We all have heroes. My father, a GP, looks up to paramedics because they save lives under great pressure. I know soldiers who are awestruck by police officers for their ability to deescalate and diffuse potentially violent situations. My heroes are social workers because, day to day, they face the full iceberg of a child’s problems while I deal only with the tip visible in lessons.
Having heroes is part of being human; whatever we do there is always someone who seems to be doing a more worthwhile job than the one we do. But we are foolish if we try to emulate the roles of our heroes in our own roles; once a paramedic arrives my father would stand aside at the scene of a road accident. A soldier would not try to negotiate with armed insurgents in a battle. And teachers, as much as they might want to, should not try to solve a child’s serious social problems.
As professionals we must recognise and respect the limits of our expertise.
It can easily feel, especially in the context of seemingly ever more savage cuts to social services, as if part of our role, officially or not, is doing all we can to improve the sometimes awful lives of our most failed pupils. When, for example, faced with a hungry child with no money it is, of course, monstrous not to buy them lunch, but we must recognise that this is a human not a professional response. We step in because of systematic failure and such instances are not something from which we should derive any sense of professional pride.
While unfortunate, feeling pride over stepping in to help those most failed by society, is completely understandable. But it also creates an environment that makes it hard for teachers to develop a meaningful sense of system-wide professionalism.
As a culture we are confused as to what we want from our teachers. Our tropes, those that we absorb unthinkingly even before we consider teaching, cast the best teachers as being mavericks. Dangerous Minds. Dead Poets Society. School of Rock. All portray systems as being inherently inhuman with the most inspirational teachers being those who fight them for the sake of the children they teach. Of course, sensibly, we recognise these as fiction and if they remained as such, they’d be harmless. But such tropes extend into recruitment and the success stories we share. Adverts for teacher training show pupils talking about “the one teacher who didn’t give up on me” and when we reflect on our proudest moments we talk about how we succeeded with children who everyone else wrote off.
Such thinking is dangerous. If we are to define our success by our ability to transcend the systems in which we work then those systems, by definition, must be flawed. To be successful we must seek out dysfunctional environments and be functional within them. Planning and delivering sensible and coherent schemes of work in supportive environments is not enough. This sort of thinking makes it hard to enact more holistic systematic improvements because inspirational teachers reject systems. This is a serious obstacle to professionalism because it pits colleague against colleague. Other teachers need to be bad so we can define ourselves as good. In order to be inspirational we must not use the methods others do.
This thinking can be quixotic. It is naïve of me to believe that I can change the life course of a child by teaching them history for three periods a fortnight. By setting myself such an aim I condemn myself to failure. This can cause deep unhappiness as, week on week, year after year, I fail. In the attempt to achieve the impossible, I may over-reach the extent of my professional role. At best, I may become distracted from my core, achievable purpose and, at worst, may actually do damage by, for example, trying to counsel a bereaved child when I lack the expertise to do so properly.
It may also be egoism in that our desire to right the ills of the world probably says more about us than it does about the needs of our students. This can cause us to wrongly characterise those we want to help. We may see them as victims when they are not. We may see them in an unhelpfully and patronisingly romantic fashion. If we believe that our role is to save children, we may try to save children who do not require it and actually harm them in amateurish attempts.
We are professionals not amateurs. We are experts in our domains and this is no small thing. We should be proud. This is, of course, not to say that whenever we step beyond our professional role we should be ashamed, but we should be aware of the division between the human and the professional and should try not to conflate the two.
I am, of course, as guilty of getting this wrong as anybody is. A while back I wrote this blog, entitled “The Student of Whom I’m proudest”, which would, in my view be professionally irresponsible to share as an advert for teaching as a profession. It has a happyish ending, yes, but it is actually very sad because it’s really about how an educational system failed a student for a decade, which is shameful.
So, in the future, when I’m asked what my proudest achievement as a teacher is, I am going to resist making myself out to be the hero I am not. I am not going to say it was because I bucked a system, or beat the odds, or recognised something in a child that everyone else missed. Instead I am going to say that it was, as part of a functioning, skilled team that, from scratch, I helped develop a coherent history curriculum from which over time, in a small, meaningfully incremental way, hundreds of children benefited.