Many of my colleagues over the years have spoken compellingly how a personal tale of idiosyncrasy, frailty or fallibility has helped to make a connection with a ‘hard to reach’ child. Some people I know say that their former teachers had once been in trouble with the police for example, and that knowledge made their teachers more authentic and their experiences more ‘real’.
To be a role model they argued, teachers should show their vulnerabilities too – that they are human, that they can get angry and make mistakes - children can relate to that. I agree.
But this is not to say that teachers should share their private lives with pupils in order to ingratiate themselves. Teachers who gossip, boast or share intimate details of their private lives are confusing the issue. In my view, they are unlikely to gain long-term respect from pupils.
Don’t try to be ‘cool’ - you are not their friend, you are their teacher.
As a young and inexperienced teacher you may make this your first important mistake.
Being friendly with pupils is one thing; needing to make friends with pupils is quite another. Experienced teachers who feel the need to make friends with pupils are - not to put too fine a point on it – pathetic and unsuitable for the role. They are quite possibly dangerous to children too.
The more people know about your private life the more you give them an opportunity to judge it and some people may manipulate that knowledge. They won’t be judging you from a professional, ethical perspective – remember they don’t have one. They are not teachers. They’ll be judging you from the only perspective they have, which is a personal, moral one – and that’s one which they’re entitled to have. The problem is that their moral perspective may be very different from yours.
On the other hand, teaching is an intimate activity. What can be more intense than trying to get inside someone else’s head for the purpose of motivating and inspiring them to greater things? In that mission, you will sometimes achieve really great things on behalf of your pupils.
You’ll recognize a vulnerability in a child and respond to it.
You’ll see they have a talent for something idiosyncratic and cater to it.
You’ll see they need love and find a way to give it to them.
They may not know about it for a long time or ever – they will pass on to another teacher, another school, get on with their lives and may never have the chance to credit you with the moment of inspiration that has turned their life around or galvanized them to follow a passion that you roused within them.
You’ll probably have to live with that loss. Most teachers will never know the good they do. But never doubt that if you have tried to do your best, someone will never forget what you did for them. Some will even love you for it, because of the love you once gave them.
To prove this point, watch this video. The former Arsenal and England footballer Ian Wright rediscovered the man who he said, determined the course of his life – his primary school teacher Sidney Pigden. He said of him: "I love that man and I know he loved me."
It lasts less than two minutes but you will remember it for a very long time. Ian Wright meets his old teacher
Listen also to this amazing extract from Ian's appearance on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in February 2020.