If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This year, I’ve spent the vast majority of my time pretending to be a teacher. This has involved planning and delivering lessons, writing essays, and turning up to work at an hour that I previously believed to be some sort of a cautionary tale that adults used to belittle students.
Now, as I near the end, I have to prove that I won’t be a complete hazard to the children in my care, and that, if the planets are correctly aligned, they might even do some “learning”. I prove this by evidencing the eight Teaching Standards set by the government. Michael Tidd argues here that they are a pretty sensible condition for being a teacher in the UK. To an extent, I agree; I think that they are a necessary but insufficient condition. But that is a story for another post.
What I want to talk about here is what I consider to be a gaping omission from the teaching standards. In fact, whenever we talk about teaching and learning and schools and education, I think that the most important quality (or standard, if you prefer) is forgotten: liking children.
It sounds like such an obvious requirement. So obvious, in fact, that it is seldom mentioned. Before teaching, I volunteered for Childline, and I remember that a supervisor once told me that during interviews “liking or caring about children” was given least often as a reason for wanting to counsel.
When I cast my mind back to school, the teachers that I respected the most were those that showed genuine interest in me as a person. Yes, great subject knowledge was also important. I was aware, even then, that being quirkily obsessed with what you teach was infectious. But that wasn’t enough. The best teachers were those that cared about what I cared about.
This doesn’t mean simply pandering to young people and feigning interest in whomever pop culture is currently deifying. That would be weird and transparently unauthentic. My best teachers found out what I wanted to become, and what I needed I get there. Whether that happened to be their particular area of expertise or not, they would help me with that. Even if it was just a regular conversation to remind me that I had a goal.
Conversely, I was bewildered at those teachers who obviously actively disliked young people. I’m not talking here about those who were strict or challenging. I mean those teachers who waxed lyrical about how disrespectful young people have become and what a sorry state society’s got itself into. Those who muttered that they couldn’t wait until they could retire. They were fed up, jaded, uninterested and they’d given up even trying to hide it.
In primary education, I have this a little easier than my secondary counterparts. I have no real allegiance to any particular subject, and have the benefit of seeing children succeed and fail in all areas I the curriculum. I can get to know exactly what their strengths are and what they find tricky. We can work on this together. I’m really, really excited when they achieve, and so they get really excited when they achieve. I’m even more proud when they fail again and again, and never give up. I wear that pride on my face.
I genuinely care about where they need help not because the sixth teaching standard says that I should employ AfL, or because the first teaching standard says that I should have high expectations of all my students. I care because I can see a wonderful ball of potential that doesn’t understand that getting something wrong means that you’re learning, and doesn’t realise that they are taking on stacks of knowledge and progressing in their skills at a remarkable rate. At a rate that few adults would concede is far higher than their own.
Recently, a parent asked me why I had gone into teaching. ‘A whole day without adult interaction, isn’t that hard?’ they said. I replied that I had got into teaching for a load of reasons, but mainly because I like kids. I find them funnier and more interesting and more genuine than adults. Less close-minded, more free-thinking. More sincere. If you gave me a choice between having a conversation with an adult and an eight year old, I’ll choose the kid any time.
Any successes that I’ve had this year, any decent observations or lessons that worked, I can put them all down to this one quality. Yes, I did the other stuff in the teaching standards, they are the nuts and bolts that you need to build the boat. But if you don’t really care about the boat, or where it is headed, and if you don’t show it, then the whole thing becomes a chore for everyone involved.