When you entered the teaching profession did you imagine you would be Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society? Perhaps you thought you would be that so amazingly inspirational that children would pray open mouthed at the alter of you. Did you think you’d be one of those characters who walked into the class and immediately gained the adoration of all?
Did you believe you were a bit magic?
You did, didn’t you.
The thing is teaching can seem a bit magical to the untrained eye. I remember, when I was an NQT, my first Head walking into a communal area full of unruly teenagers and silencing all by looking over the top of his spectacles (Darth Vader wishes he had the gravitas of TEL Jones). Then he just uttered, “Stack up your bags and sit down quietly.” And all of them did just that. As an NQT I was in awe, in the same way that you might be in awe of a magician who’d just managed to catch a bullet between his teeth or levitated a sea lion in front of you.
What we must remember is that, in fact, this is an illusion. Mr Jones was not magic. To perform this seemingly miraculous feat he had spent years and years building a system- a system built on rules and a stubborn resilient determination – a system built and maintained and improved with other people. Because one man cannot perform this magic. Not even if you do have Sith Lord levels of authority.
Now I can silence classes with a look. I do not yet have the gravitas of a Sith Lord, but I can get there I think. I have built up an impressive record. Pupils beat their target grades in my classes and my literacy team gets pupils, who have felt like failures or given up or have been given up on, to read and succeed – we transform the lives of some pupils in this way.
I know this feeling. I’ve taught pupils, who have been totally given up on, to be real successes. My ego expands.
Because of this a reputation builds. An ex pupil told someone recently, “If you don’t learn in Mr Williams’ class you just aren’t listening.” Other pupils seem to behave as if I am magic. “I would never have passed if I had not been in your class Mr Williams.”
My ego expands. At this point I may start believing in my own mythology. – “I save illiterate kids. I get pupils GCSEs. I am chocolate. I am Superteacher!”
My ego can barely fit through the door.
In my heart of hearts I know, like all magic tricks, this is an illusion. There is no such thing as a Superteacher. The quality of my instruction depends on the quality of the pupils’ behaviour and the quality of the pupils’ effort. These things are built by not only me, but also parents, other teachers, heads of year, SLT, peers, sometimes youth workers, sometimes social workers, sometimes counsellors, sometimes LSAs and of course the choices of pupils themselves.
Believing I am Superteacher would be good for my ego. It would make me feel extra special, but it is also a dangerous mythology: it encourages the erroneous idea that teaching is not about the collective but the individual; that we don’t need to challenge or change systematic failure- just hire better teachers – more Superteachers; that schools don’t need more resources or time just to sack bad lazy teachers and hire good hardworking Superteachers instead.
I also know I am only as good if I continue to build and improve upon all of these things. Perhaps that’s the underlying cause of the joy and anxiety and stress in teaching – that knowledge that yes I did it last year, but this class provides a new context, this pupil a different challenge, these colleagues managers or parents a different outlook on what my job should be – of what it means to be Superteacher.
The truth is I’m not Superteacher and neither are you. It’s just a trick. We are not really magic. Those hard yards you put in with pupils patiently repeating, practising, explaining, disciplining can seem like walking through treacle. Those are the things people forget you did when they look back on you as their own saviour of the school, their very own educational superhero.
We shouldn’t forget that stuff though.
That’s the stuff the “magic” is made from.