New teachers need to believe in themselves as teachers in order to feel comfortable in their new role. The novelty of being there, whiteboard rubber in hand and with a lanyard round your neck, can feel like fancy dress. The first telling off you deliver makes you fly through your list of fictional rogues – you feel like the Trunchbull, the Demon Headmaster, Gradgrind, Maleficent… The first assembly you give makes you feel like you are delivering the I Have a Dream speech.
Settling into your role doesn’t mean you stop pretending; much of the time, we merely forget that we are acting and go into a kind of ‘teacher auto-pilot’. Recently I have been thinking about what I do when I’m in class and just doing it, not thinking about it.
At first, we overthink and over act. Then we think and act. And then – now, in my case – we underthink and act.
When I plan my lessons I am thinking purely about the content and the individual activities. Despite being far from the finished article, I don’t think about my delivery, the specific words I will use, the kind of tone I will use. Perhaps I should, as this is what will make the pupils more or less mentally engaged with whatever it is I am going on about.
Trainee teachers don’t have the luxury of autopilot. We ensure that! We breathe down their necks, raising eyebrows at their pronunciation, the handwriting, their posture, their mode of dress, the clarity of their language, the way they look at the children when speaking, the modulation of their voices, the way they gesticulate. We make them acutely aware of themselves as actors, tweaking them out of their dispositions to fit the teacherly mould of the mighty O-grade teacher.
In autopilot, we are faking it but don’t realise we are faking it. This makes us consistent and reliable but not particularly versatile or thoughtful. A friend told me recently that he did not feel he needed to invest too much in his pedagogy of phonics because it is so robotic that it will surely be delivered by a computer programme within a couple of years.
Blind to our own ‘faking it’, repeating the techniques we were taught as trainees to make us reliable and not-awful, we less often pause to reflect and adapt our practice. A good lesson is one where we do the things that we are told a good lesson is like – if the kids don’t get it, they weren’t paying enough attention to the virtuoso performance you just delivered.
Delivered. We should want for more than to be postal pedagogues, packaging our knowledge, slipping it into the postboxes of our pupils’ noggins and off into the dark space within and hoping it gets read and remembered. And we should be more than just rote-performers, mindlessly showcasing our stale repetetoire (not a typo) of hand signals, raised eyebrows and calm tones that we learned when we knew no better.
Let’s write and perform our own soliloquys.