This summer was spent writing. Famous last words but I think I’m likely to be a “one book boy”; Liminal Leadership is my attempt to distill thirty years of working in schools into something that is hopefully enjoyable to read and useful to those working in schools.
The book is punctuated by three letters, written to myself. This is the one to my teacher self and offered by way of advice and reflection at the start of the new term. What would you write to your teacher self?
Letter to My 23 Year Old Self
17th July 1986
Congratulations on your new job and on completing your Post Graduate Certificate of Education. I know you were delighted at getting a distinction in your teaching practice. It’s a good start but there is a lot more to learn; too much to learn in any one career. However, you may have found something that you will excel at in the years to come.
Never lose your passion for what happens in the classroom; learning, pedagogy, assessment and curriculum will continue to fascinate you. You will be like a child in a sweet shop desperate to try many new and different things; it would be better to choose one or two at a time, stick with them, honing and refining aspects of your practice until they are fluent. This advice will mean something to you one day.
Look out for that “road to Damascus” moment. It’s when you admit to your Year 10 class and yourself that you had failed them in your teaching; it will come after testing their understanding of the Periodic Table. You were right to say to them, “If I had taught why the reactivity of the Group I metals increases as you go down the group half decently at least some of you, if not most, would have got the right answer on the test.” It’s such an important moment when you look at the impact of your teaching through the lens of what your pupils have learnt. Don’t worry, you will reteach it so much better to them the second time around and from then on to other classes. Getting the pupils to model being the positive attracting nucleus to the orbiting negative electrons will help. Take time to explain the impact of the electron shielding effect and atomic radius on the ease with which electrons are lost or gained. There are big ideas here. In short, help pupils develop in their minds the pictures you have in yours; it’s how you can help them understand how the world around them works.
Teaching Chemistry is one of life’s wonderful accidents; remember you actually dropped it when you first did your options choices in favour of History. You’ll enjoy teaching Chemistry and Biology. Physics will increasingly fascinate you as the years go by. Strengthen your subject knowledge; time in the classroom will continue to expose to you the key misconceptions pupils bring with them. Never forget, you are not just a Teacher of Science, as important as these subjects are. You teach children and young people first and foremost. Science or Chemistry is what appears on their timetables. Working at De La Salle in St. Helen’s you’ll hear the letter from the survivor of the concentration camp. It’ll move you to tears and the message will stay with you throughout your career.
A Headteacher from Boston wrote the following letter to newly appointed teachers to inform them of the main driving force behind the School.
I am the victim of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no-one should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers; children poisoned by educated physicians; infants killed by trained nurses; women and children shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education.
My request is:
Help your students become more human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.
Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.
Don’t give up on pupils. Teach and care for the whole child particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds; they have the most to gain. You’ll enjoy working with so many pupils but those that kick back often need you most; hold them close to your heart. You’ll find behaviour management easier than many other teachers; this will be a blessing in your early days. Your ability to relate with most young people may lead to a lack of system and structure in your behaviour management and empathy with other teachers who need greater support with this aspect of their practice. This is a problem when leading at a whole school level.
Your credibility in the classroom needs to be established. No matter what your position, teachers tend to have a natural respect for those who can cut the mustard on a wet Friday afternoon with Year 9. The same is true of pupils and their parents; reputations and people’s trust in what you say are built on what you do. Remember the old adage, “Preach the Gospel, use words if necessary.” Enjoy your time teaching; promotions and extra responsibility will come soon enough, in fact, much sooner than you think. You’ll miss the classroom.
You have the natural energy, exuberance and the confidence of youth; these will be great assets in the years ahead but have downsides as well. You’ll spend hours writing schemes of learning and developing resources. Too much of this you’ll do on your own; collaborating more with others would have enriched the work you were doing and improved the final outcome. Get five or six teachers together and the years of experience soon add up. You can do the maths, there are often more years of experience in a room of teachers than any one person can gather in a single career. You’ll remember a certain deputy headteacher; he wasn’t too impressed at you organising how he should teach Chemistry. This explosive engagement will have an upside; you’ll further develop your ability to apologise and use it again and again in the years ahead. Forgiveness is often easier to gain than permission. People are your greatest asset; this will make more sense as time goes by.
You’ll make up for your deficiencies with a lot of hard work, too much in many ways. You will work harder at being a really good teacher then you have at anything else in your life; with the possible exception of being a husband and father.
You’ll be married in a year or so, be present with your wife and growing family. Sitting around the table every evening with the family is a good thing; you need to be there in mind as well as body. The long pauses between a question and your answer, your random or repeated comments and long stares into the distance will give you away over the years. They will become a source of amusement and frustration for the family. Find a way to manage that box of frogs you have jumping around in your brain. Enjoy, teaching will be good for you and to you.
Alternatively, the book may be ordered from Amazon.