“Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.” Judy Garland.
Last week, I had a meeting with the manager of a local community centre. As so often happens when those now out of the education system meet someone who’s very much in it, they begin to reflect on their own school experiences. This gentleman was adamant that his own primary school experience was crucial – that he remembers the teachers, the way they treated him, but most of all he remembered their personalities and how they made him grow in confidence.
Back at school the following day, we wished one of our staff well as he travelled off to represent the UK in the weekend’s European Crossfit Championships in London. Another is busy raising money to become a leader at the World Scout Jamboree during the summer. And another was gleefully bouncing around my office having made the short list for a popular TV show (we have promised to keep the programme secret in case she doesn’t quite make it). Here are teachers who have a hinterland, have interests and passions outside of life. I actively encourage it.
The point I am keen to make is this: teachers have always been most effective when they are allowed to be themselves. Confident schools allow them to stamp their personality on their classes, do things their way. Blimey, they might even let them take some risks (having completed a full risk assessment first of course). Teaching is not a ‘painting by numbers’ profession.
The whole ‘competencies’ agenda, allied to factory jargon (productivity, performance management) has tricked the system into thinking that anyone can be a teacher – do your paperwork, tick your boxes, work 14 hours a day, mark books with several highlighter pens. Yep, you’ll do. This has been exacerbated by a retention crisis caused, in part, by the dull conformity of the standardisation culture. Universities, teaching training institutions and Teach First style ‘fast-track’ organisations are so business-orientated now that they see candidates with cash-tinted spectacles and often miss their true personalities. As a friend of mine, working in the FE sector, once said to me, ‘If you breathe, you’ve got a place.’
OK, this comes with no evidence base, but I don’t need the EEF to tell me the following: children typically respond really well to teachers who have a strong personality.
A caveat. This has nothing to do with charisma or volume. I’ve seen amazing teachers who are as quiet as mice, who barely give away any emotion. But that’s the point – that’s their personality. They are being themselves. Children benefit from being taught by a great variety of personalities at their school, dealing with teachers who are very different from year to year. This mixture enriches their learning and strengthens their experiences.
I think teachers are at their best when they bring their real lives into the classroom – their families, their interests, their talents and their history. Children are fascinated and inspired by the fact that you sing in a choir, or play sport at the weekend, or are an amazing cook, or went to a particular gig on Saturday night. Again, I think bold and confident schools encourage this, even if it can challenge policy and protocol on occasion.
So here’s to teachers being themselves. Do we really want schools that manufacture frightened clones of the ‘competency-rich practitioner’?
So for what it’s worth, here’s my advice.
Firstly, be yourself.
Secondly, try and have a life out of school.
It’s good for you, and it’s good for your pupils.