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When I was first asked to speak this morning, I felt quite apprehensive. Not at the thought of talking to you all, I'm going to assume you'll be more receptive than my usual audience of teenage girls, but rather because I really don't like talking about teaching. Teachers talking abut teaching can easily seem a little self-righteous. Dare I say sanctimonious? And staff rooms are full of martyrs for the cause. In the face of such talk, I usually reply that I came into teaching because I was bored.
Now that's not the sort of thing parents want to hear. And I don't think my head teacher would be too happy either and goodness only knows what Mr Gove would make of it, so I better explain myself and a little of how and why I became teacher.
Like many people who find themselves at the end of their degree, I realised that three years studying English hadn't really equipped me for the adult world. So I did the sensible thing, and put the decision off and followed a boy down to London to do an MA. That part, at least, worked out well and I married said boy here in St Brides two and a half years ago. But sure enough, at the end of that year I was faced with the same problem. What was I going to do with my life? I had a strong sense that I wanted to do something I felt had a purpose, a real purpose, I suppose because I had inherited a strong sense of social justice from my leftie and Christian parents. For them, fighting disadvantage was Faith in action. Unfortunately I wasn't really driven by earning vast amounts morning. Teaching crossed my mind, but I soon dismissed it as a boring parochial profession and instead found myself working in communications for charities.
And it was fun. A great job to have in your early twenties that could be easily left behind at the end of the office day and sometimes found you sipping champagne in glamorous corners of the capital. I soon tired of that. I think I must have annoyed my colleagues in the office a lot because I just wanted to talk about the news, or a film I'd seen or something I'd read and they were trying to get on. I craved a bit of human interaction in the day. My work was fairly interesting but it wasn't challenging me nearly enough, intellectually or otherwise. And whilst I could see the value of what I was doing, of course charities need to get their message out and that is important, it was hard to feel the real purpose. I felt too removed from the process.
And so I swallowed my pride and I took a chance of teaching. And I found everything I was looking for. When they're working well classrooms are full of intellect, fun and energy. When they're not working well it's a very different story. A colleague of mine says that as teachers we face a seething mass of human insecurity each day. Let me tell you, there is nothing more humiliating than standing in front of a group teenagers who refuse to listen to you or even afford you the basics of human respect. (Luckily, those moments get fewer and fewer the more experienced you become.) It's a hard job. A job that is never really finished as here is always something you could do to make things better. And although it doesn't have the life or death urgency of a doctor working in A&E, ultimately, you doing your job well means that someone else get a better chance in life.
It can sometimes seem that teaching is under attack. The profession feels that in the current climate. We're scrutinised by our managers, our head teachers, our students, parents, the media and let's not forget, the good old government. It feels like no one quite believes we're capable of doing our job well. It can seem that everything from the 2011 riots to obesity is our fault. All this makes a very hard job more difficult. But I wonder whether as teachers instead of bulking against all this, we decide to be flattered. Because people are only interested in what we do, that level of scrutiny, and what can sometimes feel as mistrust, is only there because what we do really matters. That's something we should be proud of as a profession. However, it doesn't help that the goal posts are always shifting and debates about the very purpose of education are always raging. I'm not sure that we've actually come to a consensus about what education is for. Is it to get students grades that will help their futures? Or is our job about making fully functioning adults, future good citizens? Or are we here to help our young people learn how to think, to challenge. Is our purpose to open their minds to world's they wouldn't ordinarily be able to access? For my part, I think teaching involves all these things, and it's this that makes it so worthwhile.
I think the best way to explain this is by talking about one of my students. Sarah is someone I have worked with as a form tutor and as class teacher. She has a difficult relationship with school, mainly because she's dealing with so much t home. She's witnessed domesticated violence and the fallout from this has been immense. She turned to alcohol and drugs at an early age as a way to cope. She is desperately wants to do well at school - but doesn't always know how to do well. I think my influence on Sarah I threefold. First of all as a role model. I can't imagine what witnessing domestic violence must do to a young woman's sense of self worth. I think it's really important for me to show the girls I work with a way to be a young (ish) woman who is articulate, and outspoken and strong minded because if I don't show them this is a way they could be, I wonder who will? And I'll be quote open about it too. Sarah hides behind a mask of make up and so we've talked about how it feels to leave the house without make, and I didn't mind admitting it was scary) but also how freeing going natural can be. I hope that by being conscious of my self as a woman to look up to, I allow Sarah to think of herself, what she can be and do, differently.
Perhaps my most important role is to teach my students to think and challenge assumptions. This is particularly important for someone like Sarah. We do a scheme of work where we explore the recreation of women in music videos. We watch a series of videos and we ask challenging questions about the image, status and in relationship to men the women in these films have. If all this seems a little consciously feminist, I don't think any of us would apologise for that. We're fighting some strong and dark forces that are determined to keep our girls down. And the girls start to challenge something that previously just formed a common backdrop to their lives. And then they start to get angry. If we can encourage them to do that for music videos, then what else might they challenge around them? There's nothing more satisfying than seeing that lightbulb moment in a student like Sarah, when she starts to think for herself, whether that be for a text that we're studying in English or a response to a news story or just something she's dealing with in her own life.
And then there's the issue of getting the grades. Pouring over the data, that reach for the all important c grade can seem a little soulless, but Sarah knows that getting a good grade is her ticket to a better future, a way of pulling herself out of the mire she finds herself in. It's my job to help her get there. That's not easy when we she suffers from a panic attack during a lesson, or turns up so distracted that she either withdraws into herself or is determined to sabotage what's going on for both herself and the people around her. Sometimes she can be cold, argumentative at others wild and uncontrollable. She can also be the perfect student. You never quite know what you're going to get. It's can be emotionally exhausting.
It would be easy in those moments to wish you were safely back in an office, or that you'd got over yourself and just went out to earn some money. But then something you do, it might there and then, or later in the day or next lesson but something breaks through and you see that she has made a step forward, in her thinking or her attitude and you can see it's working, little by little. And then you forget about all the money and the easy life and come to realise the true value of what you do.
I hope I've managed to get across this morning something of what motivates us as teaching, and something of how our work is indeed, Faith in action.