The Staff Room column - Nothing wrong with ‘normal’!

Catherine Jackson
Catherine Jackson

It’s that time of the year where we’re all on the move again. It’s the beginning of the job season, where teachers begin to think about moving on, moving up, retiring, or scaling down.

I am really rather tired, though, of reading job advertisements for teachers. Foolishly I do it every week. I don’t plan to leave my current school, but I find I have an inexplicable fascination in reading about schools which unfailingly want an ‘outstanding’ or ‘inspirational’ teacher, one who is ‘dynamic’ or ‘exceptional’ or even ‘vibrant’. There are a few stock phrases which are bandied around and frankly they make me alternately laugh and become irritated.

I’m not entirely sure that I would describe myself using any one of those adjectives. I try hard, I do my best, and I aim to help pupils reach the best of their abilities, but I don’t always get it right, and I don’t always reach the goals I set for myself, just like anyone else in any other job. Though my pupils may question it, seeing all teachers as some other alien life force, I am in fact human and I am limited by this very ordinary state.

Inspirational? Not sure. Maybe occasionally, though I fear, possibly not for most of the time. Ordinary? Yes. And yet, the advertisements never ask for ordinary and hard-working teachers. In the words of Christina Perry ‘I’m only human. I bleed when I fall down’. Shakespeare said something similar in The Merchant of Venice, but perhaps this isn’t the place to quote him.

Now, I understand that schools want to attract the best teachers they possibly can, and that’s only right and proper, but do we really need to use such expansive and unrealistic terms? If we say we are ‘outstanding’, it’s only ourselves we are kidding. Nobody with an ounce of common sense really believes that everyone who applies for a teaching job has all these qualities – so why bother with the terms?

It actually worries me on another more significant level though. This seems to be the culture in which we all operate nowadays. Yes, we want to encourage our children to be the best they possibly can, and as professionals, just like parents, we do that day in and day out. But do we really want our children to believe they can all be surgeons and astronauts? Surely that is unrealistic.

We want them to aim for their dreams, yes, and we want them to aim high, but we all need to be aware of our limitations – from brain surgeon and prime minister downwards. It doesn’t mean our pupils are failures just because they haven’t achieved those unrealistic targets. I may be lambasted for saying this, but not every pupil, even if they work night and day, can achieve an A*. Some pupils should be incredibly proud if they achieve a C grade. They may not find academic work easy, but they may have gifts and talents in other areas. Isn’t finding those areas actually what education should really be about?

Everyone’s academic achievements may be different, but we are a range of people with a range of abilities and talents. Without a whole, wide spectrum of characters and talents, of jobs and qualifications our community begins to fall apart. Everybody has a part to play and each is just as important as the other, whether they are exceptional or outstanding or dynamic or not.

As teachers we are constantly being pushed to push. To a certain extent that’s right. But knowing when to stop, before we have a nation of dispirited, exhausted and dissatisfied children, frustrated for ever, because they have not reached frankly unrealistic targets, is a difficult place to pinpoint.

My point is, I suppose, if we must, we can kid ourselves. We are old enough and tough enough to cope with it, but do we really want to encourage the sort of world, however well-meaning we are, where we hoodwink our children?

I hope not.

It’s right that schools do not ask for mediocre teachers, but frankly, even though I’m Yorkshire through and through, I’d be very tempted by a job, wherever it was in the country, that wanted a committed hard-working teacher who simply and genuinely cared.

So, will I be applying for a job which requires a dynamically wonderful teacher? I will not, any more than I would apply for to a school which advertised itself as being full of outstanding, dynamic children. I would be suspicious of that. We wouldn’t dream of advertising for such children, and we can’t fool ourselves that all children are really always like this. Sometimes they may be, but certainly not always.

So perhaps it’s time to put an end to this charade and admit that normal is actually quite OK!