From the very start, I need to make a declaration of interest.
I am the son of two teachers, therefore my views on teaching are a little skewed.This is despite the fact that my Mum claimed throughout her more than thirty year career she was only teaching until she discovered what she really wanted to do.
As with many people who grew up in a similar position, my parents careers advice was succinct and specific. “Don’t be a teacher” they said, “Just don’t go into teaching”.
It was a simple as that. I have never been quite sure whether the rather haphazard, badly paid and almost wilfully precarious career I ended up choosing was actually preferable, in their minds.
This is particularly on my mind as, for the first couple of months this year, I have found myself, one day a week, trekking across to an extremely reputable drama conservatoire, where I am expected to step into a studio of students and teach.
Or at least, some vague approximation of it.
This is a seemingly inevitable stage in a career in the arts – and, I am sure, for most other professions. You gather a certain weight of experience, which sends you veering this way into a niche or that way into a speciality, meeting a few kindly academics on the way and eventually, if you are willing, keen or broke enough you are invited to teach. Or, at least this is how I seem to have become the Visiting Professional for the Second Year ‘Site Specific’ Design Module at Rose Bruford College.
Of course, what I am doing bears little relationship to the honourable profession of teaching. The responsibilities of long term support, assessment, guidance and pastoral care are held by others more qualified. My skills in crowd control are barely called upon by this rather debonaire group of nine aspiring designers as they studiously .cut and paste decade old magazine pages into impressive collages of visual textual analysis.
Anyone reading who has to face a daily barrage of uniform-clad teenagers hurtling through their classrooms with the full force of puberty can unclench their jaw. I appreciate what it is you do enough to know that what I am doing ain’t it.
That said, I have always had a low opinion of teachers – or at least the wider profession which they necessarily find themselves in.
The secondary school I attended was the epitome of ‘bog standard’ and most of the staff approached their daily grind with the generalised professional interest of a rancher who herds his seemingly never-ending stream of cattle with equal dexterity and disinterest.
The occasional awkward steer may crash against the cages and even more unusually a fine specimen will demand above market price. As a herd, however, they are generally docile and accept the necessary branding and overcrowding without complaint.
Those truly exceptional teacher were tautologically few. The impact they made was seismic, for myself and to others. Now, looking back, they seem like giants offering their shoulders for us to stand upon.
What makes their generosity so exceptional is that they must have known that however rare an exceptional teacher is, exceptional students are even rarer – and to find an exceptional student who actually lives up to their early promise and potential is as rare as a diamond in a coal mine.
That makes it seem like teaching is a desperate undertaking, with a tidal flow of low-level disappointments washing against victories that almost always turn out to be pyrrhic.
Perhaps it is.
Even those who have talent and flair seem perversely smothered by a profession that successive Governments decree should value exam results and key stages above the delicate art of kindling those individual flames that flicker uncertainly in the individual hearts of individual students.
It is there that the joy lies. That is what I am discovering. It is a joy that echoes the transitory joy of theatre and performance. Perhaps that relationship should be inverted. It is performance that echoes that joy of teaching, of opening the audiences eyes to an experience, an understanding or perhaps even a simple moment.
The real privilege is discovering that for both the audience and the student what you are offering is rarely completely new. Only the most arrogant of artists believe that their minds move quicker and their weight of experience is somehow greater than that of their audience. Exceptional teachers seem to share a humility that acknowledges that they are there simple to fuel and shape the potential that we, in our ignorance and carelessness, so often neglect.
I am neither a teacher nor a performer. My ego that tries to convince me that the thoughts written here are both new and incisive, is the same ego that is only satisfied when audiences are ‘impressed’ and would have me voice facts and experience not for the students benefit, but simply so they realise how clever I am. Yet it is more that selflessness. It is about those shared moments of discovery that come from encouraging and supporting the creativity as it emerges, of helping to shape thought processes and of bringing wider experience to bear.
The equal and opposite affect has been startling. Being forced to talk about my own practice and how I develop my own ideas has fuelled my own creativity. Working with students who are yet to take their first step into their careers has reminded again what is possible when you look beyond your own horizons. Having to offer advice and guidance leads me to re-examine and restate my own values and choices. Sharing my past experiences, both good and bad forces me to draw out the positive and acknowledge more widely the successes I have shared in.
Shamefully , part of me considered teaching as a nice safe career you could fall back on when your nerve failed and the ambition of your true vocation stalled. When all else fails you could always teach. I had not understood before how lucky we are to work in an industry where working with students can compliment our own practice because it does exactly that. It compliments our own practice, and selfishly the process forces us to delve inside ourselves so that we can altruistically share with others.
I realise how lucky I am in that I am getting the very best of the job, without having to face the grinding, demoralising administration, paperwork, training and assessment that those who choose this noblest of professions deal with on a daily basis. I do, however, have a glimmer of an insight into what they would put themselves through that so they can spend their time teaching, and I am grateful for the opportunity to spend some time in the classroom.
I can only hope that the students are getting something out of it as well.