Perhaps this applies especially to teachers, but it seems to me that many people can look back on their school days and remember a particular teacher who inspired them to greatness. I am almost ashamed to confess that I am not one of those. Admittedly, it was Miss Roberts’ encouragement that persuaded me to study English rather than maths at ‘A’ level (I would have done better at maths and it would have served me better in my first profession in banking). And Mrs Price’s persuasiveness convinced me to apply for the degree course I eventually chose, rather than the more conventional options preferred by my parents and the careers advisor at school. There are many teachers I remember fondly, particularly late in primary school, early in secondary school and at sixth form, but the memories that really stick with me are not the rosy reminiscences of school success. They are the occasions when, even now, I shudder that an adult with influence on young hearts and minds could thoughtlessly say and do as they did.
- Decades later, I still remember having been sent to stand in the corner of the seemingly huge room for failing to follow a routine that had been taught when I was absent.
- We had a teacher in Reception or Year 1 who would routinely rap us on the hand if we misread a word.
- One school I attended had us sitting in columns according to how we had performed in the previous week’s tests. The shame of being moved ‘down’ the columns for one week lives with me.
- A secondary school maths teacher refused to explain a pupil’s mistake after she had marked it as incorrect, saying (audibly to the entire class), “I’m not here to teach you individually.”
There are other disappointing instances; however, these few remain most vivid, their memory perhaps intensified over time. The untold kindnesses and carefully planned lessons and activities, the extra-curricular and voluntary efforts of numerous teachers are acknowledged, but not recalled in the detail either the actions or their performers may deserve.
The instances mentioned are not great acts of cruelty or neglect but rather poorly-judged or careless deeds and practices. Notwithstanding the absence of ill intent, the question remains: If someone who has had the priviledge of attending and graduating university three times, who has a happy family life and a successful teaching career following a high-flying city career can still feel the aftershocks of these insensitive words and deeds decades later, how must a young pupil feel? Specifically, one for whom school and academic tasks are sometimes tricky?
Fortunately, most teachers these days have their learners’ needs front and centre pretty much all of the time. Sometimes, though, even teachers can be afflicted by human flaws. In the past couple of years I have witnessed time-saving ‘devices’ such as teachers asking pupils to mark each others’ spelling or mental arithmetic tests, or requiring pupils to call out their marks so that they may be recorded into the teacher’s mark book. This is not ‘character building’ and does not teach any useful, age-appropriate skills. It can be embarrassing in the extreme for certain pupils, and some might argue that it is downright cruel (and a little lazy).
When I first trained to teach, there was barely a nod towards neurodiversity. We may have been told that we would probably have students with dyslexia in our classes, that there might be pupils with autism or maybe sight or hearing impairment at our schools, but we were not equipped to support these students. A grand assumption seemed to have been made that these skills would be acquired on the job, by osmosis. The reality was and still is that new teachers learn a vast amount ‘on the job’, and that we are reliant on courses, a great deal of independent reading and research, and the input of more experienced peers, specialists and parents to widen our knowledge and understanding of these and other learning differences or difficulties. For those of us fulfilled by the ‘lightbulb moment’ when a pupil grasps what had been beyond their reach, this can be motivation enough to put in the hours, weeks, even terms of effort to find ways for our students to make those precious steps and connections. Perhaps not every educator must have the extreme drive to understand and support every individual need, but a better understanding of the range of strengths and support needs in any class can enable all teachers to gear their lessons for maximum impact and enjoyment.
It may seem odd to introduce oneself as a teacher by highlighting inadvertent insults of the past. For me, it nevertheless serves as a constant reminder that we as educators have a duty of care to our charges to make every learning experience as positive as possible. This was my philosophy when I began teacher training in 2003 and it remains my guiding principle. The rest is a bonus.