For some reason my Facebook feed has been dominated by little videos from the DfE advertising teaching as a career. They’re all quite similar, featuring some young, fresh and sparkly eyed 20-something talking about how wonderful teaching is as a career. They use words like “inspire” and phrases like “make a difference.” Fantastic. Teachers inspire students. They inspire them to love a subject, to passionately delve into its higher realms, to transcend the constraints of their low-expectation-filled backgrounds, to be their best possible selves and to stand on chairs and call “oh captain my captain!” Students across the UK are apparently guided and coached by charismatic and dynamic teachers who are up to date with the latest trends, fashionably nerdy and infinitely approachable for when they’ve just got to have that “deep meaningful chat” with all the feels. Brilliant.
I think a lot of people have probably pointed out that in reality this isn’t what teaching is like. Day to day, it’s just a rinse and repeat of delivering your subject to tired teenagers ranging from the genuinely engaged to the generally disaffected right down to the outright resentful. That’s all true, and if you think you are going to spend every day inspiring children to love Shakespeare, become female science Nobel Prize winners or you’re going to fix their mental health issues with the power of your chats – you are probably wrong, and you shouldn’t enter into teaching on that pretence.
But I think there is another side to that coin, one seen from the perspective of the teacher. Some people are indeed naturally inspiring. They’ve achieved amazing things and somehow just being in their presence makes you want to be better. Without even knowing them well you don’t want to let them down, you want them to notice you, to recognise you and to, in a sense, raise you up. You get sucked in to their orbit. But most people aren’t like that. Most people – and in this I include most teachers and myself – are just normal, boring people. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s just a thing. It’s reality.
I don’t think of my job as being to inspire people. Some of my students sure, I want to try and encourage them to really love my subject and go on to study it. Do I have low expectations when I confess that for most of my students I don’t really think that? They turn up in the morning and study my subject to pass their exam. I’m kind of fine with that, it’s realistic. Maybe if I teach them brilliantly they will love the subject more and maybe they will go on to study it further. But maybe – probably – they won’t. I teach them because the content is their right and their heritage, whether they like it or not. And yeah, because they need to pass an exam. The fact that I don’t think I can inspire them all to love chemistry and go off to study at university isn’t really about them, it’s about me. I don’t think I’m that person. Sure, a large part of my role is more modest; inculcating good habits, modelling politeness, patience, openness and all the other Good Things. But I don’t think that’s what people mean when they say “inspire.” Which leaves me right back with my first question: what if I’m just not that inspiring?