Many things are taught to prospective teachers.

For a number of years I was employed as a university lecturer educating the next generation of teachers. The courses were filled with units and tomes about: assessments, classroom discipline, syllabus writing and lesson planning. In hindsight, both from experience as a student studying Education, and then having taught the subject, I believe most of what I learned became of little or no use after the first few weeks of actually teaching classes. If the truth be told, meticulous lesson planning as per the textbooks on pedagogy are completely unrealistic, because time constraints would mean that to produce a lesson plan to the same calibre as a university assignment would see the newly employed teacher without sleep; especially if one assumes a five period teaching day. On top of this, teaching is very much like triage in a hospital emergency department. I may wish to re-write a syllabus, or to produce assessments according to a differentiated learning schema – but these demands have all to be held off until I deal with Johnny who has just broken an arm while I was on duty, and the subsequent accident report that needs to be written; or after I have a series of meetings with high-achieving Paul, who is now suffering from depression, and his parents who fear that he will do himself harm. Parents will call; or an e-mail is received, and these requests come also with immediacy. As professionals, teachers deal with dynamics of time, that although seemingly static in a timetable, are in practice, continually fluid.

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I believe it was Aristotle who said that no one can be a philosopher on an empty stomach. Many of those people who write books about teaching, no longer teach; at least to children and adolescents. They work within the confines of a university laboratory. They have research time. Teachers of children are busy people, because children are filled with energy, and demand attention. If you are called to become a teacher of children, you should know that time will disappear. The demands made by children are natural; and in their own way are emblematic of desires and issues that unfold later on as adults. Away from their homes, teachers become parental figures for children, and in increasing cases the only stable adult influence on the child.

Now and then teachers bear the brunt of satire or of ridicule, because they are immersed in the life of children. Teachers lose their professional status in comparison to physicians and lawyers, because they are perceived to be involved in childish things. But children are the future; and the shape of things to come. But in good part, what is moulded by the experiences a child within the classroom and wider school environment, guides the future. Working with children is far from childish; within every child, is an adult who will march into the world, for better or for far worse.

“Tuck your shirt in son!” “Piss off!” came his swift reply, as he sat staring at his shoes, head bowed, swinging his tiny legs. My first day as a teacher, his first day as a student; I was not prepared to let this opportunity go.

Every spokesperson on the ills and whims of society, has what they believe to be, an expert opinion about teaching and teachers. The prerequisite knowledge behind the expertise of these individuals is usually their past experiences as a student, and then later on, as a parent. As often as not we hear on radio chat lines individuals venting spleen with regard the long holidays that teachers have, or how they as a student had been hard done by, or how their child was a child genius, but for want of a good teacher. What does not get equal mention is how the demands on teachers are growing and becoming ever more serious. A teacher does not only teach and assess. Today alone, I have had to ring up a parent to inform them of their son’s poor academic performance. The mother who answered the phone had been deserted by her husband who sought a dalliance with a much younger woman, leaving this distraught wife and mother, to pick up the pieces. Prior to me concluding the conversation she requested me to do all I can to teach her son right from wrong. I began to understand a little, why last year at the Mothers’ Day Mass she sat alone and wept in the Chapel.

Thirty years it has been since I began teaching. I can recall my very first day of full-time employment, entering the staff room to find a Year One boy on Day One seated outside the Principal’s Office. The boy looked neat enough, with the exception that this five year old had his shirt hanging from out of his shorts. Experience now has taught me that I should have left this child alone as his first day at school had begun bad enough; but I was fresh-faced and wanted to test my authority, and who else to attempt this with than a five year old? So I began: “Tuck your shirt in son!” “Piss off!” came his swift reply, as he sat staring at his shoes, head bowed, swinging his tiny legs. My first day as a teacher, his first day as a student; I was not prepared to let this opportunity go. How could I be beaten in the authority arm wrestle by a five year old? I stopped my stride and loomed over him: “I am going to speak to your mother about your bad language.” Immediately the five year old answered: “You do that mate. She’s a bloody idiot anyway!” I later found out that that this little boy had been told only a matter of days before, that his father had left his mother. He would spend a good deal of his recess and lunch breaks sitting by himself, or if approached walk with a stick, warning others to keep away from him. No text-book that we were forced to read at university, ever came near the politically incorrect subjects of how to deal with: students of divorce, or those struggling with a family dynamic with: mental illness, substance abuse, eating disorders, gender identity issues, promiscuity, prostitution, suicide, manic depression, fathers leaving mothers for younger men, and violent death; all with which have I had to contend with. No textbook I ever read wanted to broach these subjects. We were fed Piaget, Kohlberg, Ericsson and other luminaries, who did not seem to eagerly say much on the mire I fell into. My career as a teacher thus far has come across these examples and more. I cannot say that these experiences have made me a better teacher, but I will say that any critique about the competence or not of teachers, must take into account the menagerie of childhood experiences the modern family offers up so freely and so often to the school. Sadly, I have experienced the degree of abrogation of responsibility by parents that accompanies the child as they are dropped off in the school car park each morning. The child is foisted on the school – and any criticism of the child’s behaviour, is taken rightly or wrongly by the parent, as a criticism of the parent’s ability to parent.

No text-book that we were forced to read at university, ever came near the politically incorrect subjects of how to deal with: students of divorce, or those struggling with a family dynamic with: mental illness, substance abuse, eating disorders, gender identity issues, promiscuity, prostitution, suicide, manic depression, fathers leaving mothers for younger men, and violent death; all with which have I had to contend with.

Over the last thirty years I have seen good and bad teaching and teachers. But what I have come to understand is not that the bad teachers and good teachers went to different universities or weren’t as bright as one another; but that what separates good teachers and bad teachers is a question of ‘soul’. I do not use the term ‘soul’ here in a Faith specific sense, although many of those who teach with ‘soul’ ascribe to a religious identity; but what I mean by ‘soul’, is that the individual is in search of the truth, and wisdom, and is willing to learn as much by study as they are from life’s events and experiences. Hopefully as this series of articles unfolds, my meaning will become plain. I have met thousands of teachers, but as I have sat and mused, it is ‘soul’ that is the identifying mark of good teaching.

Teaching is one of those vocations, that one learns by practise. But more than this, it is a gift of applied wisdom.

To be sure, you must have an adequate knowledge of your subject matter, but I have witnessed many near geniuses derided and ignored by their students, and fallen into near nervous wrecks; not for want of knowledge but for want of wisdom. To be a teacher, to a great extent, is a matter of trial and error; and more importantly, a matter of resilience. Good teaching requires learning from mistaken practise – and to survive the initial years requires resilience. My first year of teaching was very nearly my last. Not only was I struggling with trying to maintain classroom control of five different classes, but these five classes were across five different age groups. I also had to quickly relearn the content that I was given to teach, and had to contend with high parental expectations and demands. Parents in the private school system, do not pay for an apprentice to teach their child. They have an expectation that what they are investing in, will be in some way an enhanced form of education, as distinct from the public free education they have chosen against, both in terms of curriculum design, as well as pedagogical expertise. What these parents forget, or perhaps are not so aware of, is that unless the teacher has come through a parochial system of tertiary education, the vast majority of teachers are in fact from the same ‘gene’ pool. One can compare this situation to that of the teachers employed in some of the elite public schools in the United Kingdom, who are hired oftentimes on their achieving high level Oxbridge results in their chosen subject, and are subsequently provided by the school that has hired them, with on the job teacher training. How these teachers fare in comparison to those who are trained as teachers, and study a major or minor field, I am unsure. But the paradigm the teachers of UK elite public schools operate within, is a particularly unique aquarium.

Teaching is one of those vocations, that one learns by practise. But more than this, it is a gift of applied wisdom.

Every school benefits or suffers from the consequences of the ‘herd mentality’, that is a culture within the student body derived from the greatest influence amongst that cohort. An Eton, Winchester or Harrow scholar, knows his privilege, if he does not, the threat of losing his status keeps him in line. Behaviour issues can always be met by the threat of expulsion, or other forms of discipline. A history of excellence carries a culture through the school, that although a particular teacher may in fact be boring, essentially the task of achievement is not one of being entertained, but one of a successful end result, and the reward of personal ambition. I found this to be the case having been a Research Fellow and attending a number of lectures at the University of Oxford. Expecting pedagogical dynamism, what I quickly came to understand was that the difference between a student sitting at an Oxford lecture, and those who had been in my undergraduate classes in Western Australia, was not essentially natural intelligence, but the sustained ability to concentrate. One lecture in theology was so dry, with the lecturer reading from never ending sheets of A4 paper, that I lost all focus on the content of what the brilliant mind was espousing, but started to contemplate whether gravity had any effect on the clock behind the lecturer so as to inordinately slow the minute hand from eventually meeting its ascribed destination at hour’s end.  I am being quite open and honest with the reader now, but what I was also acutely aware of, was that the majority of the fellow audience members were transfixed to what the lecturer was saying. The lecturer was not a good teacher – but his listeners were highly motivated individuals who respected the content he was conveying. As such, it is not difficult to conclude that the purpose of teaching in a school where students expect academic success as a natural right, and the attached pedagogical skill set required; is vastly different to that which a teacher in a school of low academic achievement, needs to take into the classroom each and every lesson.

By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper

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