Recently, I had the ill luck to be present for a friend’s five-year-old daughter’s birthday party. To add to the naturally generated mayhem of putting 30 small children in a space with fizzy drinks and sweets, my friend had shelled out on a children’s entertainer called Johnny G – or something along those lines. Johnny has nailed down a repertoire certain to appeal to the unsophisticated palettes of the very young; he has an impressive array of fart and burp gags and makes very creative use of the word ‘poo’. The kids loved him and their delighted shrieks echoed his every flatulent utterance. One of the attendant mothers turned to me and said, wincing, “Good, isn’t he?”
Although I nodded politely, I didn’t think was all that good. Making five-year-olds squeal with delight by burping doesn’t require all that much. Honestly, he’d have been hard pressed not to over-excite them. It struck me that doing things that are easy is, well, easy. Maybe there are some adults who would struggle to get that kind of reaction; there are certainly more than a few who wouldn’t care to try. Like everything else, this sort of act is probably a bit harder than it look, but still. I’m not saying Johnny G is entirely bereft of talent or artistry, but he’s set himself a pretty low bar.
Now, if he’d managed to get them all quiet and concentrating then that really would have been impressive. Going against the grain is always trickier and the natural expectation for any children’s party is the there will be fun and cake and party bags. I think it’d probably be a mistake to set yourself against the natural order of things by getting children to do some sums or write a story, but choosing any activity that required quiet and calm would be harder to achieve. Some years back, my youngest daughter announced that she’d like a sewing party and, keen not to disappoint, we duly booked a slot for 10 girls in a craft shop with a sensible older lady called Janet, who patiently showed them how to stitch quilts or some such. Whilst this wasn’t an activity to which I felt naturally drawn, I remember being impressed with the aura of pacific calm she exuded. I admit, these were nice girls and predisposed to enjoy a bit sewing but even so, her aura was like a felt blanket; stifling excitement, but warm, safe and comforting. This, it occurs to me now, takes considerably more skill than pretending to blow off and checking yourself for ‘whoopsies’.
There’s an obvious parallel with teaching. Some teachers are great at whipping up students into a fever pitch of excitement, others perform Jedi mind tricks. Some teachers crack jokes, wear leather jackets and encourage their students to refer to them by some sort of cool nick name. Others, are focussed on the hard yards of learning things which, while they might not be fun, are important and useful. Some teachers are strict, some are laid back; some are keen to make up engaging games, others hammer away at mastering basic skills and tricky concepts. I’m not suggesting a dichotomy here – but I do think all teachers could places their priorities on these continuums:While I’m sure we would all vary our positions depending on mood, time of day, the children in front of us and a host of other imponderables, we still gravitate more to left or right. When I first entered the profession I made a self-conscious attempt to be more to the right and got nowhere. The kids ignored me and did as they pleased. In desperation I tried to be more laid back and fun and, bit by bit, they began to respond, My teacher persona edged increasingly away from Janet and more towards Johnny G. This played well with school leaders who frowned at detentions and were irritated at being called to deal with disturbances. The prevailing view was that a good teacher could run a room without support. It didn’t really matter whether anyone learned anything as long as everyone looked ‘engaged’.
There were times when I’d have to exert my inner Janet and insist everyone got down to do a bit of work and, as long as these intervals were relatively infrequent, most of my students would go along with what I wanted most of the time. They knew there’d be a ‘fun lesson’ in the not too distant future. Over the years, with age and experience, I got better and better at this juggling act. In addition, as I was promoted I acquired more status within the schools I worked; children began to expect to have to work in my lessons. I became increasingly able to channel my inner Janet far more often than I had to resort to Johnny G. Working hard became the norm and having fun became incidental. Maybe this echoes your own career trajectory?
The point is this: it’s a lot easier to do what’s easy. Doing what’s hard – maintaining discipline and insisting on high standards – takes enormous effort and, especially when you’re new, determined support. As the pendulum has swung away from the bad old days of Christine Gilbert’s tenure as Chief Inspector of the child-centred inquisition, and explicit instruction has regained some measure of acceptability, schools aren’t forced to rely of the Johnny Gs of the teaching world. Suddenly it’s OK to be more like Janet. But, if we don’t want to leave teachers’ development to chance, if we value calm, ordered classrooms and students working hard to master a culturally rich curriculum then we must provide the support for teachers to be strict and to value hard work. If instead we view teacher’s development as some sort of Darwinian Hunger Games then we’ll ensure that many of the potential Janets are hounded out of the profession before they get a chance to properly establish themselves and our schools will be run by kind, well-meaning, ineffectual child minders and apologists for low expectations.