The best things about teaching? For some it’s June, July and August

Secret Teacher: Students can easily tell devoted from disengaged teachers

Real teachers want their students to feel good about themselves and grow under their tutelage. Photograph: iStock

Real teachers want their students to feel good about themselves and grow under their tutelage. Photograph: iStock


There are really only two types of teachers: those who started out wanting to teach and those who ended up teaching because they couldn’t get anything else. For the former, teaching is a vocation; for the latter, it is at best a job and at worst a means to an end, a salary.

If you aren’t sure how to spot the difference, ask the two camps what their three favourite things about teaching are and one group will tell you it’s the pupils, the fact that every day is genuinely different and the real buzz they get out of the teaching and learning process, or some variation on these.

The other group will say June, July and August, which I suppose at least means they are prepared to answer honestly.

If asked, students would easily categorise every teacher they have ever had into one or other grouping. So would you, effortlessly. A teacher casts a long shadow, and Maya Angelou’s quote covers the only data necessary to distinguish between those who were born to teach and those who simply settled for it: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Real teachers want their students to feel good about themselves and grow under their tutelage. The others resent being in the classroom at all and take it out on the students. They feel small being stuck in teaching when they know they were destined for greater things, and so they throw their weight around in the classroom.

No fault lies with the students for this chip on the shoulder, which is an entirely personal thing, but they certainly bear the brunt of the teacher’s frustration at what is essentially an inferiority complex.

How are the two types so easily distinguished? All of the evidence is in our daily conduct, and it’s especially apparent where teachers have their own allocated classroom.

Those who are keen to do a good job and deliver worthwhile lessons tend to be there before their pupils, whereas those who aren’t bothered tend to be more concerned with getting as long as possible out of the free time, either by arriving late or nipping out of the room between the lessons.

Real teachers . . . use the wall space available to them, and even take time regularly to update and vary the content

Teacher-based classrooms can be used as a detector of diligence. Real teachers take enormous pride in their work space and use the fact that they have a base to make a noticeable impact on their learners. They use the wall space available to them, and even take time regularly to update and vary the content. Such classrooms are never sterile; there is a healthy sense of clutter and busy-ness in the space.

The minimalist look may be in vogue for house decor, but it’s a trend that only the lazy and disengaged teacher adopts as their classroom “look”. For them this most low-maintenance approach ensures that they can preserve as much as possible of the non-teaching time. We don’t work in an industry where freebies are constantly flying our way, and so the little extras that make for brighter and better decorated wall spaces or more interesting learning materials for the students are often paid for by the teachers.

Strangely enough we are all treated the same regardless of how dramatically differently we conduct ourselves. We all get abuse for the great holidays even though some teachers genuinely put in a lot of hours while off school. The school year is frantic, and passionate teachers embrace the holiday periods to do the preparation which requires long, uninterrupted stretches of time. Weekends are often spent like this, as the working week in a school rarely allows that quality working time.

Those who are only winging it anyway never do that kind of in-depth preparation for classes, for them it’s a case of sure, isn’t the book enough?

Tarring all teachers with the same brush means that one group doesn’t get enough credit and the other doesn’t get enough grief. Those who merit credit are probably not too bothered about an absence of plaudits provided they can get on with the job in peace. Being feted is unimportant when there is a real sense of job satisfaction, but in this country it is harder than ever for teachers to feel that they are entrusted with the freedom to do what they do.

The relentless pace of initiatives and curricular revisions is crippling those who care, precisely because they care enough to want to get it right. These same complex changes are a massive gift for the others, who feel vindicated in doing less than ever before because “none of us know what we are supposed to be doing anyway”.

It is blatantly obvious that this country doesn’t know how to look after its assets. We are haemorrhaging civil servants as increasing numbers choose to take their skills abroad rather than serve a country which offers up conditions that drive us to the picket line. Those who have emigrated cheer us on and demonstrate solidarity. They are entirely supportive of those striking at home as they have never ceased to look nostalgically towards Ireland.

Many never really felt they had any choice but to leave a country which made them feel far less than their true worth. The desperate hours civil servants spend on the picket lines barely seem to trouble our Government; anyone would think there was money to be made from these strikes.