Lots of teachers go in to the profession because they want to make a difference. A noble aim, of course, even if it is a consequence of a slightly inflated view of ones ability to do so. Government campaigns peppered with inspiring rhetoric aim to seduce the quixotic, convincing us that teaching will turn us into classroom heroes who will land in a school and change lives left, right and centre.
Teaching is a constant roller coaster, and to help us cope with the extreme highs and lows, from: ‘YES- Jimmy can finally use quotation marks!” to “Please don’t make me enter any more data- I want to kill myself”, we convince ourselves that we are having enormous impact on the kids who need us most. We elect to work at the most ‘challenging’ schools, living under the romantic illusion that we can parachute into them and save the world. We love the feeling of being in a battleground, of transforming their lives one controlled assessment at a time. We feed off the possibility of being that one teacher who finally helps a troublesome teen to knuckle down, or being that one teacher who can get that class to behave, or being that one teacher who inspires a bottom set kid to love reading. It’s all a bit Dead Poet’s Society, and we berate ourselves for occasional bouts of ‘average’, or for delivering a run of the mill lesson on a Thursday morning because you made the call to go to bed before 2am the night before.
We want to be inspirational teachers because we love the kids and we know that’s what might make the difference for them. And in a school with a challenging intake, Ofsted-driven practices and a behaviour policy that doesn’t support staff, we roll up our sleeves and continue the fight. We keep fighting because we feel that we are having a huge impact.
But is such transformation possible in a battleground school where good behaviour is rare and underachievement is rife? Is it really likely that we will change a kid’s life because we work relentlessly against the tide of low expectation and poverty that drives mediocrity?
It feels like it might be, but I don’t think it is as possible as we think.
Yes, we may help them to get their C- hopefully we’ll help them to do even better than that. And yes, we probably make their lives nicer for a short time, and we may spark something in them that may have lain dormant without our intervention. We tacitly accept that poverty, Ofsted and rubbish SLT exist and cause most of the problems, but we set these things aside and focus on the impact that we- individual warriors against the orthodoxy of the system-can have. We practise ‘Zen and the Art of Teaching with the Door Closed’, and carry on under the misbelief that there is no other way. Whether or not we manage to do this for more than a few years remains to be seen. Do many battle-ground addicts stick it out for fifteen or twenty years? Or do they perhaps realise somewhere along the way that they aren’t having as much impact as they think they are? Maybe they come to see that they aren’t all that indispensable after all, or maybe they realise the arrogance of thinking they can singlehandedly transform a child’s life in the midst of chaos.
I would argue that there are two fundamental problems with the hero teacher mindset. Firstly, it sets many of us up to fail. The level of transformation we think we can have is fairly rare: nearly half of children in the UK leave school without 5 GCSEs, and most of those are the ones we never quite managed to crack. Whilst we remember the success stories of our careers- the occasional pupil whose destiny we helped to change- we conveniently forget the ones the system has failed.
Secondly, it is never a guarantee that you will have this much impact on a child. It’s not systematic enough. It depends on personality, on circumstances, on luck. You may end up being the next Rafe Esquith, but in a profession absorbed in pointless bureaucracy and oppressive accountability, it is less likely than you might think.
But there is hope. I maintain my optimism about the power of education – I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t. I do think it’s possible to change the course of a child’s future through schooling. I think it’s one of the biggest leavers we have for improving social mobility and life chances. However, in order for us to have as much impact as possible, we must get over the hubris of “I’m a hero teacher” because the hero teacher is a myth. We must have the humility to realise that we cannot change the world when we are alone in our classrooms, and that in fact, we will have a far greater impact if we work somewhere where every single teacher and member of SLT is committed to getting pupils out of bad habits and into good ones, and will not rest until they have achieved excellence.
When teachers are working seamlessly together and are all singing off the same song sheet, something magical happens. When everyone is working towards the same objectives and believes that education means more than C grades and compliance, it is truly amazing and has genuine transformative power. Every single moment in a school like that feels purposeful. Rather than the occasional stumble over moments of joy and hope amid a sea of indifference, you can’t help but feel that every single small thing you do is contributing enormously to something far bigger than you would be able to achieve alone.
My message to you is simple: when choosing your next post, think carefully about where you will truly have the greatest impact. Going to work in a challenging school for the kicks you get from it will not be completely futile, but you will feel as if you are having more impact than you actually are in reality. Working somewhere where you are just one member of a group of people who all share your desire to change kids’ lives will enable you to have a far greater impact than you could ever have as a lone ranger in a challenging, chaotic school. The steps you take with a great team of colleagues will take you- and more importantly, your pupils- further than you could ever have imagined.