what a teacher isn’t

I was asked the other night what a teacher is. Despite having been teaching for eight years, I found it very difficult to say. It’s much easier to say what a teacher, or teaching, is not. So…

Teaching is not, in itself, a skill.

– It is more like finding yourself immersed in beautiful water, sticking your head out and saying to anyone who will listen, “OH MY GOODNESS YOU HAVE TO GET IN THIS WATER! It’s amazing…” (And, sometimes, offering a ladder for anyone unable to jump.) But you have to really be in the water first, and you have to really care about sharing it. After this, any development of the supposed ‘skill’ of teaching is peripheral; it’s just a few extra rungs on a poolside ladder.

A teacher isn’t necessarily cleverer or more mature than their students.

– They just happen to have some information, and put a value on that information, that the student doesn’t. As it happens, I am cleverer than many of my students – but by no means all of them. And the first time I meet any new student, I remind myself that any of them could be much, much cleverer than me, once they have the information I have.

A teacher doesn’t tell anyone what values to hold.

– That would be the job of a philosopher. It is not for teachers to persuade anyone to agree with their values – or the values of their institution – but for each teacher to provide opportunities for students to decide, to support or challenge their own values. For example, I am not a Tory and I wish the Conservative party little goodwill; but if one of my politics classes reach the end of a course without at least one student switching their sympathies from Labour to the Conservatives, I take it as a sign that I haven’t given them enough encouragement to challenge themselves.

Teachers are not all the same.

– The notion of a fixed set of standards that all teachers should meet is absurd if it misses the one crucial thing about them – that they really really care about what they’re teaching and who they’re teaching it to. And every teacher is different in the way they do this.

A teacher, like anyone else, is not a neutral vehicle for information…

– No person is neutral, and pretending to give neutral information entails exactly the opposite. Michael Gove’s new Teaching Standards framework contains an explicit phrase about how teachers must not expressing personal beliefs in a way which might ‘exploit pupils’ vulnerability’. This framework itself, of course, is far from politically neutral: it is an attempt to enforce the political values of Michael Gove. Additionally, it is clumsily worded and easily ridiculed. In the interests of transparency I read this section of the standards out loud to my students at the beginning of this year – they found it hilarious. We now have a running joke: any time I am asked whether a certain value or argument or policy is a good thing, I ask: ‘from whose perspective? Not mine – I wouldn’t want to exploit your vulnerability, after all.’ And we all laugh.

…and they do not insult their students’ intelligence by pretending to be.

– And after the laugh has ended, the brightest students sometimes get angry about this idea that it would be ‘exploiting their vulnerability’ to know what their teacher’s opinions are. They know it is an insult to their intelligence. They want to know what their teachers think, and why, so that they can evaluate the information they are given – bearing in mind what they know about their teachers’ biases – and decide whether they agree. I often find myself in a position where I have to give my politics classes clues about who I voted for at the last general election, and the means to assess how biased the information is which I am giving them. I hope that this is not a breach of the standards.

A teacher, when teaching, is not a representative of an institution.

– It is possible for people who work as teachers to represent the institution, and the values of the institution, for which they work. If they work for a school or college or university, they might enforce rules, check uniforms, or communicate notices to each other and to their students regarding the affairs of their institution. This is often important for the basic functioning of the institution. But this is not teaching. In teaching, the teacher represents only themselves, their own discipline and their own relationship with it. The role of the institution should be to facilitate this. We do well to ask of any institutional action which is not clearly and directly related to teaching, ‘what is the point of this, and why are we letting it take us away from the subjects we love?’

Teachers are not to be taken seriously as people.

– “A good teacher,” wrote Nietzsche, “takes nothing seriously except in relation to their students – not even themselves.” He didn’t just mean that good teachers are ridiculous people, and are aware that they are ridiculous in their willingness to give up so much of their time for the sake of other people’s understanding. He meant that the call they make, from the thing they love to the people they want to make love it, subsumes any other value they might have as people. Everything that a teacher is can be seen in their students. And eventually, that fades and nothing is left of them at all.

Teachers do not rightfully have authority.

– What teachers have is leadership – and these are two different things.

Some teachers might be disciplinarians, but disciplinarians don’t necessarily make good teachers.

– Or, often, make teachers at all. Punishment and coercion are not good teaching methods. Some teachers recognise that, but still think that good discipline over students is a necessary condition of good teaching. That belief is for teachers who are too boring or rude to give students any other more persuasive reason to listen to them.

A teacher is not afraid to be an entertainer.

If they aren’t, then nobody’s getting in the water. Sure, you can push them in; but they’ll get out as soon as they can, and never go near that pool again.

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heathen, infidel, scab

I broke a strike on Wednesday. I’ve never done that before.

I’m breaking a lot of habits at the moment (for example, the habit of ‘not blogging’ that I’d fallen into). Even writing on this blog about Wednesday’s strike means breaking another habit: I usually make it a rule never to write about my day job.

But on this occasion I want to. It’s worth explaining, I think, why I’m a member of the National Union of Teachers but didn’t take part in the London-based strike on Wednesday.

For a start, it wasn’t for the money. I don’t feel good about breaking the strike and so I decided in advance – at the excellent suggestion of one of my students – that whatever money I earned that day will go to something worthwhile. Probably the strike fund (if only to keep on decent terms with some Union members).

It also wasn’t because I think the government’s current offer on pensions reform is any good. It is a big stinking heap of horseshit. Admittedly there’s a whopping great generation of homeowning baby-boomers about to enter the longest and most luxurious retirement any generation has ever, or ever will, be lucky enough to enjoy; but I’m not persuaded that this has to be paid for by the next generation of teachers, many of whom (certainly those in London) can’t even afford to get a mortgage and so will be doubly screwed with accommodation costs when we retire, half-dead, at 68. There’s a million other ways to pay for that generation’s retirement over the next 100 years and we have to find a fairer one.

Plus, even despite the economics there’s a question of contracts at stake. Nobody is saying that the baby boomers should have their obscenely generous pensions cut, because they are thought to have worked through their careers for those pensions and to remove them now would be to short-change them. But the government acts as if, since it would be a travesty to short-change that blessed generation, it’s the next generation that must be short-changed instead. (There’s been a lot of fuss made about the ‘Granny Tax’ since the budget, but actually the removal of income tax breaks for people over 65 is one of the few really fair things this government have done).

Either way, the fact that teachers in the UK get (or used to get) brilliant pensions was a pretty major factor in my decision to become one, and the same is true of many of my colleagues. It doesn’t matter how old you are – to employ people and commit them to a job based on certain terms of service, and then change those terms later on, is a dickish thing to do. So to change the rules on teachers’ pensions once many people of my generation have dedicated ourselves to that profession is outright nasty.

So why didn’t I strike on Wednesday?

Because striking wouldn’t have helped any of this situation, even if every school in London had been shut completely.

What the Unions seem to have missed is that Tory ‘modernisers’ like Gove and Maude actually want the unions to strike so that they can be discredited in some kind of moral battle in the minds of Middle Englanders. They want strikes so that they can face them with aggression – and probably violence, like Thatcher did – while making Ed Miliband look even weaker than he already is.

The government have deliberately put an insulting offer on the table, made token tactical concessions after last year’s strike in order to look like they’ve been reasonable, and then been pretty clear that what’s on the table now, crappy as it still is, is the best offer we’ll get, in the hope that the NUT and other unions will take the bait.

So, while it’s possible that some of the industrial action last year had some small effect on the negotiations (though probably not as much as the union leaders would have us believe), Wednesday’s strike was just playing into Michael Gove’s hands, and as a result would have achieved nothing good.

Whereas for my students on the other hand, a day of teaching lost with so little time to go before their exams in May could very easily have made the tiny difference between getting the grades they need for college/university and not getting them – with whatever future consequences that might bring. For me, it certainly would have been too big a potential loss to have risked it just so I could stand behind the NUT’s leader while she threw her toys out of the pram (having failed to get us a better deal in the pension negotiations).

So. I weighed up what would be gained from striking against what would be lost, and didn’t let religious dogma get in the way.

That’s right. Religious dogma.

When I told my colleagues I wasn’t striking, and explained my reasons, pretty much every single one of them said the same thing: “but what about the principle of solidarity?”

So I should make my position on this clear: ‘solidarity’ amongst groups who are doing the wrong thing is bullshit. Doing the wrong thing – ‘but doing it together’ – is not admirable. It’s foolish. It’s that kind of uncritical herd-like behaviour which drives lemmings off cliffs, countries into wars, and humans into death camps. The principle of solidarity for its own sake is not to be admired.

I have a lot of respect for Trade Unionism as an ideology; that’s why I’m a member of one. I think it’s a necessary and important counterbalance to the tendency of employers to exploit their workers, and the conditions that workers would have to suffer if they had no possibility of grouping together to improve those conditions does not bear thinking about.

Trade Unionism – like any human political ideology – can be useful when it is guided by what James and Dewey would have called a melioristic motive: that is, when its values are genuinely guided by an empirically-informed attempt to improve the world, to make our experience of life better and more satisfying. In other words, the principle of union solidarity has value when following that principle will make a real improvement to our lives.

But in my view, the point at which ideology becomes religious dogma is when it loses that meliorism and starts to consider its values as having some intrinsic value – not as a means to some end, but as ends in themselves. When the principles, for example the principle of ‘solidarity’, become more important than whatever end they were originally meant to achieve.

Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to know when that has happened, because people find it hard to recognise when the original melioristic end has become unattainable. But when the original melioristic end does become unattainable, it vanishes from view; the principles alone take on the appearance of ends which can apparently justify any means. At this point a religion is born, and sane individuals start behaving in ridiculous ways in order to follow the principle without really understanding why.

Nevertheless, they still hold these principles to be the most morally necessary thing possible, and are proud to express disgust at those who don’t. They even create new names for them: ‘heathen’, ‘infidel’, ‘scab’. And they follow this principle and this logic to the end.

Like lemmings.

necessity and contingency

I think I’m a pretty good philosophy teacher.

There was never a doubt in my mind – not at any point – that I would be. (Bear with me, the self-loathing’s coming in a minute.) Anyway, it occurred to me today that maybe my being good at teaching philosophy is partly due to the fact that I’ve never doubted my ability to do it.

And then I wonder whether I would be better at stand-up comedy now, if I had never doubted that I would be a great comic. And I wonder if there’s a psychological hurdle that I still need to cross in order to get to that next level. (See?)

When I’m standing in front of a class teaching philosophy…I feel comfortable, I feel confident, I feel funny. When things are going well, I might catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection of a window, moving with that sense of purpose and fun that I see so often in the comics I admire. I play spontaneously with ideas, coming up with stuff on the spot that is better and funnier than anything I could have planned. And yeah, I get quite a lot of laughs. Admittedly in the context of a philosophy class the laughs are easier because that’s not ostensibly the primary purpose of the activity so the pressure’s lower; but I get a lot of good laughs nonetheless, because I don’t doubt that I will. Even when things aren’t going great, I don’t doubt for a second that I’m still going to pull it round.

But in front of comedy audiences in the last few weeks… I seem to have this fearful voice in my head that says, ‘don’t fuck it up – don’t fuck it up or you’ll lose them…’ And then a joke doesn’t work, I get distracted by it, and then (stupidly) refer to it, which gets a good initial laugh of recognition that the joke didn’t work but doesn’t do much for the audience’s faith in the rest of my act…

Most audiences don’t really notice, of course; they still laugh all the way through the set and seem to enjoy themselves; and I’m mostly still doing the kind of open-mic circuit gigs where nobody really kills, so my jitters maybe don’t stand out that much. But I’m sure I can sense a slight feeling in the room of, ‘well, that was averagely competent’; and I can feel the difference between an average gig and really good one. And it’s a good few weeks since I’ve done a really good one.

It hasn’t always been like this, of course. There’s been patches when I’ve got on a stormingly good run of gigs, when every audience – big or small – seem to laugh like I’m saying the funniest and yet most insightful things they’ve ever heard; when every line seems to get a really good, honest laugh and the best ones get spontaneous applause; when girls have come up to me after gigs and told me how great I was (obviously I thank them politely and go home to Nan)…when I’ve thought, ‘maybe I really am able to do this well…’

But that feels like short runs of gigs – maybe 10 or 12 at best – and more significantly, it never feels like that success was inevitable or necessary. It always feels like it will come to an end. (And most annoyingly, it very rarely seems to coincide with really important gigs like the competitions, or open spots at the big clubs).

So I’m guessing the difference really is just confidence. It’s quite likely that I’m a confident teacher because I come from a family of schoolteachers; of course it’s inconceivable that I won’t be a good teacher. It’s the family business.

But annoyingly, neither of my parents are comedians.

So I guess I worry that that makes a difference; though when I can think rationally, I know that it’s not the genealogy, but the worrying, that really makes a difference.

In short, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself…”

“…oh, and having crap material. Obviously”