The Teacher As A Person

This article takes externally imposed staff development activities as a starting point for its major argument that teachers must be appreciated and understood in terms of their purposes, as people, and in terms of their work context—as ‘total teachers’. Teachers, in other words, should not be seen as mere technicians, ‘Delivering a national curriculum or anything else’. Teaching involves skill, values, and expertise. It draws on the whole person of teachers who must be valued as people if they are to give their best. Teaching takes place in contexts which are challenging and diverse and which call for expertise and judgement in resolving the dilemmas which are posed.

Many staff development initiatives take the form of something that is done to teachers rather than with them, still less by them. Such top-down approaches to staff development embody a passive view of the teacher, who is empty, deficient, lacking in skills, needing to be filled up and fixed up with new techniques and strategies.

Approaches of this kind seriously underestimate what teachers already think, know, and can do. They underestimate the active way that teachers relate to their work. They ignore the way that teachers’ approaches to their work are deeply grounded in the accumulated learning of experience, in the meaning that their work and the way they approach it has for them as people. They do not recognise the important moral and social purposes they want to fulfil through their teaching.

Teachers are more than mere bundles of knowledge, skill, and technique. There is more to developing as a teacher than learning new skills and behaviours. As teachers sometimes say to their students, they are not wheeled out of a cupboard at 8.30 am in the morning and wheeled back in at 4.00 pm. Teachers are people too. You cannot understand the teacher or teaching without understanding the person that the teacher is. And you cannot change the teacher in fundamental ways, without changing the person the teacher is, either. This means that meaningful or lasting change will almost inevitably be slow. Human growth is not like rhubarb. It can be nurtured and encouraged but it cannot be forced. Teachers become the teachers they are not just out of habit. Teaching is bound up with their lives, their biographies, with the kinds of people they have become.

Many factors are important in the making of a teacher. Among them are the times in which teachers grew up and entered the profession, and the value systems and dominant educational beliefs that went with those times (compare the 1970s with the 2010s here, for instance). Also important is the stage in life and career that teachers are at, and the effect this has on their confidence in their own teaching, their sense of realism, and their attitudes to change. The teacher’s gender is another factor, in particular the way that teaching and work in general for men and women are often bound up with very different sorts of lives and interests.

This view of the teacher as a person has crucial implications for our understandings of change, professional development, and working relationships between teachers and their colleagues. We want to focus on two of these implications: the ways we often misjudge the competence, commitment, and capacity of our colleagues; and the excessive and unrealistic expectations we sometimes have of our teachers concerning their involvement in schools and their commitment to change.

First, in teaching, as in life, we are quickest to judge those who fail rather than those who succeed. When teachers are new to the job, incompetence can be excused or at least tolerated. They are, after all, only learning. Experienced teachers, who should have matured with their years in the classroom, get away less lightly. Where incompetence is persistent rather than temporary, it is rarely excusable. Almost every reader of this blog would have known at least one teacher in mid-to-late career whose competence and commitment have been in doubt among their colleagues. We have a glossary of graphic labels for such teachers—‘Dead wood’, ‘Burned out’, ‘Time-servers’, and ‘Past-it’! Such labels do not really explain these teachers’ difficulties, though. They explain them away. They are not labels that invite action, that suggest solutions. They are labels that legitimise inaction, that signal abandonment of hope. The fault is presumed to be in the teacher, deeply ingrained in their personality. Little point, therefore, in trying to change them. Not much you can do about bad teachers, especially bad old teachers, except wait for them to leave, retire, or die! “If only I could get some new teachers…” or “Wait until my new teachers arrive…”—these are heads stock responses to this apparently irremediable problem.

Yet have you ever wondered what these 55-year-old ‘time servers’ were like when they were 35, or 25? Were they just ticking over then too? Were they that cynical? Is it possible that they were once as bright-eyed and idealistic as many of their younger colleagues are now? And if they were, what happened to them in the meantime? Why did they change? Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be one of these people, ever wondered about the man or the woman behind the mask?

Some of the reasons for the transformation, of course, have to do with ageing. Sikes’ (1985) analysis of the ageing process within the ‘life-cycle of the teacher’ is instructive. One of the age-phases she describes is between 40 and 50 or 55:

It is during this phase that it becomes apparent whether or not the work of establishing occupational career, family and identity begun in the twenties and thirties has been successful; and it tends to involve self reappraisal, questioning what one has made of one’s life. (Sikes 1985:52)

This is when disappointment can set in. It is also a time, particularly towards the later years, of sheer decline in physical powers which puts morale and enthusiasm very much to the test. As one of the teachers expressed it: “The kids are always the same age and you gradually get older and older…And unfortunately too, their capacity for life, their energy remains the same as yours diminishes.”

Disillusion and disappointment tend to go with the ageing process in the teacher’s unfolding career. But there is nothing natural or inevitable about this. Much depends on the particular experiences these teachers have had, on how their schools have treated them. To some extent, ageing is a cultural process of learning, of interpreting the ways that other people repeatedly treat you. The disillusioned are partly products of their own mortality, but they are also products of their schools’ management—responsible as such management is for the quality of experiences and treatment these teachers receive over the years. Trees do not kill themselves. ‘Dead wood’, rather, is usually the product of an infertile, undernourished environment. In this sense, schools often end up with the staffs they deserve.

Age, stage of career, life experiences, and gender factors make up the total person. They affect people’s interest in and reaction to innovation and their motivation to seek improvement. When we introduce new teaching methods, we often ignore these differences and treat teachers as if they were a homogeneous lot. In the process, we often devalue large segments of the teaching population. This problem is especially important at a time when many new teachers are entering the profession, new teachers on whom many an eager head is staking his or her hopes for future improvement. Heads have been waiting a long time for infusion of new blood into the system. It is clear that a serious and unexpected danger looms ahead also—the danger of ostracising and alienating existing staffs of more mature teachers who may not embrace with as much eagerness and energy as their junior colleagues the new methods and approaches favoured by their heads. These teachers deserve both our understanding and respect in a system which should be cautious about granting inflated importance to very particular approaches to teaching, like ‘active’ learning, at the expense of all others which have preceded them. Without such understanding it is likely that many teachers will disengage from their work, will ignore or resist change, and will help create divided schools of ‘Old’ and ‘New’ teachers, polarised into opposing factions.

At the other end of the spectrum, the failure to recognise the special needs and contributions of beginning teachers can also have a disastrous, lasting impact on their motivation and confidence to become good teachers and good colleagues. Mentors are not just there to support their protégés but also to learn from them. Teaching is inherently difficult. Even the most experienced need help. From their recent training, their university subject knowledge and their willingness to try things out under the right conditions, new teachers will have much to give to experienced teachers. We must also be careful not to take advantage of new teachers and their seemingly endless energy by loading them with extracurricular responsibilities and giving them the worst classes. This is a sure path to early burn-out.

A second sense in which reform often glosses over the personal lives, interests, and backgrounds of teachers concerns the expectations we have for change and commitment. Teaching is very important. However, there is more to life than school. Life interests and responsibilities beyond teaching must also be recognised. In our enthusiasm to involve staff more and more in the life of the school, and to commit them to change within it, we should not forget the other legitimate calls on their time and commitments, which in the long run may well make them better people and teachers for it.

There are important gender implications here. In dealing with gender irregularities in teaching, much of the policy emphasis has been on encouraging more women to apply for promotion. But the focus is very much on making the characteristically male educational career more available to women. What analysis of the experience of women teachers also suggests is that individual development of all teachers, men and women, may also be well served by questioning and revising our norms in schools and educational systems of what constitutes proper commitment for a teacher, of how much involvement in the wider affairs of the school life is reasonable and desirable, given various personal circumstances. Commitment to continuous improvement is important. Becoming a professionally omnivorous workaholic is not!

So we should fight for a broadening of expectation, for an acknowledgement that there are several versions of excellence and more than one route to achieving them. We should also temper some of our expectations in the pursuit of excellence, not as an act of defeatism, but as an exercise in realism where we abandon the pursuit of swift, drastic change for change which is more modest in its scope, yet more widespread and enduring in its impact. Put another way, sweeping blanket reforms, running to tight timelines, that are insensitive to the wider aspects of the teacher’s life and career and that do not address the teacher as a person, are unlikely to be successful.

What, in summary form, have we learned from this blog post of the ‘Teacher as a Person’?

1. That teaching behaviours are not just technical skills to be mastered, but behaviours that are grounded in the kinds of people teachers are.

2. That among the many factors which shape what kind of people and teachers, teachers become, one of the most important is how their schools and their heads treat them.

3. That schools often get the teachers they deserve. Teachers who are de- valued, discarded, and disregarded become bad teachers. Ironically, such an approach also permits the seriously incompetent to be ignored.

4. That we need to value and involve our teachers more. There is something to value in almost every teacher. We should identify it, recognise it, and reward it.

5. That valuing our colleagues involves more than being more caring and sympathetic. It also involves extending what we value. Faddish innovations, narrow views of excellence, rolling bandwagons of active learning or performance-based assessment, which presume only one good way to teach, divide insiders from outsiders and create alienation and incompetence among those who are excluded.

6. That, while not any route to excellence will do, many routes are possible. Salvation has more than one road. This applies to teaching methods and to professional development alike.

7. That extensive involvement in school decision making does not constitute the highest level of professional development for all teachers. Maintaining a balance between work and life, concentrating on expanding one’s own classroom repertoire rather than getting consumed by school- wide innovation, is just as worthy a form of professional development for many teachers.

8. That massive commitment to whole-school change is an unrealistic goal for many teachers—for many of those in later career, for instance. Modest but persistent attempts to expand teaching repertoires and to improve practice in association with colleagues may be a more realistic objective.

9. That meaningful and lasting change is slow. Changing people is not achieved overnight. It requires patience and humility on the part of administrators. 

Acknowledging the teacher’s purpose and understanding and valuing the teacher as a person, we want to suggest, should therefore be vital elements underpinning any strategy of staff development and school improvement. It is one of the keys to unlocking motivation and to helping teachers confront what it means to be a teacher.

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