What's all this then?

I tweet too much. So I needed somewhere else to start storing all the words. This is it. Think of it as the external hard drive for my thoughts.

I don't have an obesssion, a dream, a fixation or a hook, so don't be expecting a focus here. It's like great big lumps of my twitterings. You may see teaching stuff, rants, maternal anxiety and occasional sojourns away from reality.

Anyway, I like a nice chat so we should talk. By we, I of course mean me...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The myth of the brilliant teacher

So, who was *that* teacher for you? You know, the one who inspired you, who set you on your life’s path and made a difference?

It’s ok. You don’t have to answer that; please put your hands down. I only ask because it’s a question that surfaces a lot in teaching circles. The TES loves to ask a sleb who inspired them and it’s something we teachers are fascinated by. Maybe a little bit of us dreams of being mentioned by a Nobel Prize winner, “And I never would have even considered going into particle physics if it wasn’t for Miss Bird. Without her, there would be no Grand Unified Theory of Everything on a Shoestring.”

I think though it’s perfectly ok not to remember a teacher in that way. I’ve several memorable teachers. They were fascinating and funny and made learning a good experience. I’m not sure any of them changed my life and I wouldn’t list them in Facebook under “Inspirations”, that spot is saved for Thor Heyerdal (if only I didn’t get seasick) and Bagpuss (all-round zen-like guru).

So, where can we look for inspirational teachers?

Teachers are a tough crowd, it’s not easy to impress them, as a whole. I think many of us watch the Teaching Awards with a slightly derisive sniff and a large glass of wine thinking, “But that’s not special - I know loads of teachers like that!” And we do. We know lots of good teachers, but inspirational? That’s hard to find. Jamie Oliver struggled to find people who could teach his “Dream School” in an inspiring way, and he was looking amongst great minds and talents of our time. And Rolf Harris. I love Rolf.

Maybe there was a golden age of teaching past when teachers were good and wise? Ah, the Socratic method, the community of enquiry. Yes, that’s a lovely dream of teaching. But, and be honest now, how many of us got into teaching so we could be just like Socrates ( and I am pronouncing that as in Bill & Ted, by the way)?
Who are the famous teachers? Famous great teachers? I’m looking to the world of fiction. Classic novels are full of incredible teachers, men and women providing a pivotal point in the story of their society: Miss Jean Brodie, Professor Bhaer, Mr Chips. Hollywood loves a tragically heroic teacher: see Dead Poet’s Society, and MonaLisa Smile for the girls version, Dangerous Minds and, um, School of Rock. Look, I didn’t say they were good films.  We also love fictional mentors: Mr Miyagi, Merlin and, of course, Yoda. Children’s fiction obviously features an abundance of school stories. I loved Malory Towers and my daughter loves its contemporary equivalent, Glitterwings Academy (It’s a boarding school for fairies. Don’t ask). Children’s authors such as Roald Dahl and JK Rowling create legendary teachers, who invest their whole being in their charges and through their nurturing relationship with the child not only do they release the child’s potential but they defeat a greater evil: Miss Honey and Matilda, Dumbledore and Harry.

All marvellous teachers. All fictional. So is the legend of the inspirational teacher really a fairytale? I don't think so, I think it's a myth. If, that is, we take myth in its truest meaning.

A myth is not a groundless fiction, it’s not a fairy tale; it has roots. In many cultures, a myth is a teaching story. We learn something from the trials of the characters, their adventures serve to show us how to act, how to think. All world religions have their teaching myths. In Australia, many aboriginal teaching myths are based around the visible landscape so the whole world becomes a reminder of our Learning Intentions. Look at those three rock pillars, the Three Sisters: they were turned to stone for throwing rocks down onto the Bunyip’s lake. What Are We Learning Today? Don’t throw rocks over the edge of cliffs, silly, it’s dangerous.

Some theories of myth suggest that it should be seen as a model for action, what Karen Armstrong refers to as a “call to arms”.
So the myth of the brilliant teacher is our call to action. It reminds us of who we want to be, of everything we should be. The stories of inspirational teachers, whether they come from the fevered minds of Hollywood or our own cobbled together childhood memories, lodge in our minds as a constant reminder of what teaching is about. We should be striving to be that wonderful, inspirational, illuminating person who turns classrooms into new worlds with a Mary Poppins click of our fingers.

Another role of the myth is to provide access to the divine, the fantastical, to provide a sense of awe and wonder. There is no-one so open to a sense of wonder as a 5 year old child. You can tell them we’re going to do something very exciting....... tidying up the home corner! and they will believe you and get excited. We can all be wonderful, as least to children.

It’s good to have a glimpse of teacher perfection nagging at us, not just because it make us better teachers, but because it is a view of a more exciting life, one that isn’t bogged down with APP and endless paperwork. Sometimes, we should all pretend to be the maverick teacher from stories, who laughs in the face of authority and takes the students to sing in the park instead of writing up their reports. Fake it till you make it.

I think it’s ok to secretly be a little bit inspired by fictional teachers, or wish you had a nomination at the Teaching Awards, or to imagine shaking hands with an ex-pupil as they show you round their new pad at No 10 Downing Street. It’s ok to grab a metre rule and do your best “Fame costs...” speech when no-one’s looking or slip Yoda-isms into your PSHE lessons or even call your student "grasshopper".

The myth of the inspirational teacher keeps us looking at the stars from Gove’s gutter. We need it more than ever.

And while we’re sharing, what’s my favourite teacher myth? It’s Sean Connery in the Untouchables (accent not withstanding) educating the naive Elliot Ness in the Chicago Way. Here endeth the lesson.

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