I am not your spirit guide: the intoxicating narratives of teaching

Earlier in the week this Slate article, loftily entitled ‘Spirit Guides’, ricocheted through my timeline.  Putting aside some of its more ‘interesting’ touches – ‘[t]he mind has “hands”‘ (huh?); its use of a moment from fiction as exemplar; its paraphrasing of Socrates on student-teacher relationships (!) – the piece attempts to take the well-travelled path of presenting the teacher as something more than a teacher: the mentor, the parental figure, the titular spirit guide.

Oh Captain! My Captain!

It is a time-honoured and usually very convincing vision of a teacher, so quite how the article fails to stir the emotions of the reader-teacher and have us ripping up textbooks is a feat in and of itself. Perhaps it is the seemingly conflicting ideas presented in the same argument – ‘a genuine teacher teaches students, not courses’; ‘”The teacher, that professional amateur teaches not so much his subject as himself.”‘ Or maybe it is just the downright silliness of some of the views presented: ‘”If a professor didn’t mention something personal at least a single time—a reference to a child, an anecdote about a colleague—then it was a pretty good bet that I had nothing to learn from him.”‘

But where that article fails, the image of the teacher as avuncular genie or fairy godmother endures elsewhere. In books, television and the movies, the trope of teacher as more-than-just-a-teacher is ubiquitous.

I wouldn’t argue against the suggestion that teachers are often inspirers, mentors, or even parental figures by proxy. And, as the article suggests in its bland finale I’m certain that teachers do change many of their pupils’ lives.

But the problem with these pervasive grand narratives of teaching is that there is a suggestion that we should do this – or at the very least a consequence that we do try to do this – by design. That is to say that we are compelled to exert much of our effort in trying to be more-than-just-a-teacher. Indeed, that seems to be what the Slate article is suggesting.

And that, I think, is wrong. I think it is vitally important that, whilst surrounded by the eddying current of all these intoxicating narratives, we avoid getting carried away by them and we focus our efforts on being a teacher. Just a teacher.

Because being just a teacher is what we can do for every pupil. It is the most we will ever be to the most of our pupils. And it is tangible. Unlike being a muse or an angel or a guardian spirit, it is what we are trained to do and it is an area where we have at least some knowledge of what is required of us. Whilst the Hollywood narratives are thrilling and bewitching, they take us away from what we really are.

So be a teacher. Just a teacher. And I think you’ll find that, in being a teacher – in teaching and imparting knowledge – pupils might find their mentor, their inspiration, their spirit guide.

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7 thoughts on “I am not your spirit guide: the intoxicating narratives of teaching”

  1. Thanks James , interesting post.

    I’ve always sensed a grand irony around the idea of setting out to ‘inspire’ your class. My experience suggests that it’s precisely the teachers who ignore this mantra, but focus their efforts on the small, important, every day teacher-business that tend to be the most inspiring.

    All the best for the coming year!

    Dave

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