What kind of teacher are we meant to be? What kind do we grow to be? What influences leave their mark? Do we speak in the same way our teachers did when we were at school? Do we move around the classroom with the same purpose as our colleagues? Do we draw on the same bubbling core of inspiration or respond to that which accosts us unknowingly from without – or both? Are we meant to be the ones you hear cause explosions of laughter down a hallway? Or the ones who have students quietly working like monks in a scriptorium? Are we meant to be warriors, artists or something else? How do we strike a balance between being our own person and a responsible member of a community?
Circumstances do dictate much of what we do and how we do it. Schools have priorities, visions, mottos, policies and procedures. They have The Way It Is Done Here. The external becomes internalised quite quickly by most new people so as to keep in line with the aims and structures of the ecosystem in which we work. This makes sense in many many cases, as procedures have been established and reaffirmed for years. Even to the point where people stop asking why it is done.
However, individuals do have some say of their approach and their understanding of teaching and learning. In fact, one of the ironies of being employed as a teacher is we are often taken on because of unique skills, experience or potential and then poured into a predetermined jug of expectations. Some lucky few are employed precisely to rock the boat, to cause change, to challenge the status quo, but individuals are part of a community of practice and of learners and as such must give up something of themselves – perhaps put it in a box to await reopening – to maintain stability across the space.
So to what extent do teachers exert their own individual personality into their teaching rather than merely reflecting that of others? I’m trying to conceive of it as similar to Vygotsky’s Zones of Proximal Development but more dynamic and driven by the individual rather than it being a series of sequential cognitive membranes through which we move. As educators – the leaders of learning – we construct our pathway as we learn more often than others do this for us. We may have to adapt to new policies or initiatives, but at some point the inner artist laments the lack of time given to pure indulgence in our areas of passion, the warrior rails against change that is badly managed. It is a relationship between the person we are and the world in which we exist.
I am sure someone has come up with the idea before and I apologise for that.
Whilst we are not, and should never be, caricature teachers – all swagger and no substance – to always act like game show hosts for the sake of getting a cheap and momentary laugh or commanders who never let an ounce of humanity into learning; or ideologues who push a particular partisan agenda and pass it off as truth; or any number of other ‘types’ that do indeed exist in the shadows of our souls… we should also not actively seek to lose the type of person we are for the sake of making the profession ever more ‘professional’.
We cannot afford to take humour and love and inspiration out of teaching, as much as we cannot afford to take evidence and debate and clear expectations out of schools. I am so fortunate to know and work with teachers who truly do care about their students and how they learn. The most uplifting stories are those told by colleagues who see growth where others see stagnation. The most depressing are those stories which are boiled down to a single, decontextualised moment in a child’s life which nonetheless get applied to every future possible juncture for change.
At our best, teachers can be a beacon for positive, sustainable learning in a world often run mad with pressures and politics and persecution. At our best, we can be the artist who helps lift imagination and reason through inspiration and an often exhausting effort to do better. At our best, teachers can indeed internalise the external and still remain a passionate warrior for beauty and truth in order to help our students find both in their own lives. We do have power to be individuals and a strong member of a community. The trick is to keep balanced as the waters shift, as the waves hit and as the currents change.
The last word on the external and the internal goes to Cyrano via his playwright Edmond Rostand. Something to strive for?
“I have a different idea of elegance. I don’t dress like a fop, it’s true, but my moral grooming is impeccable. I never appear in public with a soiled conscience, a tarnished honor, threadbare scruples, or an insult that I haven’t washed away. I’m always immaculately clean, adorned with independence and frankness. I may not cut a stylish figure, but I hold my soul erect. I wear my deeds as ribbons, my wit is sharper then the finest mustache, and when I walk among men I make truths ring like spurs.”