Christmas is a lonely time for many people because it’s when they feel most disconnected from the world around them. At Christmas we should be happy and those that aren’t are Getting Life Wrong.
Rubbish. Fundamentally, people aren’t any happier at Christmas than they are the rest of the year. They’re just pretending to be, just as thousands of teachers pretend they think teaching is “The Best Job In The World” because by admitting they think otherwise they break an unwritten rule.
It’s not hard to see why so many feel this. The best teachers in popular culture are invariably those utterly besotted with their students and in love with the craft. The popular image of a good teacher is deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness; exhausted, ink stained, on the verge of a breakdown but pushing on through for the kidz.
Heart-warming and familiar as this cliché is, it is at best unsustainable and at worst immensely damaging.
The stereotype makes being a good teacher seem more a set of innate personal qualities and talents than the product of years of practice, training and development. This is off-putting to many people with the potential to make decent teachers. When I tell people what I do the most common reaction is “I just couldn’t do that because..” followed by a list of unpleasant challenges. The issues are always those that frightened me most when I first trained, before I learned how to address them. If we allow teaching to be mythologized people will believe it beyond them before they’ve really begun to consider it properly.
Such cliches also invite pointless martyrdom. Many of those choosing teaching do so believing the only way to do it right is by complete sacrifice to The Cause. This can be a significant driver of workload. Teachers spend red-eyed hours making resources, marking for the sake of it and endlessly tinkering with PowerPoint fonts because they’ve come to believe the more hours you do, the more you care and the more you care the better the teacher you are. Exhaustion becomes a badge of virtue and quickly becomes an end in itself. Those unable to sustain such extreme hours feel they’re failing and some drop out.
Of course, teachers aren’t solely to blame for this. Government and unscrupulous SLTs take advantage of martyr syndrome and, in the past, I’ve heard those who should know better unashamedly say “if you expect a social life don’t be a teacher.” It’s important to consider the wider implications of statements like this one.
Those who buy into the idea of teaching being The Best Job In The World often see a distinction between actual teaching and the educational structures around it. Films, books and TV nearly always cast the children as joyful and the institutions around them as mind-crushingly evil. This means onerous and often pointless administration tasks are regarded as the price that has to be paid in order to enjoy teaching children. I’ve heard teachers say “yeah, all that form-filling is awful but it’s worth it for the kids,” as if one couldn’t exist without the other.
All of this is damaging education because it’s making it too easy to believe if a teacher doesn’t feel it’s the best job in the world then they aren’t cut out for it. Of course, some aren’t and would be better suited to another, but others might just have a set of particularly hard classes that year, or a new family, or be going through a divorce.
If we want to recruit more teachers and retain the ones we have, we need to be more open, honest and realistic. Most teachers start badly and get better. Sometimes teaching’s great and sometimes it’s awful. One year might be fun and the next, not so. One boss might be inspiring, their replacement deflating.
Christmas is a lovely time of year but if you aren’t enjoying it you aren’t alone and it doesn’t mean you never will again. Don’t give up on it. Much the same could be said of teaching.