Eliminate the Negatives – Sharing Experiences in Education

Twitter is in uproar (once again) about education. Another “Secret Teacher” article came out, this one about an NQT who didn’t have a particularly positive experience. 

The internet resounds with shouts that this teacher’s experience is not representative, that it highlights problems, that it makes teaching seem on the brink of collapse. In order to avoid posting a bunch of tweets as evidence, have this blog post – it sums up, rather eloquently, the argument of those who think that the Secret Teacher article is harmful, misguided, or just describing an uncommon experience. The message is clear – lots of teachers love their jobs, lots of them feel incredibly fulfilled, and those happy teachers feel that their voices are not heard.

While I’m sure that those teachers’ experiences are both positive and common, I think the calls for more positive stories somewhat miss the point. Teaching is filled with positive stories. Online, teachers swap revolutionary teaching techniques and SLTs swap positive buzzwords, all building into a web of energetic and inspiring talk about teaching that rarely mentions any downsides. In the real world, positive stories are everywhere, again. Departing teachers get flashmobs, inspirational teachers get awards. Staffrooms are filled, in my experience, with far more positive conversations than negative – grumbling about data is supplanted talk of breakthroughs with difficult pupils.

The default is positivity – the enthusiastic teacher who also manages to juggle a homelife, after-school clubs and professional development, all with a smile. That’s not the dream, that’s the expected norm. Teaching is filled with incredibly polished professionals who somehow manage to be happy and on top of things all the time.

But it’s not always like that. Teaching is wonderful, but sometimes it’s hard. NQTs learn a lot, but sometimes they’re also very, very unhappy. Not everyone manages the perfect work-life balance, or teaches children who want to learn, or achieves fantastic grades year on year. Occasionally, something doesn’t work.

That’s what the Secret Teacher is for – it’s for people who see a problem, and want to talk about it. It’s anonymous because there is so much pressure on teachers to be perfect, on presenting every little aspect of your life as organised and worry-free. Each article causes a splash because such dissenting voices are relatively rare; it’s not that teaching is filled with negative viewpoints, but that negative viewpoints are rare and exotic.

Those voices need to be heard. It’s important that, in a generally positive profession, people get a chance to criticise and suggest solutions. Without that, identified problems don’t get solved. Some NQTs will continue to receive inadequate support and training. It has to be okay to say that you are struggling.

If every time a teacher speaks out about their difficulties, they are drowned out by calls for positive experiences and told that they are not the norm, then it makes it seem that the problem isn’t a system which sometimes isn’t perfect, but is the teacher in question. The stressed, unhappy teacher who is crying out for help.

That’s not great – a wall of noise raised against anyone who dares to step out of line, to suggest that we might not all be happy, all of the time. Sharing positive stories in response to a single negative one is not particularly fair – as James Theobald says, “you aren’t actually being positive at all. It’s a negative act”. Those positive stories make people afraid to post their own experiences, and make them feel as though their problems are their own fault – that they personally are failures.

Be positive all you want, and tell people about it. Your experience is totally valid. But so is the experience of someone who isn’t having as positive a time as you. They shouldn’t be ostracised, ignored, or shouted over; that’s just going to make the problem worse, make someone already unhappy feel isolated as well. An unhappy NQT isn’t a threat to you, but someone who needs support.

A lot of the time, teaching is wonderful. Sometimes it isn’t. We shouldn’t be drowning out the voices that point out problems, we should be listening to them. That’s the only way things improve.

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One thought on “Eliminate the Negatives – Sharing Experiences in Education

  1. I completely agree with all that you say. I think that the Secret Teacher articles should continue: it is vitally important that we hear the negative stories in education. Without hearing about all that is wrong in our profession, we can’t begin to put it right. I also think we are right to share positive stories, either through blogs, Twitter or forums like Staffrm. Neither viewpoint is more or less valid than the other: they are just individual experiences. By sharing both points of view, we are promoting a more balanced view of the profession. We cannot hope to eliminate negative press about teaching, nor should we aim to. We can’t sweep wrongdoings and poor practice under the carpet. All we can do is keep sharing the stories we have to tell, whatever viewpoint they portray.

    Liked by 1 person

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