Earlier this week I was part of a conversation about the successful start Steve, our new Head of Maths has made with his teaching classes. When someone asked him how he’d done it his reply, delivered with a shrug and in a typically blunt and no-nonsense manner, was “just act like I’ve always been here. Sometimes I forget to introduce myself until half way through the lesson. Doesn’t matter though, does it? It’s not about me, it’s about maths.
I thought this was wise so I tweeted it. At the time of writing this post the tweet has been ‘liked’ 380 times, which suggests quite a lot of you think so too.
While of course I was pleased, I was also surprised by how much approval the tweet got. It does not fit comfortably with popular societal tropes of charismatic classroom mavericks who are remembered by their charges for the rest of their lives. It does not fit with the popular philosophy captured in the phrase “I teach children not subjects,” which holds that the first duty of teachers is to build relationships with their pupils.
It also does not fit with common advice given to trainees, NQTs and those struggling to make headway with difficult classes, which is often to spend time going through rules and expectations, and then to focus on getting pupils to like them.
Despite all this, I can’t think of a better description of the proper role of most teachers in secondary schools. We are not employed as generic ‘teachers’ but almost always as teachers of discrete subjects and it is on these subjects emphasis should be placed.
This is easier to do in some contexts than in others. Our Head of Maths has the advantage of working in a school in which behaviour is good and disruption rare, and benefits from a system which removes the responsibility of day-to-day classroom management from teachers. This means he is able to get straight on with teaching maths. In some schools which abdicate disciplinary responsibility to teachers this just isn’t possible and those working in such places may feel they have no choice but to sacrifice subject content, at least to some degree, in order to create a superficially orderly environment through force of personality. Some, particularly the extrovert and charismatic, may be successful which can create the damaging impression that they are examples that can and should be emulated by all. In reality, the best that anyone can achieve in such contexts is, as Katherine Birbalsingh has put so eloquently, “a warlord in a failed state.”
I think striving to be remembered by pupils for the rest of their lives is egotistical and a little creepy. To want to be remembered as being exceptional means we are sort of hoping that others in a child’s life will have let them down. While I would not go as far as to say I object to pupils remembering me at all, if they do I hope it is because I have successfully shared my love of history. I’d far rather a child remembered the story of 1066 than what colour ties I wore or any motivational speeches I gave. I don’t want my pupils to watch a documentary or visit a museum exhibition and think “Mr Newmark taught me this, wasn’t he funny!” Instead I want them to go “Oh! I wonder why they’ve missed out the Battle of Fulford?” I don’t want them to think “Mr Newmark was the only teacher who believed in me” because I want them in a school that makes it clear every adult in the building does.
As years go by and pupils turn into adults, it is natural that memories of us fade. What is left should be what we taught them. I don’t remember the names of my geography teachers but I do know how to spot a glaciated landscape. I don’t remember the names of any of my RE teachers but I know what a minaret is and what Ganesh looks like. I can’t remember who taught me Lord of the Flies in English, but I do know whoever did must have done a good job, because the first time I read of Heart of Darkness I heard the echoes.
This is not to say that we should be ashamed of the times when, because of systemic failures, we have gone beyond our core roles to support a child. I wrote about one such instance in my own career here.
But events like this are human not professional triumphs and should be rare. And even in the midst of them, it is still wrong for our aim to be the child remembering us, even if in the end they do.
So I’m with Steve, apart from what he said in a sentence I’ve taken nearly 1000 words to write.
“It’s not about me. It’s about history.”