“In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired;
In pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped.”
Lao Tzu (cited by Karl E. Weick)
Most of us know, or have known, experienced teachers who wear the status of the bona fide expert with graceful aplomb; however, we have all known experienced teachers who don’t deserve such plaudits. I am certain I know which camp I want to be placed in, but the roadmap to true expertise is unclear. Yes, ‘deliberate practice’ can make permanent, but becoming a great teacher is something more complicated than just practice. It has to do with what we learn through practice, but what is also something to do with what we unlearn through experience. It is also a matter of character and how an attitude to our role begets real wisdom and expertise.
Reading Lao Tzu’s quotation, I began to consider the difference between ‘knowledge‘ and ‘wisdom‘, between being merely experienced and being an experienced expert. The experienced teacher who has reached a plateau is essentially the teacher who has committed the cardinal sin: they have stopped learning. In my experience, are a small number of experienced teachers who have lost the humility to keep learning, but they have a powerful effect in the staffroom. In an act of self-preservation they perpetuate lazy stereotyping of students. They guardedly target their cynicism at new recruits. They emit a corrosive ‘I know it all attitude‘ in any and all training. They exhibit a close-minded confidence in conversation with a fixed ‘I’ve seen it all before‘ retort. Most perversely they often reveal, either consciously or unconsciously, that they don’t like children!
Hywel Roberts used the metaphor for these teachers – that of being a ‘drain‘ – in his great book ‘Oops! Helping Students to Learn Accidentally‘. Conversely, he states that there are some teachers who are ‘radiators‘: they have “botherdness, warmth and generosity of spirit“, with a growth mindset about the ability of their students. The ‘drain‘, in stark contrast, well, is a drain! They have created fixed stereotypes for many of their students to deaden their emotions to students who have failed in their care. They have assigned blame onto students when they themselves have failed. They fix students in the bind of a negative stereotype and condemn them to failure.
The most damaging quality they possess is cynicism. Yes, there are recognisable cycles of buzzwords, fads and political nonsense spouted in education that should be guarded against and challenged. We should all be vigilant about educational snake-oil or the even the Emperor’s expensive new clothes. With policies like PRP and punitive accountability measures we don’t work in a culture where trust easily thrives, but we needn’t have our heart hardened and become cynics. I know that I have fallen into the trap of easy cynicism at times. I have been quick to criticise the ideas of others, rather than constructively challenging and supporting colleagues. I could have generated solutions rather than lazily dismissing what I deemed to be faulty.
The antidote to cynicism is humility. The best teachers I know are incredibly humble. Indeed, they often appear to lack confidence in their ability, such is their deep seated humility. This leads them towards seeking out new knowledge, willingly adapting what they do and constantly striving towards self-improvement. Unsurprisingly, they model exactly the qualities we wish to instil in our students. It seems to me the consistent precursor to any wisdom is an authentic humility. Paradoxically, most of these teachers have a healthy lack of confidence. It takes a delicate balance in terms of confidence. Too little confidence is debilitating, too much obviously dangerous. I am always keenly aware of the balance in myself and others.
This post really should end not with a critique of the teacher ‘drain‘, but an exhortation of the teacher who radiates experienced expertise. The true teacher expert. Those who radiate humility and wisdom. These teachers may have taught for countless years, but they are still charged and excited by the youthful energy of their students. They may have looked on at each passing fad, whist honing their own sterling repertoire of teaching strategies, but they are still open to learning. They have an ‘educated intuition‘ – that is to say that they know their craft, but they seek out new evidence constantly so that their intuition never ossifies into close-mindedness. They are ready to unlearn their old habits and be open to develop new methods of teaching and learning.
Crucially, they listen. Actively and with humility. They listen to, coax and support new teachers, whilst being open to learning from them too. They share their craft knowledge with generosity. They not only resist cynicism, but they actively challenge such confidence-crippling behaviour went they encounter it in the staffroom or elsewhere.
In my school at the moment there is a focus on developing a ‘growth mindset’ in our students. Of course, it is just as important for each teacher to embody that attitude. One tiny aspect of this approach is to appreciate the power of ‘yet‘ in learning. It is a small word with a powerful message. ‘I am not good at algebra YET’ is a simple message but a valuable one. Perhaps all teachers should recognise that they are no expert ‘yet‘?
Stephen Colbert provided a quotation that is an apt summation of my post:
“Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes’.”
Say ‘yes’ and begin things. I like that message.