Why are you a teacher?

I recently read ‘A Sense of an Ending,’ by Julian Barnes. I’m not yet sure what I think of the book but one aspect of the protagonist’s life made me think. Having completed university, Tony Webster fell into a career in ‘arts administration’. There was no real plan. Life just happened to him. He reflects on the contrast with a school friend who took a different, more violent path to assert control over his life.

Did you just fall into teaching? Was it something that just happened to you? If so, I suggest you might want to own it. Here’s why.

If you ever feel the urge to write futuristic dystopian fiction then I have a formula you can use. Imagine some kind of horror: children forced to fight to the death, people kept as food for other people, sentient robots hunted down and killed for what they are. Now superimpose a society that doesn’t seem to mind, where TV presenters gossip and sell products just like they do in our world or mawkishly interview those about to be slain. In this society, people behave as they are expected to behave. They collude. Except one: our hero who notices the underlying evil and decides to confront it.

It’s a good trope because it is so real. This is, in essence, what our society is like. Ideas, both horrific and benign, sit under the surface. They are not hidden. We are all aware of them. But we often don’t care for the detail and carry on as if nothing can be done. The chattering classes prefer gossip and an endless, fruitless discussion of personalities.

This is why journalists are such philistines. A momentous decision is taken by the people of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and journalists give us a tale about Boris’s leadership ambitions, Gove’s treachery and Teresa May’s cunning for not becoming closely associated with either side of the debate. Yes, Jeremy Corbyn has been exposed as an inept leader of the opposition Labour Party but, before that, he was already a long time subscriber to far left ideas that rendered him unelectable. But we won’t discuss those.

Yet, if anything, it’s ideas that the people are hungry for. That’s why we have seen a rise in populist demagogues. That’s why the EU vote went the way that it did. And I suggest it is one of the reasons behind the demise of mainstream media and its personality driven tittle-tattle.

And this is where you come in. You are the hero. Ideas are your business; big ideas, ugly ideas, beautiful ideas. Forget trying to develop critical thinkers or collaborative learners. That’s just the non sequitur that is rolled out at the end of a whole lot of data on how the world of work is changing. Children don’t need to labour on facile projects in order to face the future. They need ideas.

So explain these ideas. Transmit them. Uncover them. Let our young people see the world for what it is: a construction of ideas. Let them understand that they can change these ideas and change the world, should they wish. There is nothing inevitable about the state that we are in. You don’t just have to carry on as if nothing can be done.

And that also applies to you. You don’t just have to carry on as if teaching is something that just happened to you. Once you have a purpose it’s much easier to cut through the noise. Teaching has a purpose. You have a purpose. Own it.

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7 Comments on “Why are you a teacher?”

  1. ijstock says:

    Nice ideals – I share them. But why have you got it in for Critical Thinking? Have you ever taught it? How can you have big ideas without the skills with which to evaluate them? That doesn’t seem so clever to me.

      • ijstock says:

        Thanks – that balances the books somewhat. I had seen the Willingham text before. I agree that CT is of little use in a vacuum, and equally that the skills involved do have a degree of latency to them. But as you (sort of) say, there is some value in knowing what you are doing and what to look out for when evaluating others’ arguments.

        Those skills need to become ingrained to the point that they do not dominate the actual arguments, but can be called upon when needed for evaluative purposes. I found that the training I went though in order to teach ‘A’ Level CT did sharpen my own thinking processes, and I also encountered many students who voluntarily confirmed to me that they had found the skills covered improved their performance in, and appreciation of, their other subjects, particularly History and Literature. Fewer scientists expressed benefit, though some said they had aided their ability to evaluate others’ work.

        So can such skills be learned? Maybe not – but in my experience they can certainly be sharpened by identification and rehearsal. Perhaps the most important benefit, however, is a deeper appreciation/accommodation of opposing arguments something that was patently lacking in the public’s reaction to the EU referendum issue.

  2. Marta says:

    Hi @gregashman! Wonderful thoughts about what teaching really is… One can be objective and critical… But teachers are, above all, teachers, and also learners. Passion, vocation, ideals, believes, will to improve, ability to adapt,resilience… Teachers are not against critical thinking. A teacher should never be against critical thinking, since teachers’ ideals and critical thinking have the same purpose: to make the world a better place by making their pupils the best version of themselves.

  3. stan says:

    Greg,
    This is just weird coming from you “Journalists are such philistines”. That seems an excessive generalization. A whole body of people lumped together with an insult. Some may be philistines but many are providing those stories because their consumers want to read about these. Others are providing insight and thoughtful coverage of what is going on.

    I don’t see populist demogoges of today offering any new ideas. They are rehasing popular but very old ones. Some people want someone to say life will be better, more secure and as perceived from today as good as it was at some past time. Nothing new on the idea front here.


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