'We are not just teachers, we are people – and one bad lesson doesn't make me a bad person'

Our jobs require us to love and respect education but we must make sure that it doesn't invade every corner of our lives, argues one teacher-writer

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"And what do you do?"

"I'm a teacher."

"But, what do you do?"

Have you ever noticed that whenever we're asked that question, we don't answer it truly?

We don't actually respond by stating what we do. We tell them who we are instead. Or at least we tell them that we identify ourselves by our job title, regardless of all the other aspects of our lives that might make up our character: spouse, parent, sibling, sportsperson, hobbyist, believer.

A true answer to that question would be to reel off a very long list of actions, some of which would be related to the fact that we are employed as teachers. These would just be part of that unique combination of things that make us who we truly are – not just teachers, but human beings who teach.

But because we (and people of most other professions) are so quick to find our primary identity in the employment we take, we are prone to allow any judgments made about our teaching to affect us as a whole person. Thus, a lesson observation or a book scrutiny can send a teacher spiralling into the depths.

"It's just a job!" some say, whilst others claim teaching is a vocation, or a calling. I don't intend to align to either of these views because there are dangers involved in both ways of thinking. 

I believe that our jobs require us to love education but we should avoid infatuation and obsession; we must be careful, for our own sake as well as for the sakes of the children we teach, our colleagues and our family and friends, to ensure that it doesn't invade every corner of our lives.

When this does happen (and it does – partly because many teachers are worked extremely hard), it's so difficult to hear criticism of our teaching without it being synonymous with criticism of ourselves.

And it's not just criticism from others that impacts us in this way – the feedback we give ourselves can also make us think that a bad lesson makes us a bad person.

If we allow a weakness in a particular area of our teaching to equate to a global judgement about our status and significance as a person, we will very quickly become disheartened.

'We're human beings who happen to teach'

Yet this is exactly what many of us experience because we identify as teachers rather than human beings who, amongst many other things, teach.

American psychologist and author of The Myth of Self-Esteem Albert Ellis said: "I'd better rate my traits and acts but not my totality of 'self'. I fully accept myself, in the sense that I know I have aliveness, and I choose to survive and live as happily as possible, and with minimum needles pain."

He acknowledges the neccesity of judgment of individual acts and traits, such as a particular lesson or a teaching habit, but rejects the idea that these judgments should lead us to give ourselves an overall value rating as a person.

In fact, he goes so far as to say "value is a meaningless term when applied to a person's being".

It doesn't sound crazy, does it? But we are all prone to believing our inner voice when it tells us we're no good as a person simply because in that one lesson we didn't manage behaviour as well as you should have done.

So, what's the solution?

I'm certainly not suggesting we become detached and laissez-faire about teaching. I don't think those who believe teaching isn't just a job but a vocation should change their views.

But I do suggest we should be slower to identify solely, or even primarily, as teachers. Primarily, we are people, human beings – that is our core identity and then within that we do many things and have many characteristics.

We are so much more than just teachers, yet at the same time that so-much-moreness is what makes great teachers great.

'Don't let one mistake in a lesson define you'

I suggest that we must challenge the inner voice that accuses our whole being based on the latest lesson observation.

We must speak back to it, telling it that one mistake does not define us and that instead we will see the fall not as a total fail but as an opportunity to learn.

True, we might make a value judgment on that one particular lesson but we should not allow that rating to become a rating of our whole self.

It's also worth noting that in order to avoid making value judgments of our whole self based on negative feedback, we should also avoid making them based on positive feedback.

If we think we are a great person because we taught a great lesson then the next time something goes wrong, the chances are we will make an even harsher global judgment of ourselves.

Most of us teachers wouldn't do what we do if we didn't love it, or didn't see it as having the social importance that it clearly has.

But no matter how much we value our job, our levels of "success" as teachers don't need to define us as human beings.

It's likely that a teacher who is secure in themselves, who is happy to take risks and make mistakes and learn from them, who finds their identity in the sum of all their parts without trying to average out the scores of each of those parts, is going to provide their pupils with exactly the sort of education they are in need of.

This blog was written by That Boy Can Teach. He tweets at @thatboycanteach

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