The Teacher Expert and the Cynic

“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.

18 thoughts on “The Teacher Expert and the Cynic”

  1. That’s lovely Alex, thank you I really enjoyed reading it.
    It puts me in mind of a paired activity in Drama. No, Yes but, Yes and.
    No is the complete cynic, who says ‘no’ to everything you suggest.
    Yes but is the person who agrees, but always has a proviso about why you suggest won’t work.
    Yes and is the person who takes on board your idea and offers one of their own to build on it.

    1. I’m trying to consciously make sure I offer an alternative or a solution if I offer a critique. That Drama activity describes very well how we should behave as teachers.

  2. Jenny Anderson

    An excellent post! I was told in my first week of teaching ” The day you think you know it all in this job is the day you need to leave.” That has defined the way I have approached my work for the last 24 years and I think why I am still excited and curious.

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  4. Wise words Alex and I’m sure that those of us who have read this will be putting names in the staffroom to the various comments you have made. It is a great shame that those who would benefit most from reading this will be the very people who think they don’t need to. I suppose it is the same in every walk of life – not just in teaching. In my naivety I used to see that group of people as ‘the challenge’; now I do see them very much as a drain. They exude negativity and can suck the life out those new staff unfortunate to get too close.

    1. Yes, I’m sure those whom I describe may not even recognise they are the cynic! I do think it is important that we challenge such behaviour whenever we encounter it. We won’t change many people but we can at least make them stop and think and defend the new staff in particular.

  5. I do think that in the current culture in some schools it is unfortunate but understandable that teachers become cynical. I am not cynical about students at all, I love teaching and I’m passionate about the subject I teach and the lovely students I teach it to but….I am very cynical about the government’s attitude towards teachers, OFSTED as a political tool and pressure on teachers to meet targets that are sometimes completely unrealistic.

    1. I don’t advocate we stop questioning the validity of OFSTED, government policy, or push for better accountability measures (although there is some lazy cynicism about each that I lacks validity). I think there is a difference between the draining cynicism I describe and a proactive questioning of wider issues for teaching professionals.

      1. I realise your post is about the draining cynic in the staffroom and certainly don’t prescribe that kind of negativity. I do however adopt (what I think is) a healthy cynicism towards the things I mention above. I don’t agree it is lazy cynicism – my opinion is based on personal experience. I do think these external pressures can make some experienced teachers negative about the role of the teacher now and this can lead to the closed-minded attitudes you describe. We do need teachers who are open to new ideas, learning and are prepared to be humble, of course. We also need a system where all teachers are supported so that they can be! I agree with you Alex but wider issues can cause the negative drain…

  6. Alex – loved this. Thank you. I used to feel when I came out of meetings with some staff that I’d been in the company of Harry Potter dementors – they’d started to suck out my soul….

    Have you seen the ‘Leadership Creatures’ model where staff are placed into one of four quadrants – owls (wise, informed, positive), lambs (positive, willing but still ‘tuning in’ – new staff, including new heads, would be in this quadrant), donkeys (tend to be negative and not well-informed – they need to be encouraged towards the owl quadrant) and foxes (aware, canny but tending to cynicism)? It’s clearly a great oversimplification BUT quite a useful model to think about.

    There is a danger that school leaders are too dismissive of the ‘foxes’, and they find themselves, unwittingly, dividing the staff who say ‘yes’ into the ‘owl’ category’ and those who say ‘no’ into the foxes area – and not listening to the foxes. Sometimes staff who tend to be ‘why we can’t’ rather than ‘how can we’, the negative, ‘cynics’ corner’ actually do have good points to make. They are hard work and draining, but they still need to be listened to. We learn arguably more from those who stand against us. What do you think?

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