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Every so often in teaching, there’s a moment that makes it all worthwhile, says Tom Starkey. So you’d better be on your guard...
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“You can’t function on sentiment alone”
Although most of us go into teaching for the glory and the riches, it usually turns out that it’s the little things that keep us going.
The way a smile can get you through the day, or a surprise moment of insight can have you floating, or a thank you can act like a fresh cup of coffee – all that jazz. For all its faults, teaching is pretty consistent like that.
It may take a while, but one of those little golden nuggets will be along sooner or later.
And that’s the problem.
Yeah, you heard me: The inspirational stuff. The stuff that warms the heart. The stuff that makes you feel like it’s all worth it. Massive problem. Absolute pain in the arse.
When Kazeem attempts to hug me on results day after winning the epic battle to get the grades he needs, I’m prying him off me with a spatula.
When Leia recites one of her poems to the rest of her Y9 class who sit in rapt silence that turns into riotous applause, I’m shushing them and getting straight onto the next kid.
When my tutor group get me a voucher for music downloads after I’ve had them listening to my favourites, I let a smile flicker across my lips and then it’s back to business.
Have I had my heart removed and replaced with chilled gravel? Not this week. In fact, it might come as a shock to long-term readers that those moments really get me deep.
Under the bluster and arch cynicism I’m deeply, deeply sentimental about this job of ours, so when I’m witness to a Hallmark moment I melt along with the best of them. But the thing is, those moments are dangerous as hell.
Those moments will keep you going when everything else in the job is shocking. They act like a balm that anaesthetises you to the daily grind and makes you carry on (sometimes through grievous injury).
They’re so good, they’re addictive. And a little hit can make you feel like everything is OK.
But the job has to be more than golden moments. You can’t function on sentiment alone. And neither should you be expected to.
Those moments should be the icing on a delicious cake of respect, support, security and professionalism. They should be value added extra on what is already the solid foundation of an organisation that allows you to be the best teacher you can be.
They shouldn’t be the scraps you scrabble for to get you through the day. They shouldn’t be there to keep you going – they should be there to make your day even better.
People know the power of these moments – in fact, they’ve been central to many a teacher recruitment drive through the years. It’s an understandable approach, as it is, perhaps, what sets this job apart from almost any other.
But the reality is they are simply not enough if that’s all there is. They’re so powerful that they can be deceptive and mask what can be extremely problematic teaching environments. In fact, I often see one-step-away-from-simpletons in education telling people with functioning IQs that these moments are the only thing good teachers need to get by. A decent rate of pay and working conditions are for those who no longer reach for the stars. Those folk can do one right into the nearest large body of water.
So, that’s the reason that when I’m privy to these special times in teaching, I have a tendency to downplay them, even attempt to normalise them a little. A tad curmudgeonly?
For sure. But then I know how easy it is to get swept away on sentiment to the detriment of actual quality of working life. I’ve done it before. I’ve chased those moments knowing that they could keep me going as everything else was falling apart. It’s no way to work.
Now, I appreciate those moments but I see them more in context because it’s context that is key.
You could have the most perfect, inspiring, single-tear-running-down-a-cheek, down-right beautiful moment in teaching, but that doesn’t stop a shite school being a shite school.
Don’t kid yourself – see the big picture and don’t live moment to moment. You deserve more than the scraps of the cake (no matter how wonderfully heartwarming they are.)
Thanks for reading.
Tom Starkey is a teacher and writer who blogs at stackofmarking.wordpress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tstarkey1212.
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