If you believe teaching is a cushy career with long holidays, that particular patch of grass might not be as green as you think. Being a teacher can be a tough job at times and if you only looked in the media, you might miss why nearly half a million people around the country get up each morning to work in our schools. For many of them, it’s not only about helping their students or fellow colleagues but also having a positive impact across the whole school and beyond. I spoke to two teachers and looked at research to learn more about what it means to be both a teacher and a leader in a school these days.
Being that unforgettable teacher for some students
You’ll probably have at least one favourite teacher from your own time at school; somebody who inspired or guided you at a key point in your life. It’s that almost magical feeling of opening young peoples’ eyes to the wonders of the world around them and seeing your students throw themselves into learning that can make teaching so rewarding at times. Conor Heaven, a class teacher and maths subject leader at an infant school in Essex, explains how he was inspired by his year three teacher, Mr Brown, and wanted to be that passionate about learning himself, so others could find those light bulb moments as he did. For some teachers, it’s this feeling alone that keeps them doing what they love, with our research showing that teaching children was the most popular aspect of the job. But for others, as they get more experienced and learn how to have a positive impact on their students, they feel a growing responsibility to share their knowledge and this includes helping their colleagues to become better teachers too. Joanne Gray, head of whole school pastoral care at a special school in Northern Ireland for four to 18-year-olds, talks about the mentoring and support she received from senior colleagues and how she now hopes to pass this on to others.
Keeping on learning yourself
Of course, it’s not all plain sailing. As with other professions, you’ll not only have to work hard to qualify but also to stay on top of the latest evidence and teaching practice. This type of lifelong learning is essential nowadays. Nobody wants to be treated by a doctor with out-of-date knowledge, and the same applies to somebody who teaches your child. This ongoing quest to learn is another motivating aspect of the job for many teachers: learning how best to help different children and to pass that knowledge on to other staff. Joanne describes how satisfying it can be to help colleagues teach those children facing the greatest challenges, such as those coming from a poor household who also have a disability. Similarly, Conor talks about his belief that all children can achieve great things if teachers can help them overcome the particular barriers they face. Our research highlights the importance of school leaders creating dedicated time for all school staff to develop themselves, so they can stay on top of the latest thinking and reflect on their own practice. A teacher is an expert in learning; many of the principles that apply to helping children learn can be applied to adults too.
Knowing your community
There’s growing evidence that the best learning is personalised to an individual’s needs. This is something that can usually only happen if the teacher knows the student, the student’s parents, their colleagues and the wider community. It’s this understanding of the unique context and needs that allows the best teachers to respond accordingly. Conor speaks of the deep relationships a teacher can form with those around them and how these relationships focusing on getting each child to succeed can build up trust. For him, this isn’t just about exam results. It’s also about helping the children to develop human qualities, such as independence, tolerance and respect. Teachers and school leaders are key figures in every local community, with the scope to be positive role models for others.
Experiencing a modern school first-hand
If you’ve not been inside a school since you finished your own education, you’d be amazed how much has changed. There’s lots of information online about getting into teaching and the various routes into the profession. But you can’t beat first-hand experience, so ask your teacher friends how they got into it and what they wish they knew before they took up the role, or contact your local school to find out if they’d be willing to let you visit. You may also consider volunteering as a school governor. Teaching is an amazing career. And who knows, you may end up like Conor and Joanne – the next generation of school leaders. You don’t know until you try.
(a version of this blog first appeared through my former day-job, for the Total Jobs site)