The Eight Commandments of Teaching
Once upon a time, sage mentors would expound to teachers entering the noble profession that survival in the classroom depended on one simple point; never smile in front of students for at least the first term of the year.
During my long and lacklustre teaching career, this adage came to be the catalyst for authorship of the highly inflammatory primer, “A Teacher’s Survival Guide”. Moses was given ten commandments, but my abridged version delineates only eight, distilled from the myriad school dramas that engulfed me. If the primer provides respite and hope to just one forlorn teacher, then it would have served its purpose and I can retire with a clear conscience.
1. Thou shalt learn the names of your students and recognise them on sight.
It’s axiomatic that you easily remember ‘bad’ students, but don’t forget that the quiet and subservient boy and girl sitting at the back has also been blessed with a name.
Use name tags, take photos and exhaustively say out loud each name while you devour bland sandwiches during the limited time you have for lunch. Out on yard duty patrol, practise the recitations until you can instantly recognise your students from a distance of at least 300 metres.
2. Thou shalt not be tempted to use unauthorised technology in the classroom.
Students are savvy that teachers pretend to use a mobile phone to check the time but are actually catching up on their SMS messages. Worse still is the foolhardy teacher who believes discreet SMS messaging is possible in front of 25 students.
When supervising exams, you are expected to sit at the front and stare severely at students to pick up even the smallest infraction. It is therefore a given that you refrain from using your laptop. Do not google-search for restaurant reviews or to catch up on cricket scores. Worse, do not become engrossed in a movie to the level that the raised hand of the student requiring writing paper or who needs to go to the toilet goes unnoticed.
3. Thou shalt be truthful at all times.
Pride has no place in the teaching profession. Do not dig yourself in a deeper hole by trying to cover up for your lack of knowledge or ability. When little Johnny calls you to task for wrong calculations, do not dismiss his accusation by stating that the errors were deliberately made to see if the class are paying attention. This is an old and unconvincing strategy that should be put out to pasture.
Confession is good for the soul. When you err, say “Sorry, thanks for picking me up on it. Now let’s write down the right version.” This approach earns the sympathy vote, portrays you as human and allows for further guilt-free mistakes without the stigma of being referred to as “Mr Pretend He Knows It All’.
4. Thou shall require keys to access classrooms, and whiteboard markers for writing.
Ensure you hear keys jangling in your pocket as you head for class. Nothing is more frustrating than to trek from your office to the classroom and then painfully realise that keys to open the door and the supply cabinet are resting on your desk alongside the employment pages of the newspaper.
After nominating a student to run the errand, crowd control is needed to contain the boisterous activity of other members of the class who, shivering in the cold corridor, are anxious to enter the warm room.
Your emissary returns 15 minutes later, apologetic and claiming that-
- there was no-one in the office he could ask for the keys, or
- he urgently needed to go to the bathroom, or
- the principal saw him and questioned him at length as to why he was out of class, or
- all of the above
The lesson commences with a verbal introduction to the formula of the day. You retrieve the one and only whiteboard marker from your pencil case and begin to write, but all you see are faint lines displaying the contours of your penmanship. Ignoring the snickering of students, you hurriedly look in the drawers, triumphantly find a black marker and begin to write. Wonderful, you think. Brand new. Look at the deepness of the ink and the smoothness of the flow. Requiring more working space, you pass the eraser across the board. And a second pass and a third pass follow. The indelible ink still shows the full glory of your mathematical prowess.
Never use a permanent whiteboard marker!
5. Thou mustn’t volunteer to go on school camps.
You may be young, single and have the stamina of a marathon runner, but politely decline requests to be part of the team for the annual camp.
Unless, of course, you are prepared to act as father, mother, big brother, physician, psychologist and mentor to hyperactive students 24/7 wagering on which teacher shall be the first to release a tirade of invective as a consequence of their nocturnal escapades.
It is true that ticking the box for camps will enhance your credentials, but weigh this against the expectation that since you are so committed, you may as well run the whole show next time.
6. Thou shall write good reports
Writing student reports is an onerous task. You must reconcile what you really want to say with what parents expect you to say. Write expletive-free generic comments because they can be used for all students just by changing the name at the top. It’s a great time saver, but there are hidden traps. For instance, accommodate the issue of gender by replacing all occurrences of ‘he’ with ‘she’ and ‘his’ with ‘her’.
Before choosing “replace all” on the computer to assign generic comments globally, ensure that the student you write a report on is actually in your class. Many an embarrassing moment has taken place when parents receive a report on their child who has exited the school after just one week into the school year. Imagine their disbelief when part of the report reads, “Johnny has worked well all year and will be promoted to Year 9.”
7. For thine own good, thou mustn’t covet promotion
There is nothing wrong for an ambitious teacher to want to get ahead. But be aware that teaching duties will become secondary to the new role as an ingratiating sycophant, kowtowing to those who are in the position to advance your career. Whilst you climb that precarious ladder of success, look every which way for the daggers of other aspiring leaders who have you in their line of sight.
There is no rest for the wicked. Once you attain the echelon of school principal, the tribulations in balancing budgets, hiring and firing staff, dealing with disgruntled parents and attending interminable meetings will eventually extinguish the flame that initially attracted you to the teaching service.
8. Thou must avoid the festivity of drinks and nibbles in the staffroom
As a member of staff, it is expected that you should feel a certain esprit de corps and a sense of belonging. However, do not be seduced by this fleeting wave of comradeship and saunter to the staffroom for drinks on Friday, after school. In time, your attendance at these traditional watering holes can only damage your chances for promotion and create antipathy. Fuelled by liquid amber and wine, conversations will become heated and you will be inexorably sucked in and intimidated to take sides.
When this happens, you can be certain that no matter which clique you patronise, your decision will antagonise as many colleagues as the number of allies you have.
Faithfully follow these commandments and, after a mere 50 years of dedicated service, you will be presented with a photocopied certificate of achievement. That prospect alone should expunge any negative thoughts of tossing in your teaching job, even when your miscreants are running rampant in class.