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18 July 2016

This is a debate that has been going on for many years, but it has flared up again recently in the wake of zealous teacher training, educational fads and a belief in pedagogical jargon.

As is so often the case with such antagonistically phrased questions:  the answer lies in the middle and is a bit of both.  I am a firm believer in the statement that teachers are born, not made, but if they are born with the right ingredients, they can of course get better:  through experience, training and reading.  If they are not born with the right ingredients, they may acquire a certain competency and become teachers of decent mediocrity, but they will never excel at their job.

What are these right ingredients?  In my view, there is a simple answer.  Great teachers love working with young people, they believe in them, they challenge them and they respect them.  First and foremost:  they care.  They care about their pupils, they take an interest in their wellbeing and education, and they care about their subject with a passion that ignites a love of learning in their pupils.

Caring about your pupils also means getting to know them as a ‘whole’, holistically.  This includes seeing them perform on the theatre stage, in the concert hall, at debating competitions or on the sports fields.  Each student comes with their own personality, talents, learning preferences, hobbies, strengths and weaknesses, and I have always enjoyed working in school environments where teachers take an interest in all aspects of a child’s personality and character.  Those who don’t may still be excellent teachers, but they miss out on crucial pieces of the jigsaw.  Attending such extracurricular events and watching your students excel (or fail and pick themselves up again!) is anything but a peripheral activity for a true educator.

These days, when we see an unprecedented rise in mental health concerns (with frightening statistics about depression and other issues even in primary school children), the word ‘care’ has taken on a whole new dimension.  In most schools, teachers will also perform a pastoral role, as classroom practitioners, tutors, year coordinators, deputy principals or principals, and although training in mental health issues and counselling skills will help develop a certain degree of expertise, a genuine interest in young people needs to lie at the heart and root of everything.  Those who have the natural gift of the art of listening and true empathy will be eminently successful in their role, even if they do not always have the textbook answer.

If there is one thing I have learned through my 25 years’ experience in the classroom and in boarding houses:  pupils instinctively know whether their teachers care.  And where they feel cared for and respected, they will in turn care for and respect their teachers.  There is one little episode I will never forget that demonstrates this mutuality of care.  When I taught in Scotland, I had an extremely challenging weekend in the boarding house where I was Assistant Housemistress at the time.  I was in sole charge of 65 teenage girls aged 13-18 for the weekend, and on Friday afternoon one of my junior girls (an Australian exchange student) was notified that her father had died in a car accident.

It took a while to arrange her return journey to Australia – her host mother had to travel up from London (a 10-hour car journey) and then drive her down to Heathrow where she was met by her grandfather who had flown over from Australia.  The girl therefore had to stay in the boarding house until Sunday afternoon, and in these 48 hours she went through the whole range of initial emotions that come with bereavement: the denial, the anger, the bargaining.

It affected all the girls in the house – most of them very far from home and their loved ones and at a time when reassuring mobile phone calls and emails were not as readily available as they are now.  It was an emotional weekend – I held several house meetings to reassure the girls and had many individual conversations with those particularly anxious about their own families at home.

On Sunday evening I thanked the house for their care and concern – normally weekends at boarding school involved a certain degree of naughtiness (secret smoking in the woods, going ‘out of bounds’, sneaking in some vodka), but during this weekend the girls had behaved impeccably and considerately throughout.  I went back to my own flat, feeling rather drained, and then had an unexpected visit from one of my senior girls who knocked at my door at 11 pm and said:  “Dr Seele,  that was a tough weekend.  Thank you for looking after us so well.  It must have been hard. But how are you yourself?  Are you okay?”  It was both moving and affirming, and I was very touched by what I saw to be a rather defining and, despite the sadness, rewarding moment in my pastoral experience.

Discipline is another skill that is crucial to a teacher’s success.  While you can learn strategies to keep control and tame the lions, you do need an inborn sense of what is right and appropriate and a belief in standards.  With a smile on my face, I remember a defining moment during my spell at the Swiss School Milan.  One of my Year 9 boys returned to the classroom after lunch with an ice cream in his hand.  I was angry with him, as he was already a few minutes late, and I told him firmly to put the lolly in the bin.  The minute I had said this, I doubted my wisdom, as of course the ice would melt and create a mess in the bin.  But I could not go back on my directive, so I repeated it.  The boy stared at me in disbelief and said:  “But, but – I paid for it.” The dialogue went something like this:

Me:  “I don’t care.  You should not have bought it.  You do NOT eat in my lesson.”

Boy: “But I will be really quick, honestly.”

Me: “You won’t eat it.  Put it in the bin.”

Boy:  “But. . . “

The class, usually rather boisterous after their game of football during the lunch break, had gone dead silent.  I could sense everyone’s eyes on the scene, and everyone waiting with bated breath who would win the battle.  I did not take my eyes off the boy, and he stared back.  Inwardly, I was trembling (“What if he continues eating?  What if he defies me?  What powers do I have?”).  I could sense the boy thinking:  “What do I do?  What will she do to me?  I want to be the hero who defies her, but . . . “.

I have no idea how long our glaring match lasted.  I knew I had to win it.  And suddenly the boy shrugged, threw the ice cream lolly in the bin and walked to his desk.  The whole class erupted in applause, and I knew I had won their respect.  It could easily have gone wrong, and I have no idea what swung it for the boy, other than “the look” I gave him.  I have read somewhere that having “the look” that scares pupils is a necessary ingredient for a successful teacher – and you are probably born with it rather than able to learn it in a training course.

Frankly:  I have no idea what it is that ultimately makes a good and successful teacher.  I have seen highly accomplished academics who were useless at controlling a class or imparting their substantial knowledge.  I have seen shy and soft-spoken introverts who had the respect of large classes of pupils and who only needed to raise their voice to a whisper to gain their full attention.  And others who emptied the whole bucket of discipline strategies they had learned at teacher training college over their charges’ heads and still earned nothing but their contempt.

Of course we can refine our teaching strategies, learn how to differentiate effectively in the classroom (something all good teachers have done long before the concept was invented), improve and enhance our subject knowledge or become more efficient at classroom management.  And in my view experience is the best teacher.  But there is something - the famous ‘je ne sais quoi’ - that makes a good teacher and defies explanation. 

At the risk of being called an old-fashioned maverick:  I still believe that, essentially, teachers are born, not made.  Those who defy this notion are most welcome to use the hilarious picture below as an argument against me!


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