(For Sally Amis)
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love —
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.
But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull —
If that is what a skilled,
Catching of happiness is called.
This Phillip Larkin poem is a beautiful English ode to a newborn, Sally Amis, the daughter of the writer Kingsley Amis, Larkin’s best friend. It is a profound celebration of ordinariness. In plain language, it captures the essence of a very human beauty.
I read the poem again very recently and something struck me about it I hadn’t considered before. I newly discovered that the poem captured for me a description of a truly great teacher colleague of mine. Moreover, in its ending, it encapsulated so many of the best teachers I have met and worked with.
This great colleague (I have the good fortune of labelling more than one person I work with by that label), who graces the classroom with consummate skill, manages to be a great teacher with no grand designs or ideology and without official status or elaborate title. Quietly, she is vigilant, highly skilled and, like a swan, she bears herself with utter calm and equanimity, even in the face of the most trying stresses.
Everything she approaches about her job as a teacher is done with utter commitment and rigour. No specification is left unturned. No student work that is hacked off with little effort is accepted. No quarter is given with boundaries of behaviour, but no quarter is taken, as every student wants to work for her and make her proud. Enthralled, they only seek to return the catching of happiness she offers them each day in her care.
Like most of the best teachers I have known, she would often go unnoticed in the crowd. There are no special performances under lights, no monkey dances for the observer. She would wear the mantle of the introvert with quiet comfort and composure, but with a concurrent steely determination.
Paradoxically, that determination emerges from a distinct lack of confidence. This unconfident approach to her work derives from an unaffected humility that is all too rare.
Our society, and our workplaces, are full of people who think they are better than average and each other. The ‘Dunning Kruger effect‘, otherwise known as the ‘Dumb and Dumber Effect‘, has enshrined this false truth that we all think we are all above average: better drivers, better at our jobs and more intelligent than most others.
We herald self-confidence as the answer to all our ills. A self-help industry is built upon this very notion. But, too often, self-confidence derives from ignorance rather than knowledge. Give me a quiet, unassuming but determined teacher, willing to go the hard yards when no-one is looking, every time.
I do wish for confident teacher colleagues. It is an end goal to become truly confident, an ideal to pursue; yet, for most of that path they’ll likely be unconfident. This will drive them on, to be that little bit better, day by day, term by term.
I love an anecdote about Pablo Picasso that captures such confidence – hard earned from years of toil and skill. It describes when he was outside drawing away and a confident young woman came along and was insistent that he draw her. Being in a good mood, he played along. When he was finished he asked her for a fee. She asked him how much. Picasso answered with a weighty sum beyond her means, but worthy of his greatness. The woman exclaimed and complained that he had only taken five minutes over the drawing. Picasso replied that it had taken a lifetime to be able to complete that drawing.
Like Picasso, becoming a great teacher is a fine art, a craft and a complex science, that can take a lifetime to master. It takes humility, discipline and determined effort in the becoming. Give me such an unconfident but committed teacher wanting to be competent, every time.