On my first day of teacher training I was reprimanded. It was in Dunedin almost thirty years ago. We sat in a circle and had to say why we had gone teaching. The reasons were varied. Some loved working with young people. Others had a passion to share their subject knowledge. I said I wanted long holidays and a 9 to 3 work day. Laconic humour is wasted on the earnest. I am one of the very few of that group still teaching.
I don’t love teaching. I just find it vaguely addictive. It is an art, not a science. It can never be perfected. Each day you hold a mirror up to your mood and motivation. If you want to be an effective teacher you need to engage and energise a sometimes reluctant audience. You are a performer. No teacher can perform to perfection in every lesson. It is not humanly possible.
I used to take wry amusement at the inspirational Hollywood teacher movies. The hard difficult students in the hard difficult schools were always present in class and were always seated. The number of students in the movie classrooms seldom exceeded ten or so. They were willing to engage their “inspirational” teacher with difficult piercing questions. The classrooms always seemed well insulated and ventilated, with good furniture.
I have realised over many years what a strange job teaching is. It attracts the weird and wonderful, the bizarre and besotted, martyrs and cruisers, cynics and idealists.
But what has struck me in recent years is how crucial the role of teachers has become. We are living in the age of fake news. Where information and disinformation is bombarding our young people. Healthy functioning democracies have relied upon traditional media to play the role of the fourth estate. To be the watchdogs over the informed health of a society. To monitor the politicians, big business and other vested interests. This traditional role has been eroded by the proliferation of alternative media sources. The role of news editors as arbiters of factual accuracy and sound logic has been superseded. Information has always had a Janus face. It can be a weapon and a tool. This was well appreciated by the Nazi and Communists.
The quality of modern teachers is therefore a crucial bastion for a well functioning society. We need critical thinkers in teaching so they can teach critical thinking to their students. Quality teachers are the ultimate defence against fake news, disinformation and social fragmentation.
I have written for a variety of news outlets for over twenty years. It has been sad to witness the decline in the informational content in some outlets during this period. Titillation and product placement has replaced meaningful content. Investigative journalism has virtually died because it is not commercially viable. It has been replaced by click bait and Internet feeds and media “personalities”.
We are living in an age where access to information is infinitesimal compared to previous years. But we don’t seem any smarter. In fact we seem to be regressing to more fractured polarised societies.
Strangely I was in a seedy bar in San Francisco sipping a wee dram the other day. Actually late afternoon. The young Irish barmaid was training to be a chemistry teacher. I asked her what had sparked her interest in science. She said, definitely not her parents. Her dad was a butcher and her mother a secretary. A teacher had sparked her interest in atoms, particles, molecules and all that other strange tiny shit. As I stumbled home, a bit worse for wear, I had a pleasant revelation. Teachers actually can, and do, make a difference.
Peter Lyons has aspired to Mediocrity in his teaching career and occasionally achieved it.