Teaching is a privilege, not a performance

12th February 2016 at 00:00

Being at the front of a room is a funny thing that has a strange effect on some people. For most of us, the thought of speaking in public has the same effect that salt has on a snail, or frost has on begonias. Some people would rather reach into their throat and pull themselves inside out, than stand at the front and be heard. I know that when I started, there was nothing more guaranteed to set my fillings rattling than having my inadequacies exposed by the accusing eyes of 30 children. Like a stoner queuing in a garage checkout, you’re convinced that everyone can see right through you. They know.

That feeling, happily, expires in weeks, although possibly not for good, and not all at once. But that leads to another possibility; it becomes possible to enjoy the attention. I’m glad to say that this is very rare, and that the marble jar of teaching is almost full to the brim with people who couldn’t care a hoot for an audience. But a thin thread of vanity runs through our practice.

It’s probably understandable; in what other profession else are you in a position where you are – notionally – the centre of attention for so much of your working life, whether you like it or not? How many people live their lives with no one to listen to them, to make them feel important. We all need some of that. We know how much kids crave attention, and how they exhibit this – by demanding it, of course, by acting out, by excessive effort, by homework addressed to you by name and so on. And we deal with that as sensibly as we can.

But what if it’s us? Being a teacher is an honour and a responsibility; the position it affords us can’t be abused. We rightly howl when we hear of a cop who breaks the law, or an MP who helps their cleaner get a visa. Their position appears to be one of privilege; but correctly understood, it’s one of duty, not duty-free and junkets and perks. Even teachers have possibilities that can be misinterpreted as power; or rather, powers that can be misinterpreted as payment in lieu. Consider the – thankfully – rare instances of teachers debasing their profession by taking advantage of adolescent crushes, or bullying a child who might not know how to react because talking back to a teacher goes against their prime directives.

I once had the misfortune to know a real bully of a teacher who would scream at children until they cried. One day he made the mistake of asking me to come in and back him up with a pair of weeping Year 7 girls who were begging him to stop shouting at them. I told him that the conversation was over and I told the girls to go. And I told him that if I ever saw him do that again I would report him. We never spoke afterwards.

There are lesser forms of this weakness, of course: the teacher who enjoys flattery and bores their kids endlessly with their life stories as the children look out the window and pray for it to stop; the teacher who channels David Brent and thinks they’re just a chilled-out entertainer; the teacher with messianic pretensions to being an inspiration to their children, and who practically demands to be addressed as “swami”.

There are many paths to get lost on, as we stand on our stages. But the children are not there to feed our egos; we are there to feed their minds and lives. Teaching already comes with its own rewards.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71

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