So I’ve been teaching for a bit over three years now. During that time I’ve begun a journey of building my craft. As a profession, teaching is something where you are constantly accumulating new knowledge and skills. There is no end-point or definitive stage in which you become The Good Teacher.
Some days I am on top of the world. The most difficult student in my class voluntarily spends half of his lunchtime with me doing revision for an upcoming assessment. A former student emails me with the exciting news that she has become School Captain. Another student writes me a note thanking me for teaching her that term. Are those the signs of success? There’s no NAPLAN score or developmental continuum against which these events can be marked, yet they are met with the feeling that some good has been done.
At other times I am low. I think perhaps the job isn’t for me; that I work behind this façade that will soon be removed to reveal that the competence that people have come to see in me is not the reality. This is the case when that difficult student destabilises yet another lesson. Or when I fumble my way through a meeting I am leading. Or when students again let out the disparaging remarks of “I hate maths” – to which, in an attempt to inject humour into the situation, I respond “You’ve just killed a Maths Fairy”. Although, in reality I feel it is a small part of my confidence and my professional image that’s just been killed.
To all this, I’m learning to remind myself that I am doing a good job. There are enough signs around me that tell me this is the case. And it’s not surprising that after a bit over three years of teaching a difficult age-group a subject that is frequently disliked, and within schools where large numbers of students come from families where there is little history of educational attainment, that there are tough days. The idealised image of how lessons will run or the progress that all students will make is just that: idealised.
I recently came across this Humans of New York post that is a nice reminder of the need to put such highs and lows in perspective:
“When is the time you felt most broken?”
“I first ran for Congress in 1999, and I got beat. I just got whooped. I had been in the state legislature for a long time, I was in the minority party, I wasn’t getting a lot done, and I was away from my family and putting a lot of strain on Michelle. Then for me to run and lose that bad, I was thinking maybe this isn’t what I was cut out to do. I was forty years old, and I’d invested a lot of time and effort into something that didn’t seem to be working. But the thing that got me through that moment, and any other time that I’ve felt stuck, is to remind myself that it’s about the work. Because if you’re worrying about yourself—if you’re thinking: ‘Am I succeeding? Am I in the right position? Am I being appreciated?’ — then you’re going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck. But if you can keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path. There’s always something to be done.”
In a job in which you care so deeply about what you are trying to achieve, you need to make it about the work and do so with a tone of equanimity.