Staying in Control

Since I started blogging I’ve had a go at food, sport, music and low-grade humour. I clrealy have a way to go before I’ve mastered any of them, and reading Malcolm Gladwell on the train today confirmed the enormous insurmountable chasm that exists between me and he. I’m not sure what makes him quite so good, but I’m pretty sure it’s the fact (as I read in a review somewhere) that he makes you feel like you’re the genius. He makes things that you weren’t interested in seem interesting, and he makes things that you hadn’t even thought about fascinating. I bet he’d make a great teacher, because this is all teaching is really about. If you can explain things to people, and develop their interest at the same time, you’ll have done your job. When Arthur C Clarke said that ‘when people are interested, education happens’, he knew what he was talking about.

When people ask me whether they’d make a good teacher (most people seem to have thought about the profession at some point), I always say that all you need is the capacity to work hard, and you also need to be an interesting person. Since most of my friends are interesting people, I end up telling them that they’d make good teachers. It’s not quite as easy as that, because there’s a lot more paperwork these days (our litigious society has seen to that), and it can be stressful, and hard to turn off. If I ever thought that my friends were serious about going into the profession, I’d probably give a little more thought to the advice I gave, and the most important thing for any new teacher is this: stay in control.

The feeling of losing control of anything is terrifying (cars and bowels come to mind), but losing control of a class is about the worst thing that can happen to you during the School day. We all get by with a mixture of bluff and bravado, and with the realisation that the system only works if the traditional pupil/teacher relationship holds. We as teachers have complete power over the pupils, but this power is based on nothing at all. So a pupils wants to walk out, and swears at us on the way past? So be it (this never happens where I teach, but I’m sure it does somewhere every day). Power and control zapped in an instant. What keeps the pupils in their chairs is the illusion of power and no more. I am one of those teachers who has to be in control all the time, a control freak if you will. I had just enough of a taste in my early career of what it felt like to be on the edge of losing control, and I didn’t want to go back there.

In reality, it should be quite easy. Pupils generally have no plan B, whereas we have the opportunity to have plan B, C, D and any others that are required. Easy enough to stay ahead? Maybe, but there’s quite a few of them and only one of you, and you need to stay ahead of all of them. Pupils don’t have a lesson plan, and it’s our job to have a response to anything that may be thrown at us. Need silence? Have a 10 question spot test in the bag.

Now I work at an idyllic place; it’s hard work, but it’s control of a different sort that I thought about earlier today, and it’s the control associated with management. What I liked about running a department was that it was easy to stay in control. You had your little corner of the School, your team of teachers and a section of the School population that committed to your subject every year. You could plan out your year; sometimes the admin got on top and it was enough just to keep up to date with everything and make sure that the ship stayed on an even keel. At other times, with no deadline pressures you had the opportunity to be creative, and the blue sky ideas could flow. After a year or two in post, you knew when it was time to baton down the hatches and get through the rough stuff, and when it was time to unfurl the sails and let the wind take you. Such is the joy of an academic department.

I have great respect for middle managers on the academic side, but that’s a job I could do. Middle managers on the pastoral side have a whole different set of challenges. How do you stay in control? I’m not sure it’s ever possible to do so. No matter how good and watertight the systems you put in place, they can be blown apart by one unpredictable incident, such as never happens on the academic side. Your job is reactionary, and no amount of pro-activity will ever make it any less so. For this reason (and I’m sure there are others) it’s not for me. The thought that something (anything) could happen at any time is exciting, no doubt, but if anything is going to interrupt university challenge, I’d like to think that it’s something I could have predicted.