Teachers live in permanent fear of their shortcomings being discovered

The Secret Teacher: In front of 20-something pairs of eyes, very little goes unnoticed

The greatest gift we can give to each other in our individual school communities is an interest in each other’s story. Photograph: iStock

The greatest gift we can give to each other in our individual school communities is an interest in each other’s story. Photograph: iStock


“Where is the homework?”; “why isn’t it done?”; “how do you expect to do well with that attitude?”

And so on.

These are the questions we ask our students when they fall short of what we asked of them. We entertain thoughts such as “everyone else could manage it”, which is an entirely unhelpful comparison.

We also judge: “I remember when her sister was here and she was just the same.” We engage in regular conversations about those who are not doing as well as we feel they should be.

As teachers we also live in permanent fear of our own shortcomings being discovered. We do our jobs in front of multiple sets of 20-something pairs of eyes, so very little goes unnoticed. School management sometimes falls short too, and we also talk about that. We are careful about what we say to their faces though, because we need to keep them onside. That has a lot to do with those fears around our shortcomings.

All of us, from the youngest student on the roll book to the most senior member of staff, have our flawed human state in common. Schools are simultaneously a hotbed of fears and a breeding ground for criticism. So much would be resolved if we all kept just one question at the forefront of our minds.

This question would allow us to take a step back from the tension in our day-to-day school life. It would shift our focus from self-preservation to concern for others. And, most importantly, awareness of this shared question would make each of us more visible to the others in our school community.

What’s your story?

I see 28 second years four times a week. It’s a class full of “real handfuls”, and so it is a group which illustrates the need for a “what’s your story?” mentality.

Clean sweep

There will usually be a full cohort about 10 minutes into the lesson, but rarely before. I will never have a clean sweep of textbooks and copies, let alone homework. It just isn’t that kind of class.

But I have no idea what transport arrangements are in place for them. John may be dropped at the school door in an €80,000 jeep, while Peter has two changes of buses. Paula may be an only child who finds a nourishing breakfast ready and waiting for her in the morning whereas Mary is the eldest of a large family and joins her mother in barely having time to eat as they both do their best to help the younger kids get ready. Catherine may come from a loving family, while Susan desperately attempts to keep the abuse in her household well hidden.

There may be 28 pencil cases and bags, but some will have been purchased abroad on lavish holidays while others will have been delivered by a local charity which helps families under the strain of back-to-school expenses.

All 28 may be awake, but some faces betray the evidence of a very poor night’s sleep – and whatever story lies behind that. All the parents and guardians behind the students have their own story too. While they themselves may only cross the school threshold from time to time, their children bring in evidence of the collective household’s story every day.

As teachers we follow our timetables. We do as our students do and ensure we are in the appointed place at the appointed time. While we are holding the reins and have full ownership of the content we get lessons off to a flying start.

Cracks appear once the “I missed the last day so I’m lost” or “what page are we on?” contributions start. Responding to these is important, but in the process we lose more students than we gain, and things unravel quickly from there. Running a tight ship with 28 teenagers on deck isn’t easy, as anyone who has ever tried it knows. Anyone who hasn’t thinks school days are too short and school holidays too long.

“She’s always in a bad mood.”

“He’s always late.”

“She is a hopeless teacher.”

Sleepless nights

So “what’s your story?” applies to us, too. Some of us are raising young families. Our children also get sick and give us sleepless nights. We are not exempt from caring for elderly parents and relatives. Ms Jones gets toothaches and Mr Harris gets migraines, but both go into work anyway. We, too, struggle to find time for everything and feel a basic need for more time for ourselves. (Imagine that, with such short days and long holidays.)

There is a merciless rigidity to the school bell and the school year which goes almost unnoticed. We don’t resent this, but a recognition that while teaching a class there is simply no such thing as “just popping out for five minutes” is merely to acknowledge a factual reality.

We, too, face into work, in our case a full classroom, with our own unique set of challenges and burdens waiting for us elsewhere. That’s an essential part of our story. And those in education leadership have their stories too. It is what unites us all.

The greatest gift we can give to each other in our individual school communities is an interest in each other’s story. No two are the same, each of us has an entirely unique one to call our own. As members of a shared community, we strengthen it by strengthening the individual members. This starts with listening to each other’s stories. Even better if we play a positive role in moving them forward.