For the last few days I’ve been thinking about the art of teaching – in part because it’s my job to train people to teach and I have a new set of trainees, but also because my recent(ish) trip to Japan was a bit of a revelation in so much as discovering how highly regarded teaching as an art actually is.
There’s a lot of talk about mastery of mathematics these days, but mastery of teaching is, currently, of greater interest to me.
I wonder how often we stop and think about just how intellectually demanding teaching is, and whether more emphasis on this might in fact encourage more into the profession. It’s not just about dealing with children – you have to be incredibly smart to do it well. In Japan, there is a real awareness of the need for constant refinement and improvement, and a collective kind of hive mindset about how to achieve this. Japanese teachers are acutely aware that there is no such thing as a perfect lesson, or a perfect teacher, and that it is a profession where you can only strive to get better and better, and continue your own learning and tailoring of your craft. I don’t know enough about Japanese culture to comment on whether this applies to all professions, but I am at least aware that the same concept applies to the world of martial arts. I’m not trying to compare the skill of transmitting knowledge about quadratic equations to that of taking down an assailant with Chuck Norr-ease, but in more general terms, the ‘forever learning’ concept applies to both. There’s something deeply satisfying in being part of a profession where you can constantly get better and refine your skills. It’s not something I always appreciate, but take a counter example: Imagine a job where you can master everything required of you in a matter of months, or even weeks. That feels awful in comparison when I think about it. Imagine sitting contemplating the idea that you have reached the point where you simply have nowhere further forward to go intellectually, but you have years of your working career ahead of you. Often people who change from other professions into teaching cite motives such as ‘I want to make a difference’ or ‘every day is different’. I guess the reasoning behind these statements isn’t too far removed from the desire to be intellectually stimulated.
It’s only when trainees have been teaching for a while that they start to fully appreciate just how many micro-decisions are involved in teaching. Behaviour management alone is a careful tightrope of reading people, anticipating their responses before (!), during and after they’ve made them, and subtly manipulating them to a place where their likely actions are the most predictable and controllable. It’s hugely complicated, but as it becomes part of daily working life, we probably don’t step back and notice how amazing it is that we’re even able to do it. All that before we even consider the difficulties of imparting knowledge and abstract concepts onto young impressionable minds. Take a moment to reflect on the complexity of the skills you possess. You’re fucking brilliant.