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Selling Teacher Recruitment on Wow Moments is a Lie – Inspirational Teaching Takes Patience and Perseverance

Like waves against a cliff, effecting real and permanent change in students' learning means making a big effort to achieve small goals every single day, says Adam Boxer

  • Selling Teacher Recruitment on Wow Moments is a Lie – Inspirational Teaching Takes Patience and Perseverance

My Facebook feed has recently become flooded with DfE videos trying to encourage people to teach.

In a break from my usual fare of adorable cats or restaurants selling Harry Potter-themed doughnuts, I now get to look at some wonderfully fresh-faced teachers talking about how awesome teaching is.

Smartly dressed and exuding youth and enthusiasm, these teaching newbies get to tell us all about their goals of inspiring children.

Other than an occasional interjection of “I’ve only been teaching two and a half years and now I’m the CEO of a Multi-Academy Trust!” their monologues are completely dominated by the “inspirational” side of the job.

We hear tales of students’ eyes lighting up, being engaged with the subject and just being generally carried away by the overpowering enthusiasm of the whole thing.

We hear about impact, making a difference, changing children’s lives and so on and so forth. About the chance to have those deep, meaningful conversations with disaffected and itinerant youths that cause them to miraculously turn their behaviour around overnight.

One of my favourite clips features a handsome late-20s bearded science teacher drumming on an outdoor table surrounded by students as they wait for a bottle rocket to go off. Just look at their faces – “this is why I chose to teach.”

Well, here’s one marginally less attractive late-20s bearded science teacher with a reality check. Most of the time, that inspirational moment won’t last and won’t change anything.

If you’re looking to see inspired and wide-eyed children dazzled by your brilliance, you are looking for the wrong thing.

I want to illustrate my point with a personal anecdote from my little hobby of (extremely) amateur landscape photography.

I used to take an annual trip down to the Natural History Museum in London to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, and it never failed to disappoint. The skill and creativity of the shortlisted photographers was astounding.

One year, as I got on the train home to Canons Park I felt genuinely inspired. I was going to go out, take some pictures and create beautiful art.

Unfortunately, instead of spending the train journey planning this out, I fell asleep, and woke up at the end of the line with a small puddle of dribble on the front of my jacket.

All that inspiration just kind of…evaporated.

Inspiration doesn’t last. If our lives are to change it isn’t the ‘Big Moments’ which will make those changes. It is the steady action of many different events spread over time.

We might look back on ourselves over the course of one year or five years or a decade and look at how much we have changed. But it is unlikely to be the result of any one instant or event.

It is more likely to be the result of hundreds of small events and influences; like water crashing against a cliff face, the effect of each wave cannot be perceived. But when we take a step back to see the broader picture, the change is there.

Teaching is exactly the same. Teaching is not about creating “inspirational moments”. It is not about encouraging your students to stand on their tables and declare “oh captain my captain!”

Those events might make you feel good, but they are transient and ephemeral.

Real master teachers take a long-term view; they steadily attempt, day after day, to drive behavioural change.

That will manifest itself in the increasing fluency of your students in your subject, but also in their beliefs, attitudes and actions.

It isn’t particularly inspirational to have to keep telling Dave in 9z5 to get his books out his bag at the beginning of the lesson.

But it still needs to be done and, though I might not see the effect now, in the long-term that change is occurring.

The routines, expectations of behaviour and study all contribute to what the students will, in the long-term, change into.

And you know what? To me, and I suspect to many other teachers, that is what inspirational means. Not the glamorous excitement of setting fire to things or dressing up as a 16th-century peasant and reading Hamlet to enraptured children.

Inspirational is about perseverance, dedication, and relentless ambition driven by the power of the incremental improvement. You don’t need to be charismatic. You don’t need to be “inspirational” in the conventional sense.

You just need to be willing to put your shoulder to the staggeringly difficult job of making incremental long-term change.

If your students’ eyes never light up in wide-eyed wonder that does not mean you are not doing an outstanding job. If they never turn around their behaviour after a deep and meaningful restorative justice conversation, that does not mean you are not doing outstanding work.

If you’re looking for the classic “inspirational moment”, pick a different career. If you’re looking for the back-breaking labour of love that is great teaching; come join us.


Adam Boxer is a chemistry teacher and head of KS3 science at JCoSS. He is also the chemistry tutor on the BPP PGCE course. Follow him on Twitter at @adamboxer1.

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