To present teaching as a “mission/calling”, or teachers as “superheroes”, or the teaching profession in general as special, unique and wonderful, can have a number of baneful effects in the real world. These effects interact and overlap and can be hard to define, but I’ve grouped them under six basic headings, the first three of which are below:
1. Workload. When young teachers are regularly told that they will be going into a profession where they will be expected to be superheroes, they are implicitly encouraged to stretch their efforts to the limit, in the very years when early burnout is an ever-present risk. Experienced teachers, of course, know which bits of “extra effort” are genuinely useful and which are simply exercises in self-flagellation, but this will not usually be apparent to those just entering the profession.
Again, a relevant memory from my neophyte years has always stayed with me: on seeing me lovingly (some might say fussily) pasting together various bits of paper to create the world’s greatest worksheet, a member of the aforementioned Irish-Catholic fraternity offered some typical Irish-Catholic advice: “What the f–k are you doin’ all dat for?” “Well, it’s my first year teaching, I thought I should be trying to get things right,” I stammered in reply. “Oh, don’t,” sighed my interlocutor. “Just troy to survoive it!”
2. Susceptibility to Snake-Oil. If teachers see themselves as superheroes, or magicians, they are all the more likely to be susceptible to the sort of magical thinking that underpins so many of the snake-oil solutions offered to educational problems. Engineers are unlikely to be impressed by people telling them that “creativity is as important as understanding the laws of motion, and we should treat it with the same status”. But teachers often fall for this sort of nonsense – partly, in my view, because of the perception of teaching as unique and quasi-mystical.
Which leads us to…
3. Head-in-the-Clouds. Needless to say, it is sometimes helpful and even fruitful to take a step back and consider the overall purpose of education, and I would recommend Ben Newmark’s outstanding blog post on the topic to all teachers. But at other times, teachers must keep their minds on the minutiae of their job; and that includes, of course, their command of their subject area (or, in the case of primary teachers, their command of the material in the curriculum).
The teachers-as-heroes, teaching-as-magic narrative can and often does encourage a lackadaisical attitude to the nuts and bolts of the job, most notably among some senior executive whose relative distance from the classroom gives them more leeway in this regard. When they come back from self-congratulatory conferences preaching fuzzy generalities which downplay the importance of the fundamentals, this can have an effect on staff…junior staff in particular.
Part III coming soon.