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Beware the perils

news | Published in TES magazine on 7 December, 2012 | By: Tom Bennett

Some teachers act as lighthouses, warning others by their example of the hazards that can befall those in the profession. Tom Bennett looks back at the course he has charted

The teacher’s long walk from rookie to rawhide is a lonely one. But, if we are lucky, there will be men, women and children who act as stars to guide us. We gravitate easily towards things that inspire us. Indeed, at this time of year there is a whole calendar industry devoted to such matters. And, if you can stomach it, Twitter is the nursery of trite aphorisms. But there are other guides - relating cautionary tales of professional defeat and wrong corners turned - who act as warnings in our careers.

The first one of these I encountered lived like Caliban in the smoking staffroom of my training school. You heard me: a smoking staffroom. These days, the idea seems as improbable as ashtrays in a helicopter, but I assure you they were common. This teacher grabbed me, in the intrusive, invasive way that only desperate men, increasingly ignored, can.

“Don’t waste your time giving a shit about the kids,” he said, from beneath moustache wax and brandy fumes. “Hardly any of them are worth losing a minute’s sweat over.”

What miserable ghost he believed could be exorcised by crushing the shoots of my compassion, it is impossible to say. Fortunately, I was old and wily enough - teaching was a second career - to see him for what he was: a soak, an avatar of despair, not even noble enough to be classed a cynic. Cynics, at least, are disappointed romantics. No one can despise rubble and ruin so passionately if they have not at first longed for a lovelier world, and been dismayed. It takes a certain unbreakable flint of secret hope to be a true cynic.

This, however, was simply a man who didn’t give a damn and perhaps never would. It puzzled me how someone like that could endure in a profession where nurture is key. I vowed to leave if the profession ever turned me to stone like him.

There was also a physics teacher who openly told us how little he wanted to be there, and how he was using teaching as a stepping stone to a real job. He was a frustrated academic and I hope he’s happy now. I remember thinking how awful it must be to do a job that you truly hated, working with people you resented, and feeling nothing but simmering self-loathing. I’ve unblocked a few toilets in my time, but I fancy my father was right when he said that, in everything you do, commit yourself, or life becomes a waiting-room of frustration. The children need us to be there in body and spirit. They can smell insincerity like camphor.

Most teachers exist in a state of permanent freefall, clutching at papers as they draw closer to the ground, and usually trying to mark a few as they go. I often feel like Indiana Jones running from the boulder. If I’m lucky, I get to slide under the slab and grab my hat before the term ends. That’s not to complain. It’s a busy job and if you want peace and quiet, go and answer the phones for Lembit Opik.

It’s not that I don’t get laziness - I went to university after all - but I don’t understand the decision to stay in a job that is so fundamentally dedicated to the needs of others, and decide that it’s actually just a warm place to put your feet up. We all get tired; we all feel like days off. But teachers don’t exist as islands: we are archipelagos unto one another. When one stumbles, their comrades stoop to take the strain.

So when one teacher starts to go off, the whole barrel reeks. I have seen teachers who occupied space and time and little else - rare teachers who proved that it was possible to be a member of staff without being a colleague or a citizen of the school. They call in sick for a long weekend; they knock off on sunny days; they shed as much as they can without actually endangering the one thing they care about - their pay packet.

I knew one long-timer who played this part like Olivier. It was as if someone had torn a hole between the staffroom tea urn and the depths of space, sucking in all enthusiasm and enterprise. First to complain about the faults of others, he was last to discern his own shortcomings: the lateness to lessons; the stand-up humiliations of kids; the grey lesson plans written on a napkin; the cover work that, if set, followed the form of “Write a poem” or “Revise”, condemning the supply teacher to an hour of anarchy and derision.

I used to work in nightclubs. In that maelstrom of agitation and frantic motion, nothing but effort was endured. Boxes were hauled, bottles were emptied, dashed and swept in a moment, and bottomless thirsts were slaked. Schools are kinder places and the inadequacy of others is often mistaken for injury. Staff endure blights for longer, in the hope that they will pass. To take advantage of that is an offence against the dignity of the profession and the children we teach. I feel the same fury against anyone who would deliberately neglect the education of a child for the sake of their comfort as I would for those who rob the helpless.

Monstrous reflections

Sometimes, upon waking from a nightmare, it is common to still live in the moment of dread as the fear dissipates. Then, after a heartbeat, the tide of reason washes over: it was only a dream. That same feeling can occur when you listen to once warm, sane men and women who have become bean counters.

I have seen teachers achieve seniority, of even quite mediocre degrees, and turn on their own principles as if they had downed Dr Jekyll’s draught. What Faustian bond forces some to denounce the enterprise of education for the revealed faith of bureaucracy? Men and women who joined the corps because they wanted to make the lives of children brighter, because they loved their subjects, because they wanted to make a stepping stone, however meagre, of their own shoulders. I have seen excellent teachers become barely competent managers, promoted beyond their ability. They are slavishly in thrall, not to the needs of children but to the needs of the inspector.

To be fair, the pressure is huge. But, to be honest, that’s no excuse. The only reason that schools became performing monkeys for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate was because we permitted it. I sympathise for those locked into the monkey dance, while promising to try never to forget why we teach.

The worst one of all was a man I met early in my career. I blanch to reflect on his terrible conduct. He was like a medieval atlas of dark pedagogy: when I think of him, I imagine a wild-eyed, serpentine beast, undulating beneath the words Here be dragons. Sailor beware.

When classes frustrated and baited him - as they regularly did - I could hear him rave and roar back at them, as though the righteousness of his wrath would engineer some salutary conversion in the character of the class. Of course it didn’t. It amused and embarrassed them. For those who liked sport, it was Big Game indeed. Never underestimate the cruel curiosity of the child who realises that an adult is at their mercy.

Worse, the teacher could barely conceal his genuine - not faux - rage. As he railed, he made ghastly, melodramatic gestures of self-pity. “I give you so many chances, but you throw them back in my face!” he barked. “It’s so hard teaching you, and hardly any of you care!” The children looked at him as if he had dropped from the sky. Were they supposed to feel sorry for him? To pity him? Wasn’t he paid to teach? Wasn’t his job to be an adult?

I felt for him while at the same time I promised never to make his mistakes. Pity is an ugly sentiment to demand from your pupils.

His sins didn’t end there. Ground down by his classes, he made a martyr of himself. He never asked for help because he couldn’t bear the shame of it. He would rather affect invulnerability. And so, week by week, he made the same sad steps with the same kids, falling into the same patterns and provocations as the kids also assumed their practised positions. It was a tango of misbehaviour: pleading, raging, banishing the most compliant rogues into the corridor - but no further - for the whole lesson. I could hear him threaten to call home for everyone, but he never did. He often barely finished a lesson. All the while, you could see good kids wondering when the lesson would be over, so that they could get to a real classroom. Learning happened despite him, not because of him. Years passed before he changed.

He was, of course, me. I shrink with the shame of the errors I made in my first few years. I was as untethered and desperate as a wounded bandit. The worst teacher I have ever seen is me; within us all we contain our own dark reflections, our own nemesis.

One day I passed a tipping point and realised that if I didn’t swim to the surface I would drown in my own inadequacy. So I rededicated myself to my profession and it has saved me as repayment. But it was close, and before I could be saved I was very, very lost indeed.

Every man and woman contains within themselves the germs of their own destruction and their redemption, and having seen the abyss of the former, I cleave to the latter like a madman clutching at a plank on the waves of a storm.

Teachers, like character, are forged in fire and iron. And if you’re lucky, what remains will be worth something to someone else. Here be dragons.

Tom Bennett is TES’s behaviour expert and the author of The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher. Read more from Tom on his blog, behaviourguru.blogspot.com, or follow him on Twitter at @tombennett71. His latest book, Teacher, is out now, published by Continuum

A voice from FE: Sarah Simons

Many FE colleges have vast student populations, with more than 1,000 members of staff. The great majority of teaching staff are highly motivated people, dedicated to inspiring learners towards the best possible futures; but to assume that every lecturer is like that is naive.

As a lecturer new to the profession, I assumed that expertise went with longevity. I had the joy of working with many vibrant lecturers who were always curious to learn more.

However, I also encountered a tiny proportion of so-called education professionals who treated students with such contempt that I pondered what exactly had to be done before a teacher was fired. Why would anyone choose to be in the profession when they openly loathed young people? This ill- disguised hostility was a clear signpost of what not to do.

Some of the practices that I witnessed were a valuable lesson in what to avoid: students on the cusp of adulthood who struggle to read and write don’t need to be told that six-year-olds are better skilled than them; and young people do not aspire to improve if they are described as stupid. Even the most talented of teachers don’t get it right every time, but there is a danger of perpetuating bad practice by exposing new members of staff who are perhaps less assertive, to attitudes that are, at best, lacking in compassion.

A transformative experience came six months into my teaching career. There was an ongoing territorial war within the staffroom. One evening, three weeks into the all-consuming battle, I was in the cupboard underneath my stairs at home, attempting catharsis through angry cleaning. The camping equipment fell on my head, causing a disproportionate emotional release. The clouds parted. I realised that by letting myself be distracted by peripheral nonsense, I had diverted my own energy from the fact that I wasn’t a good teacher.

From that moment, I decided that I wanted to offer my students the better experience that I had seen in some other classrooms and that I would continue my own learning in order to improve. Engaging in trivial squabbles was perhaps a means of masking significant failings, my own included. In that instance, I was the lighthouse teacher. Luckily, I recognised my own warning light.

 

Picture credit: Getty


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Comment (22)

  • Hello Tom, I am really in tune with what you are saying and relate to your stories 110%, would love to chat. I just quit teaching as a result of my own sad situation of fire being doused with water. :-(

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    11:27
    7 December, 2012

    stevemills

  • What a powerful story Tom. I admire your courage and congratulate you on the writing.

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    11:37
    7 December, 2012

    MTheol

  • Brave yes, but this also highlights how the 'profession' has stood by and allowed these kind of occurences to proliferate. Shame and responsibility should also be cast at the countless headteachers, whilst knowing full well about such staff in their schools, do nothing with regard to support, or in the worst culpable situations get rid of them.
    But then , like so many other sectors, accountability remains a foreign concept.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    14:23
    7 December, 2012

    One Horse Town

  • I do so hope that the sad, the selfish, the incompetent and the malevolent near psychopaths whom you so mercilessly and condescendingly lambast here will manifest a shade more of the milk of human kindness and compassion towards you when you meet them again. <p>

    No doubt you will yourself on your way down, next time !<p>

    Two specific questions however about the text:<p>

    i) Where did you get the "archipelagos" metaphor? Confucius ? Or Solzenhitsyn perhaps? Certainly the linked poetic scenario of "comrades (who) stoop to take the strain" seems wholly foreign to my eyes and bears no relation to humdrum staffroom life in the bog-standard comprehensives of England where I laboured so long. Rather was the attitude there almost univerally one of cold indifference towards the plight of one's colleagues; not comrades. Certainly not "camaradas." Not in a million years "camaradas."<p>

    Not too dissimilar to your smug, haughty and self-righteous reaction to the circus of pedagogical grotesques with whom you initially presented us, in fact.<p>

    i) Re the children who, due to the cupidity of a contemptible so-called fellow professional you inform us "subject a supply teacher to an hour of ANARCHY and DERISION" (my emphasis added) . Do you never ever ever, Tom, ask yourself.....?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    15:04
    7 December, 2012

    BigFrankEM

  • "The first one of these I encountered lived like Caliban in the smoking staffroom of my training school. You heard me: a smoking staffroom... There was also a physics teacher who openly told us how little he wanted to be there..."

    So we're using anecdotes from a quarter of a cventury to say - well, what? - about teachers today?

    "Most teachers exist in a state of permanent freefall, clutching at papers as they draw closer to the ground, and usually trying to mark a few as they go."

    And your evidence for this is...?

    "I don’t understand the decision to stay in a job that is so fundamentally dedicated to the needs of others, and decide that it’s actually just a warm place to put your feet up."

    I have yet to encounter a school where staff are able to just put their feet up. Things have changed more than a bit in the last quarter-century.

    "The worst one of all was a man I met early in my career... I felt for him while at the same time I promised never to make his mistakes..... He was, of course, me.." What a contrived set-up that was, and with a glaring inconistency in that second quote.

    Very poor journalism. Nul points.

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    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    18:20
    7 December, 2012

    delnon

  • This shabby piece appears in the same issue as gerard kelly's editorial which - besides the usual facile union-bashing - is about Heads' new duty to determine the pay increments for each individual staff member.
    A coincidence of govian proportions.

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    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    22:34
    7 December, 2012

    delnon

  • Now I see where the comment came from in the forums, lighthouses indeed.
    Most of us do our best but really have not lived such Faustian lives. I am sad to say that your post about lighthouses has led to an article which does more to promote your slavish desire to write slightly cringworthy prose rather than anything which inspires, helps or evens makes us questions ourselves.

    Shame really, it got us all so excited on the forums.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    22:37
    7 December, 2012

    pitarin

  • These latter comments about cringeworthy prose and the like are, sadly, justified. Why did you use such pantomimic stock characters? Because it's easy?

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    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    23:52
    7 December, 2012

    StephenMarvin

  • I began reading and decided to gaze out of the window in preference.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    13:03
    8 December, 2012

    anon1804

  • This smacks of a stitch-up job. I'd bet my lighthouse that the two authors of the article were not even warned about the furore caused by Ed Dorrell's highly offensive threads on this subject on the TES Forums.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    14:06
    8 December, 2012

    DM

  • It must be Panto season! Which decade did you come across these teachers? Was it the fifties? Your descriptions bear no resemblence to any staffroom or school I have been in in my 23 years of teaching. It is a pity you didn't use your time to actually describe what is happening in real schools under the current leadership of Gove and Wilshaw instead of writing a fantasy piece.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    14:17
    8 December, 2012

    blazer

  • "the grey lesson plans written on a napkin"

    Yeah - like the people you describe would write lesson plans?

    Over-written.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    14:29
    8 December, 2012

    Andy_91

  • Stopped takiing the hard copy TES after the last bout of "lighthouse" teacher-bashing a fortnight ago. The forums were full of angry teachers and the TES mods pulled comments and threads.
    Lighthouse journalism, you might say.
    Well, sauce for the gander: I've deleted my contributions to TES resources. Sorry, guys, but there's none so daft as them as won't be told.
    On-line or off-line, TES is no longer fit for purpose: good-bye.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    20:04
    8 December, 2012

    delnon

  • "I was the lighthouse teacher. Luckily, I recognised my own warning light."
    And became a lighthouse journalist.

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    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    21:32
    8 December, 2012

    delnon

  • I loved it. I'm two years into my career, although I am middle aged, and I love to think that someone who I admire also struggled and also took time to get to a place where they consider themselves a good teacher. I have a way to go.
    I love reading your opinions Tom and, although I find you a little forgiving of the evil Tories, I always enjoy what you write and it always gives me food for thought. Keep going!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    21:42
    8 December, 2012

    leftieM

  • I really enjoyed the article and thought it was well-written. I taught for thirty years, in six different schools, and over that time I met teachers who inspired me, and teachers who scared me by showing me a clear image of what I hoped never to become. I certainly made mistakes along the way and recognise some of myself in Tom's description of the dragons. I know that we all have the capacity to teach unsatisfactory lessons at times, and think we need a degree of humility about this. However, our self-respect should ensure that, if we want to stay in the profession, we do learn from experience and improve over time.

    After twenty years I became a head, and I realised that I had learnt much about headship from the less effective leaders I'd worked for, arguably more than I had learnt from the positive examples of headship.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    16:31
    9 December, 2012

    jillberry

  • Clearly, Tom has been removed from the 20-25 hours in a classroom regime for a while now. Nauseating article. Very much a Gove-tinted view coming through here.
    I'd very much like to write a similar article about the NHS management system, which I worked for before becoming a teacher. THAT is where you should look for people working in a place 'to warm their feet'; not schools.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    17:48
    9 December, 2012

    krystina2

  • I think Tom is a little too self congratulatory.
    Plus, hugely outdated anecdotes, which surely is not journalism.
    The tone, for me, sounds a bit too evangelical. Ooops.
    AND...I am just sick of teacher bashing. What are you actually trying to achieve here Tom?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    9:15
    11 December, 2012

    master-of-non

  • In general lighthouses are seen as positive symbols, welcoming ships to safe harbour as well as warning of dangers below. A poor teacher cannot be both the warning lighthouse and the hazard to be avoided which is why the comparison is less than successful.

    Aside from that, I'm confused as to why the editor of TES has felt the need to take to twitter to denounce the few people objecting to the article as "trolls". He's not got much respect for his readership it seems, even going along with the suggestion that comments about poor writing are inspired by the rage of those monstrous teachers recognising a portrait of themselves in the article. Does he think TES is read by lazy, cynical, incompetent child haters? I'd suggest such fairy tale figures are more likely to be down the pub!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    20:01
    11 December, 2012

    airy

  • If Kelly wants to see a troll, he need only go for a shave.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    20:18
    11 December, 2012

    delnon

  • What on earth has happened to the TES? Gerard Kelly appears to be turning it into Gove's propaganda machine and his attacks on those who disagree - via Twitter - are shameful examples of hubris on Kelly's part.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    17:49
    12 December, 2012

    Middlemarch

  • I am disappointed in Tom Bennett. He has taken Kelly's 30 pieces of silver, just as Kelly took Gove's.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    18:55
    12 December, 2012

    Lilyofthefield

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