Sometimes it’s the little words in our sentences that give the game away as to how we’re thinking. How often we hear ourselves and others using the phrase ‘I am just a teacher.’ The word ‘just’ is interesting and in many ways more harmful that it first appears.
Firstly, I am just a teacher implies an inferiority complex. Just in this sense means ‘only.’ Surely if we believe in our role as teachers there is no ‘only’ about it. Secondly, and more seriously, ‘I am just a teacher’ seems to imply that this is all there is to me. I am nothing else other than my job. However in one sense I AM NOT A TEACHER. At first glance that might appear to be a lie. What I mean to say is this – I am not just a teacher. It is not the whole story. I am a husband, a father, a son, etc. The label ‘teacher’ only describes part of me. It is not the sum total of my identity. I am a person who carries out the role of teacher and invests much of his life in ensuring that the role is carried out to the best of his ability but in terms of who I actually am, I am not just a teacher.
Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of the job that I do but it is not my whole life; however sometimes I carry on as though it is, as though there is nothing else to me, as though my whole identity is found in the classroom.
To be fair, stolen is probably the wrong word. We voluntarily or at least subconsciously give it away. It’s easy to do it, to forget that our work is not us. The job we do matters and it’s important we do it well. We invest so much time into the job that we often end up becoming the job.
Identity Theft – Spotting the Signs
We are all on a journey with this and I admit that I’m not the finished article when it comes to this issue. Here are a few things I’ve noticed about times when I have begun to lose my identity.
Criticism – I become even more sensitive than usual to criticism! I forget that a criticism made in an observation about an aspect of my performance is just that and not a direct assault on me as a person. If someone criticises an aspect of your performance in the classroom (or more accurately a comment is made that we perceive to be critical) it is important to remember it is just that, a comment on how you have done an aspect of your job. You are not perfect nor should anyone expect you to be. One of our problems as teachers is that our identity and how we feel about ourselves is often wrapped up in how well we do our job, or how well we are perceived to be doing our job. Remember just because someone thinks you should have done something better does not necessarily mean they are right. And even if they are right that doesn’t mean you aren’t doing the rest of the job pretty well. Remember that criticism is hardly ever intended to be personal.
Contentment – When I am beginning to lose ‘identity’ I begin to lose contentment. Learn to be content in what you’ve done. Teachers seem to have a default setting that drives them to be perfectionists. Aiming for excellence is one thing but driving ourselves mad in the process ultimately achieves nothing for us and does not benefit those that we teach. Remember that teaching is a marathon not a sprint and that the best thing I can do for my students is to stay fit and well for the full academic year. Sometimes it takes courage to stop and say ‘this isn’t perfect but it’s good enough and besides I need to stop now so that I am fresh for the next day.’ If your lesson isn’t perfect that is often just as much a reflection of the constraints that you are working in as it is of you as a person.
Cultivate – When I am immersed too deeply in my teacher identity, the other aspects of my life start to resemble plants that need watering! It is important to cultivate other aspects of your identity. Deliberately do other things that are not related to work. Plan an evening with the children, have someone round for a meal, take up a hobby and plan time to do this, learn new skills. Of course as dedicated teachers we will probably protest that we don’t have time for such things but let’s think about that one. Are we really saying that our role as a teacher is so important that everything else has to be put on hold? And if so until when? Our students connect with us as people and, if all we are relates to the job we do, then slowly but surely we will start to die inside. We will become less interesting and less effective. A well rounded person makes a better teacher.
As a little thought experiment on this, why not try the following. Imagine that you are not a teacher. What will you do for a living? Imagine you are retired or in the privileged position of not needing to work. How are you going to fill your days once the washing up is done and the bills have been paid. If you find this challenge difficult, could it be that you are too wrapped up in your identity as a teacher to enjoy the rest of life? So we are not just teachers. This week, this year – try to make sure that you preserve your identity in a demanding but fulfilling job. I am not just a teacher. What about you?
Chris Eyre @chris_eyre is curriculum manager for Religious Studies and Philosophy at Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College. He has also worked as an examiner for a leading exam board. He is passionate about teacher well-being and regularly blogs on this and other issues. Read his blog at chriseyreteaching.wordpress.com