Tag Archives: Teaching

Teaching: if you aren’t dead yet, you aren’t doing it well enough

So another World Teachers Day has come and gone. All the build-up, all the excitement, and it just seems to go by in a flash. One minute we’re all hanging our stockings up in the classroom ready to be filled with gifts from our generous pupils, the next minute we’re all sick of spending the week eating leftovers from the big World Teachers Day feasts laid on for us by our families and friends.

I love all of the traditions of World Teachers Day: chugging a yard of tea, the enormous full-sized teacher-shaped chocolate cake (bagsy the heart – it’s the biggest bit!), marking under the mistletoe, pinning the grade on the lesson observation (blindfolded, of course), being allowed to go the toilet, the Airing of Grievances, the singing of teacher carols (“Mark! The Herald Angels Sing”), the Returning of the Glue Sticks, and – the best bit – all the inspirational memes.

The memes range from the uplifting to the banal via the truthy, just the way we all love them. But some memes tap into a well-worn trope that does more damage than good: that of the teacher as self-immolating martyr. See exhibit A:

Quite often promoted by non-teachers, this trope says one thing: good teachers kill themselves for their jobs.

The valorisation of teaching as a form of ritual suicide is subtle but pervasive. Once you realise it, you begin to notice it all around. It appears when the Chartered College of Teaching platforms speakers telling us that “teaching is a way of being, not just a job.” And it’s in motivational posters telling us that we should “give meaningful feedback on students’ work even if [our] pile of books seems endless”.

What of those teachers who aren’t prepared to give their whole self over for their job? Those teachers who put their family first or who want to have energy left at the end of the day for other interests? Maybe they should just accept the fact that they aren’t good teachers? If they simply won’t consume themselves to light the way for others, should they feel guilty? Why aren’t they prepared to throw themselves on the funeral pyre like all the other good teachers around them?

The thing is that people don’t share these sorts of ideas because they want to attack teachers. The intentions are actually good; it’s just that such ideas are also completely unthinking. People assume that it flatters teachers: “anyone who is prepared to self-destruct just so that every child understands quadratic equations/oxbow lakes/pointillism is a truly an angel.” But this kind of hagiography actually damages teachers. It allows the system to tell teachers they should always be doing more. It allows the system to say: this is what teaching is; this is what you have to live up to if you want to feel you are doing enough.

We really need to shift this narrative that teaching should be all-consuming and that self-destruction is part and parcel of our job. We can’t complain of workload issues at the same time as promoting this harmful shibboleth.

Perhaps years ago I might have seen the ‘candle’ meme above and not noticed the deleterious subtext. I might have seen it as a celebration of our job. But after years of full time teaching, I realise how unsustainable this attitude is, how damaging it is.

And this realisation means that I should probably throw away all of these old memes I made years ago when I thought I was celebrating teaching too. Silly, silly old me.

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You aren’t a brand; you’re a teacher

“The best way to build a brand is to take a three-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot. Then, apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question. You want a nice, meaty sizzle.”

This was veteran Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten’s public response to the question, “How have you built your personal brand over the years?”, as asked by a journalism graduate from Northwestern University.

It is similar to how I feel when I hear people talk about teachers as brands. Only yesterday, I witnessed advice from a high profile headteacher for teachers and leaders to “work on your personal brand” if you want to get ahead. The insistence that we must think about our brand rather than say, what we are teaching (or what we are leading on), is not just a distraction: it’s irresponsible.

It’s easy to read the rest of Weingarten’s response to the student and imagine he’s talking about education. I’ve replaced the words ‘journalism’ and ‘writing’ with [teaching] here:

“You used the expression ‘built your personal brand.’

I want us to let that expression marinate in its own foulness for a moment, like a turd in a puddle of pee, as we contemplate its meaning and the devastating weight of its implications. This is a term born of the new approach to [teaching], a soulless, marketing approach that goes hand in hand with the modern tendency to denigrate [teaching] by calling it “content,” as though everything is mere filler — fluff and stuffing in the decorative throw pillows of what passes for news. It is symptomatic of a general degradation of [teaching] that rewards ubiquity, not talent…”

I am certain that people who are able to make careers out of teaching do so because of the talent they have. Why take a “soulless, marketing” approach to that career by focusing on themselves as a brand?

Weingarten says that the commodification of journalists as brands means that writers “used to give readers what we thought they needed. Now, in desperation, we give readers what we think they want.”

Is this the implication of teachers and leaders becoming brands? Does it imply no longer giving pupils (and other teachers) what we think they need and instead giving them what we think they want?

The problem with foregrounding branding is that it backgrounds the important things about teaching and leading. The things that actually count. Continuing on the subject of writing, Weingarten continues:

“Branding – the whole notion gets it backwards, as though the purpose of writing is self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. That’s what riles me about that whole idea. We want to tell truth, because we want to entertain, because we want to disclose things that need to be disclosed, because we want to hold government to a high standard, all of those reasons are good. Somewhere around reason 6,407 is where brand promotion should be.”

I feel exactly the same about teaching: we want to teach because we want to make kids cleverer, because we want them to go out and connect with and understand the world, because we want them to take part in life and join the “conversation of mankind“, because we want them to create the future. All of those reasons are good. And, likewise, somewhere around reason 6,407 is where brand promotion should be for teachers.

Put simply:

“Note the order. First came the work.

Now, the first goal seems to be self-promotion — the fame part, the ‘brand.'”

Teachers and leaders should concentrate on their craft, on what they are achieving, rather than answering the questions “how do people see you?” and “how do you want to be seen?” – questions which came from the advice mentioned at the beginning of this blog. Answering those questions and concentrating on ‘your brand’ will most likely lead to superficiality and, in turn, most likely more work for the teachers around you. So listen to Weingarten. Don’t let teaching go this way too:

“We are slowly redefining our craft so it is no longer a calling but a commodity. From this execrable marketing trend arises the term: ‘branding.'”