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"Were my teachers doing their jobs properly?"

First published in Teach Secondary, April 2020 issue - This is the originally submitted version, so there may be minor differences between this and the published version.

When you entered into Initial Teacher Training, I’m sure one of the pieces of advice you would have been given was to try to be like the teacher you remember best from your childhood. You may have been that pupil who flinchingly recalls a particularly strict teacher who had eyes in the back of their head and could throw a chalk eraser with lethal accuracy. Your favourite teacher may have been the one whose infectious joy permeated through the class and to whose lessons you skipped down the corridor.

My own versions of these Professor Snapes and Miss Honeys were Mr. Oram and Miss Starkiss. The former was so strict that no child dared to ask to go to the toilet during his lessons, so much so that his laminate floor had a distinctly orange glow to it. However, he is solely responsible for any aptitude I have for mental arithmetic. The latter was aptly name as she brought a ray of light into each classroom with her bright dungarees and bubble perm that sat well with all of us who had watched Rainbow’s Rod, Jane, and Freddie – the 80s version of The Wiggles , if you need a reference point. Yet I can remember nothing from her lessons, aside from falling asleep on a ‘girlfriend’ when I was no older than seven, although I don’t doubt they must have affected me and my classmates immensely, just as all Primary School lessons are foundations for our future growth.

The difficulty with this advice, given out willingly, like some undeniable truism, is that it is the educational equivalent of an old wives’ tale; neatly memorable, unquestionable honest, and often out-dated. As a career-changer, when I started my Schools Direct training, it had been twenty-one years since I had stepped into a secondary school classroom.

There were indisputably many excellent educators at all of the eight schools I attended until the age of 17, but with all that has happened since, they became merely blurred shapes, notions of classrooms, a vague sense of good and bad teachers; caring, intelligent, or supportive, and those who were hapless, tedious, or constantly irate. Even those of you who went straight from University into on-the-job training or a PGCE course will have spent at least six years outside of a secondary school classroom. How clearly can you remember what you were doing six years ago?

Now, there is some benefit to envisioning the idealistic template of a teacher. Having an inspiration to learn from is an important way to start creating your own recipe for outstanding pedagogy. A cookie-cutter still makes tasty cookies! As your own flavour of educating evolves, rooting yourself in the memory of an affectionately recollected old head mistress or form tutor establishes an end goal to which you might navigate, like the pictures in a recipe book.

My criticism of this approach stems from the inevitability of change and the uniqueness of personal experience. In those six years, or more, what has changed in the education sector? Technology such as visualisers or online homework platforms have become commonplace. A shift to evidence-based research behind the decisions we make. The rise of EduTwitter and TeachMeets. If nothing had changed, we might be worried that teaching was not adapting to the changes to our pupils, which are both academic and demographic. Your own personal experience is vital too. How do I know which of my former teachers was doing it right? In year 10, my class and I were taught entirely the wrong Information Technology syllabus so, when it came to the exam, there were audible gasps when the exam paper was turned over, followed by shock and tears. What if that teacher was my most memorable example to emulate?

Being a student is different to how it was twenty years ago. As such, being a teacher must be different too. Being able to just stand in front of a blackboard or sit behind an overhead projector and expect every pupil to hang on your every word, in the beginning at least, is too much to ask. Your memories of teachers past may be of them being able to silence a class with a carefully chosen chord on a Bontempi keyboard but they will have had to work at it to get there. Your memories are, most likely, of an educator at the peak of their powers, not of one quietly and relentlessly progressing, developing, to become the best version of themselves. In short, then, they were not like you are now.

The best advice I recently received on this matter was not to nostalgically look back on my own past in rose-tinted glasses but, based on what is happening in classrooms in the present, engineer the design of an effective teacher and all that entails. Whether that is a gruff, impatient, old Latin master from a dusty college library or a progressive, dynamic, lecturer who leads and inspires through their proactivity. That blueprint might require selecting specific traits from different colleagues based on your observations or interactions. That plan in your mind may not yet be fully sketched out but that is unfortunately, and fortunately, part of the job.

Use your own designs and own experiences to create a map signposting how to develop your own teacher identity not subjective reminiscences of what might not actually be the ‘golden years’ you remember.

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Feb 02, 2023

"To be or not to be, that is the question. What kind of teacher do I want to be? How do I want to be? This is the question that Hamlet asks us in his well-known soliloquy, indirectly, more than 450 years later.

No one but you is an expert on the subject Shakespeare! So my introspection and vision, speaking from an applied literary point of view, is that Hamlet taught us the importance of facing our fears, the doubts about which path to take, to explore and take new risks, to evolve. To question the status quo, to adapt to new changes, to renew ourselves, to evolve. In this digital era, this is perhaps what determines the survival and…

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