Beware the perils
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.
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