom door was wide open.

Presently one girl came in and marched straight up to me at the board, with a degree of self-confidence I instantly recognised and envied. She was shortish, plumpish, with brownish hair and greenish eyes: normal. Mary - let's call her - eyeballed me for the briefest of moments. Eventually summing me up as worthy of her words, she opened her mouth.

It was then that something strange happened, something akin to life flashing before you in mere seconds, only it wasn't my whole life, simply the five years of training for this very moment.

As time faltered, I wondered what would be the first question I would have to answer as a teacher. Sir, what kind of bird is a sonnet? or Sir, what's a lady's hankie got to do with Othello? or Sir, how many books have we got to read this term?

Then Mary's voice came through the ether, loud and clear. No esoteric query; no philosophical posturing; no cunning word play; not even a question. Quietly, she said: "Excuse me, sir. I take fits." Just like that.

Even now, after more years of teaching than I care to mention, that moment is fixed in my head.

I often see Mary about the town, still; married, with three children at secondary school, my school. None of them takes fits.

So what's my point? Well, just this. On my first official day as a qualified teacher, I was lucky enough to be taught, by young Mary, the most important lesson of my career: that I wouldn't be teaching a subject, but rather I would be teaching people, young people, people with positive attributes and with all the faults, fallibilities, frailties and vulnerabilities associated with growing up.

What Mary so succinctly made me see was that I had been about to launch myself on an unsuspecting world of year-on-year young people as a teacher, that is, a teacher first and a person second.

What's more, without her intervention, and notwithstanding the best efforts of my erstwhile tutors, I would have been replaying the teaching methods ingrained on my psyche as a pupil myself, by men and women not merely of a different generation but virtually of a different species.

What a lark he was! Used to throw the duster at you! She was a terror! Made you hold out your hand, palm down, as she skipped up and down the rows, hitting you on the knuckles with a ruler! Discipline. That's what we had then. Everyone knew their place ...

Drivel, of course. Or is it?

So this is my advice to newcomers. First, recognise in yourself the extent to which past learnt behaviour might be playing a part in your teaching approach. "Playing a part" is the objective phrase here.

Second, seek out and systematically eradicate that self-same learnt behaviour.

Third, figure out who you are. What kind of a person you are? Trust me; people, your pupils, will respond much less to the role you play than to you. Why? Well, because we all have an instinct for, and are innately attracted to honesty, the quiet honesty that is underpinned by integrity.

Young people can spot a phoney from half a mile away. You may get them through their exams. You may be a big hit in the staffroom with the old hands. You may even end up with stories about how you dealt with the class smart-ass and he'll be no more trouble. But you could miss the opportunity to influence positively the human potential at your fingertips.

Essentially, that is what teaching is all about.

It is about reaching out in common fellowship to your pupils and providing for them security of purpose, encouraging genuine learning and understanding in an environment free of cynicism, wherein to err is, indeed, simply human and personal encouragement for little advances, rather than public denouncement for minor infractions, holds sway.

Of course you will be tested to the full by behaviour of every conceivable kind. However, when your classes leave you, with or without various certificates, they will have developed under your compassionate tutelage towards the ultimate goal of all learning: full awareness of self.

Go to it and enjoy the excursion of a lifetime!

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