Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The teacher’s dilemma

It’s a sobering thought, not to say a frightening one, that the senior pupils I taught when I started my teaching career are now 52 years old.

I thought of that a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself within a stone’s throw of the school in which those lessons took place. Needing some shopping, I decided to visit the supermarket just up the road from there. That’s when it struck me that I might bump into some of my ex-pupils.

It’s interesting, I think, to chart the progress of my thoughts and feelings.

The very first feeling was one of dread, and this for two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t much fancy being called ‘Sir’ by a grown-up: for some reason, all ex-pupils address their ex-teachers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’’, even when the age-gap is minimal and the pupil concerned is a great-grandparent.

Secondly, I had this horrible premonition of some social misfit recognising me and blaming his lifelong failure to my ineptitude as a teacher.

And then two thoughts struck me. The first was the realisation that any ex-pupils would have families of their own by now: I would be just as likely to ‘bump into’ their children or even their grandchildren as meet them.

Secondly, why should I be so worried anyway? I always tried to do the best by my pupils, and most of them went on to university or a decent job. As far as I have been able to determine from trawling Friends Reunited, all of them have made good.

But I think the dilemma of any committed teacher is that they are always doomed to failure, at least in their own eyes. I can’t think of a single worksheet I used twice, or in the same way two lessons in a row. I can’t think of a single textbook or other resource that I used ‘off the shelf’: there was always something to be done to make it better somehow.

I claim no uniqueness in these respects: most of the teachers I know or have known are exactly the same. I think this is why any attempt to give teachers a painting-by-numbers type of lesson script is usually bound to fail. It’s probably also one of the reasons that teaching is still one of the most stressful professions.

However, teaching can be a highly rewarding profession. Being in a situation where the successes of your charges serve to drive you on to work even harder, and to never be quite satisfied with your own efforts, is constantly challenging, and therefore constantly potentially improving.

Fear of failure and awareness of perceived failure constitute a dilemma for teachers. Yet, in a funny kind of way, it’s a good dilemma.


Shelly Terrell said...

I do believe it is an educator dilemma but makes all the difference when you hear what a great influence you made in their lives. I also keep in contact with my students who know I am there for them through their struggles in college and grad school! It is rewarding to hear when they do well! I haven't heard one bad thing, yet and I keep in contact with nearly all of them through social media! I did have a few pass away though while I was still teaching and these are the rough patches and hurdles we encounter in our daily lives as educators.

Terry said...

Thanks for commenting, Shelly. That's great to hear. I kept in touch with some of my students for a while, but we lost contact over the years :-(