There is a paradox in contemporary education. It concerns teachers, who have been simultaneously raised to the status of luminary and relegated to position of functionary. There has arisen the fad of the celebrity teacher, and the odd belief that the future of children depends almost exclusively on the pedagogical decisions we make in the classroom – yet we stand meekly by whilst the technocratic and bureaucratic swamp through which we wade strips away our autonomy and authority.
It is incredibly easy to play the piety card in education: to be ‘passionate’ about school improvement, ‘committed’ to raising achievement, ‘making no apology’ for doing ‘whatever it takes’ to ensure that all teachers are ‘outstanding’. And it has become increasingly apparent that this managerial framework rubs along with a model of the teacher who is young, transient, professionalised, with slick suits and few commitments beyond the walls of the classroom, clutching research papers and quoting Edujargon.
And I am sure those who fit this profile make excellent teachers.
But here’s the thing: most teachers are not like that. And many that are can cease to be.
Perhaps, then, we need to talk a little more honestly about teachers, about who they are and how they manage to be. Indeed, whilst it might lack a certain political magnetism in saying so, perhaps what we need is to be grateful for the ordinary teacher – those who grind it out, who are sometimes outstanding, sometimes poor, but who the majority of the time somewhere in between, turning up day after day because they have an emotional commitment to the job and those who sit in front of them each day.
They might not always be brilliant – but they’re (nearly) always there. They might not always inspire – but they (nearly) always teach. They might not always succeed – but they (nearly) always try.
It might not make a wall display of inspirational quotes, but our kids depend on it nonetheless.
It has become de rigueur to think we improve teaching by focusing on getting the recalcitrant to read more journals and use more peer feedback. But it might be that what really makes that teacher tick is those family commitments your new marking policy has seriously impinged upon, or those inspirational educational visits your bureaucracy has stifled, or that freedom to explore that your new assessment plan has inhibited.
And in truth, it is just as much these kind of teachers the system depends upon. We might well swoon for the celebrity teacher with their educational equivalent of the Lamborghinis and yacht trips around the Aegean. But in the end, it is the humble teachers quietly tending to their own plots on the outer reaches of educational suburbia upon whom the system really depends. And to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. In our finer moments, we might all see ourselves as Aragorn, fearlessly blazing a trail whilst EduOrcs fall at our feet – but in truth, most of the time, the majority of us are but humble Hobbits.
And that’s fine. We don’t all have to be trailblazers. In fact, it is a pretty good job the majority are not. Only chaos would result. Changing the world might well be a noble pursuit – but it might also be the mere indulgence of pride.
So before the new academic year starts in earnest, three cheers are due for the ordinary teacher, which most of us are, most of the time. And which is part of what makes us great. We should not be afraid to embrace that. After all, improving that system in which we wade might just depend on it.