Yesterday, TeacherTapp asked the question, ‘Do you know who the best teachers are in your school?’ 38% of respondents said that yes, they definitely did know. 45% said they had a good idea of who the best teachers at their school were.
This prompted me to run a poll on Twitter: ‘Are you one of the best teachers at your school?’ 49% said ‘Yes’. The rest said ‘No’.
People are happy to identify the strengths of others, but loathe to do so in themselves.
There was no underlying motive behind this poll. I was not attempting to perpetuate a toxic culture of competition in the profession. Nor was I trying to be provocative for the sake of it. I have always been interested in teachers’ perceptions of themselves and so the poll was conducted purely out of interest and nothing more.
Whilst the results of the poll are interesting, the comments that the poll induced were more so. Mainly, comments came from people who were cynical about teachers identifying themselves as ‘one of the best’. Comments revealed that many people feel that a belief that you are one of the best in your profession is synonymous with arrogance, not being a team player, and not wanting what’s best for students: If you think you are the best,you are not a team player, and you are damaging to the profession.
This negative attitude to ‘being the best’ is surprising given the fact that It’s something we strive for everyday. We want ‘the best’ for our students. We want ‘the best’ for our school. We want ‘the best’ for our departments. Of course, we can be pedantic and ask, “Yes, but what is ‘best’?”and feel really clever because we have done so, but come on – we know what ‘best’ is: It’s being better than the majority at a given task or skill based on a set of criteria determined by yourself, or others.
As teachers, a huge part of our job requires having a tacit awareness of ‘best’. What’s the best question to ask right now? What’s the best way to explain this? Whose essay is the best? And yet, It seems that whilst it’s okay to want the best, and to know what best looks like, it’s certainly not okay to recognise that you might be the best at what you do.
The assumption that any teacher who thinks they are one of the best teachers at their school must be an odious creature, continually boasting about the resources they’ve made, the books they’ve marked, and the kids they’ve inspired from a soap box in the centre of the staff room is a dangerous one. Couldn’t it just be that, after years and years of teaching, and studying, and teaching some more, one simply gets better? Couldn’t greater immersion in teaching as a practice, and actually becoming an expert (rather than a novice) at teaching, actually just mean that, well…erm… you just know you’re one of the best?
It seems that there are two types of teachers in this world: those who think they’re one of the best, and those who don’t. Both of these sets of teachers need to ask themselves the questions.
Those who think they are the best need to consider:
- On what criteria have I based my assertion?
- Am I wrong?
- If I’m right, what am I doing to help others in my school to be as good as me?
- Does my headteacher know I’m one of the best? Why? Why not?
- Why do I think I’m one of the best? Is this positive self perception of myself as a teacher impacting my students and colleagues and school?
- How can I be better?
Those who do not think they are the best need to consider:
- On what criteria have I based my assertion?
- Am I wrong?
- If I’m right, what are others doing to help me be a better teacher?
- Does my headteacher know I’m feel this way? Why? Why not?
- Why do I think I’m one of the worst? Is this negative self perception of myself as a teacher impacting my students and colleagues and school?
- How can I be better?
A few people got in touch via DM to tell me that judging yourself as a good or bad is damaging to the profession. I hate the idea that there are crap teachers out there, naively thinking that they are brilliant educators. Similarly, it pains me deeply, and sincerely, that there are many great teachers out there who simply can’t recognise that they are so. But I’m not buying this idea that as teachers we should all acquire the impossible skill of not judging ourselves as teachers against the skill or ability of others. People love banging on about observing colleagues (which I hate by the way- always makes me feel dreadfully inadequate), but what’s the point of lesson observation, if not to make a judgement on yourself in light of what you’ve seen in others?
It should also be pointed out that thinking you are one of the best doesn’t mean that a) you think you are the best, b) that you feel you can’t improve or c) that you think everyone else is rubbish. That’s a straw man.
For what it’s worth, my own view is that the whole thing relies on context. If somebody’s identifying as ‘one of the best’ in an anonymous Twitter poll, that’s fine. If somebody is identifying as ‘one of the best’ in a meeting with the head about their own performance, then that’s fine. If somebody’s shouting off in the staff room about it, then that’s out of order.
I don’t think I’m one of the best. In fact, for the majority of the time I feel woefully useless. That doesn’t mean I am though. But, were I to say that for the majority of the time I feel gleefully superior, that wouldn’t mean I’m woefully useless either.
3 thoughts on “Simply the Best?”
I answered in the negative. But I am an NQT, so I wouldn’t expect to be. I’m new to the profession, but had a previous life, so the idea of being a bit rubbish at first is something I am very comfortable with as a concept, however much I loathe it as an experience. I expect to get a lot better, and aspire to one day be one of the best, but this year isn’t that year!
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I also answered in the negative. Just in case you don’t follow me on twitter – and, to be fair, that would put you in a massive and enlightened majority – that was largely based on the fact that I didn’t feel able to say.
I think I’m pretty good, but there are three caveats in that statement. First, “I think” with the emphasis on the “I”. The fact that I think I’m pretty good is neither here nor there, really: I am, or should be, more interested in the views of others I trust and respect.
Second, “I think” with the emphasis on the “think”. This is key one. How can I really know? Even if I were able to go and observe every teacher in my school I’d only see them in action for 50 minutes. I wouldn’t see how they prepare, how they feed back, how they build relationships over time, what they read, which conferences they attend and so on. I could go by reputation, but we all know that can be a false friend. (And, if we’re honest, many of us will have traded on a good reputation to get away with the odd bit of sub-standard work.) So I really can’t judge with any certainty.
Finally, “pretty good”. That is as far as I’m prepared to go, and even I’m not sure what that really means. Pretty good against my own standards, which may or may not be higher than others? Pretty good in the eyes of colleagues, students, parents, results, university applications in your subject, etc etc? What a minefield.
I agree with Matt that there is nothing wrong with striving to be the best, and nothing damaging to the profession in thinking you are the best – provided that you can back that up. For the reasons above, I reckon it’s hard to be sure. To paraphrase Tina Turner: “Simply the best, better than all the rest; but only sometimes and at some things.”
I think your post (and the original poll that provided the stimulus) raise some interesting points about the manner in which teachers perceive themselves in relation to their colleagues. I also answered in the negative, which is interesting because I am in the privileged position of being able to see my colleagues teach all the time.
As I mentioned on Twitter, my hypothesis here would have been that generally speaking, teachers are a humble bunch, very quick to praise their colleagues for their hard work, skill, subject knowledge and quality of teaching, whilst in the same vein, equally happy to put themselves down when measured against the same criteria (I don’t necessarily think that twitter is a fair reflection of the profession as a whole – which can be taken as both a positive and a negative).
What I think would be really interesting here is what you find when you drill down into those that do/do not think they are the ‘best’ teachers in their school. How often do the so-called ‘best’ teachers get to share their expertise with colleagues? Do the ‘best’ teachers self-identify with specific areas of weakness? A few initial questions that spring to mind.
I look to other sectors and try to make comparisons and I was struck by Harry Kane’s comments after he broke the record for most goals in a calendar year at the end of December when he repeated, several times, that he wanted to be a better player week-to-week and year-to-year, and that for him was all that mattered. I wonder how far this kind of approach applies to our profession, or whether the system allows for it? Food for thought.
An excellent post, thank you for writing.