Being a Teacher

Cards for Democracy
Published on
April 10, 2017
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Being a Teacher

Charlot Cassar

Being a teacher in the 21st century is a formidable endeavour.

Teachers come into the profession full of hope and eager to make a positive difference in their classrooms and young people’s lives. However the initial enthusiasm often succumbs under the pressure of a thwarted system in which the ideals of education with a capital E seem to be far removed from the daily realities of the classroom. Teachers struggle with mundane and routine tasks that often seem to have little or nothing to do with the teaching and learning process. They often feel alienated from their true purpose and from the original values that brought them into the profession to start with. Yet, they are confronted with the high discourse of global developmental goals, educational policy and curricular provision for the development of all sorts of competences, including transversal competences for active democratic citizenship and life-long learning.

These ideals are in sharp contrast to the current state of our societies. The democratic beacons of the modern world are engrossed in a post-truth conundrum in which rational debate often gives way to politics of emotions that fuel fear and hatred. It is not all dim – there are occasionally places where leaders and their electorates resist far right extremism and populism. But is this enough to secure the democracies we take for granted?

In this stark scenario it is easy for a teacher to feel demotivated and to just go through the motions without taking risks. In many respects, we have deconstructed the teacher into very specific components, emphasising some and neglecting others. In the process we forgot to bring the pieces back together so that teachers can actually deal with this complex world, its impact on students in the classroom and the high demands of policy and curricula. Are teachers “being” teachers? Are they making a positive difference?

There are educators out there on the field who in the face of all this, are doing an outstanding job, advocating an education that nurtures competences for truly democratic cultures. How do they do it? If you are reading this, then you are probably one of those teachers making a difference and you will probably empathise with my views. You will probably also be thinking of colleagues who have given up… and you may want to consider forwarding this article to them.

As educators we need to rekindle our values. At the very basis of this claim is the notion that we are “persons in teaching”. Our “personhood” has much to do with the pedagogy that we bring to and the climate that we create within the classroom context. Irrespective of what might be going on in the big wide world, 

I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is MY response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized. (Ginott, 1972).

The on-going development of this “person in teaching” is often either taken for granted, neglected or suppressed altogether. As a result, teachers tend to distance themselves from the most pertinent issues and maladies in our schools, perpetuating a status quo by objectifying the issues in someone or something else because at the end of the day it has nothing to do with teaching. Yet, it has everything to do with what we do! And the devil is in the detail. It is in the little things that we take for granted, the way we greet students in the morning, the way we make them feel, the words we use to give them feedback, the gestures that invite or reject…

Somehow it is comfortable to forget that societies today are the product of a school system that has in many ways failed to deliver and live up to expectations. As educators, I believe we have a collective responsibility for the current state of affairs and this places an onus on the teaching profession. The high ideals of education are often tamed into conformity with familiar routines, segregated as an irrelevant add-on to the system and effectively rendered harmless (Marris 1993). It is not enough to talk of some shared understanding or meaning, which teachers own and in turn transmit to their students. We need to talk about “being” – being active citizens in democratic societies, upholding and living the values of such a society. By default, being a teacher essentially means being all that we want our children to be.

We need the time to explore ourselves as persons in teaching. Who are we? What do our stories say about us? How do we grow and change as persons and as teachers? Who and what inspires us? How do we build meaningful relationships? What do we value? To what extent are we aware of our values? How do we put our values into practice? Do we realise that our actions reflect our personal values and beliefs more authentically than our words? How authentic are we? Have we resolved what Pillen (2013) describes as professional identity tensions? How do we bring it all together in our specific context?

Teaching needs to be a journey of self-reflection. We need to ensure that our practice truly reflects the democratic values we uphold, taking nothing for granted. It is only when we engage in the exploration of the diverse aspects of our teacher personality that we can hope for concrete actions for change – of ourselves, of the societies we work and live in and the societies we hope to have in the future.

It is only then that Education can truly make a difference!

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Ginot, H. G. (1972). Teacher and child: A book for parents and teachers, New York, NY: Macmillan.

Marris, P. (1993). The Management of Change, in Mabey, C. & Mayon-White, B. (Eds) Managing Change. London: Open University Press.

Pillen, M. T. (2013). Professional Identity Tensions of Beginning Teachers. The Netherlands: Printservice TU/e.


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