The singer-songwriter Adele broadcast a programme – An Audience with Adele - to launch her new album 30 recently. The format has a theatre full of celebrities who ask her questions in between her singing some songs from her formidable catalogue.
One question came from the actress Emma Thompson. She asked the singer was there someone she thought of as a particular inspiration and support when she was young and before she was famous. She immediately credited a Miss McDonald, her English teacher at Chestnut Grove School in Balham, south London – a woman she said was ‘so bloody cool… she used to have all these gold rings and bracelets… she did street dance… she was so relatable and likeable… so engaging… and I really looked forward to my English lessons.’
It’s tempting to think that if we were like Adele’s teacher – cool, relatable and likeable – that we could make that special connection with the kids we teach, especially those ‘hard to reach’ kids who always seem to be on the edge of mainstream school.
I can remember many of my colleagues who were ‘cool’ and ‘relatable’ and like Miss McDonald, they were remarkable and talented teachers. But I also remember a number who tried to be ‘cool’ and ‘relatable’ because they were neither remarkable teachers nor particularly talented and thought this might be their redemption. It wasn’t.
I remember having mentoring discussions with some, who attempted to justify their approach by saying that teachers should show they are relatable – show their personal side, their likes and dislikes of music and fashion, their vulnerabilities, that they are human and can make mistakes - children can relate to that.
I agree. But it’s a very fine balance.
In my view, teachers should not try to ingratiate themselves by sharing their private lives with pupils or trying to be relatable. Teachers who think that wearing jewellery to attract the compliments of pupils or who boast of their knowledge of music or fashion or share details of their private lives are confusing the issue and in my view, are unlikely to gain long-term respect from pupils.
Miss McDonald was ‘cool’ and ‘relatable’ because she was a good teacher. Adele and her fellow pupils couldn’t wait to get to her English lessons because she was ‘so engaging’ – as a teacher. Don’t try to be ‘cool’ - you are not their friend, you are their teacher.
As a young and inexperienced teacher this may be your first important mistake. Being friendly with pupils is one thing; needing to make friends with pupils is quite another. Any experienced teacher who feels the need to make friends with pupils is 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. Some people may manipulate or exploit that knowledge.
On the other hand, teaching is an intimate activity, there’s no doubt. What can be more intimate than trying to get inside someone else’s head for the purpose of motivating and inspiring them? You may not know about the good you do 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 understanding, empathy or inspiration that turned their life around or galvanized them to follow a passion that you roused within them.
Most teachers will never know the good they do. Miss McDonald was lucky enough to find out from one of the world’s biggest music stars in front of an audience of millions. But you probably won’t – that is your fate.
Just don’t think that you won’t be remembered in the same way Adele remembers Miss McDonald. You will.
You can see that moment with Adele and Miss McDonald here.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk.
His new book: ‘Becoming a teacher – the legal, ethical and moral implications of entering society’s most fundamental profession’ is published by Crown House Publishing and can be ordered here.