It's the time of the year for schools and teachers to twirl and whirl in a ceremony of wooing and courting, the season of new academic nuptials and the blossoming of hopeful ardor. It has the exciting air of Rasme Saifee – those large collective weddings.
Schools are (or will soon be) getting anxious about filling positions with the 'right' teacher, and teachers are out here and there hunting for the 'right' job. But how does anyone know what's 'right'? Is it written in the stars, or is there some more mundane way to know which matching is best?
Finding Mr/s Right
To explore this question, let's turn something that's probably familiar to us all: finding Mr/s Right (excuse the gender binaries for the moment, just play along).
Have a look at the following two pictures, and decide which you think better presents a successful relationship.
Any naive 18-year-old suffering from the misty pleasure of first love will say unequivocally the first picture represents a successful relationship. That might be correct, but the more mature and worldly-wise will point out that both pictures might represent a successful relationship, and in fact, could even be same couple at different points in the same day (give or take the hair color, I guess).
Those with a bent towards psychology might argue that couple 2 have a better chance of success if this picture represents their capacity to communicate with one another effectively
These psychologists will tell you that a photo of the rosy romantic moment is not what relationships are about – the tough conversations that are a struggle to get through are what make for tough, resilient, lasting relationships.
The 'right' teacher
As with love, so with classrooms. This time use your imagination: teacher 1, a classroom with students sitting and working quietly; teacher 2, a classroom with the students out of their seats and the teacher smiling vacantly in front of the board. Which is a successful classroom?
A naive administrator, most parents, and perhaps the beginner teacher will point to the first. But as with the photos of the couples, the worldly-wise teacher might rightly suggest that these could be photos of the same classroom at different points of the lesson, or perhaps photos of two equally effective teachers with different conceptions of how language teaching works.
Troy, who some of you will know as the most dashing of the trainers on the Chichester College TESOL course, tells an amusing story of when he was working in a government secondary school.
After much coaxing and encouragement, he finally managed to get his students out of their seats to engage in a speaking activity. As things were just starting to get deliciously noisy, a well-intentioned teacher popped her head through the door, shouted something at the students in their L1, and they all promptly went back to their desks and sat down quietly.
To her, it looked suspiciously like Troy had lost control of the class, and she duly went in to save the day.
Clashes of teaching paradigms aside, let's say our imaginary photo of teacher 2 represents a lesson which has descended into chaos. Does that necessarily mean the classroom is unsuccessful or the teacher incompetent? Should the manager burst into the room and save the day, or should the school decide the teacher needs to be 'moved on'?
This happens, unfortunately. The reality, however, is that every teacher has had (at one point or another) chaotic lessons that have been a complete embarrassment. I could write entire books about mine!
Experienced or well-qualified teachers don't have unending runs of successful lessons. What they do have is a large repertoire of tools and tricks to draw from when lessons start failing, or a meaningful understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses which allows them to deftly avoid situations which might lead to failure.
Novice teachers have fewer tricks, and are still experimenting with what feels right, and so the first few months, or even the first few years, may feel like a series of dismal failures. It's easy to chalk this up to incompetence, when in fact it's part of the capricious nature of a young career.
Tough resilient teachers
We lose potentially good teachers all the time. They come into the profession, suffer through a year of these apparent dismal failures, conclude the job of teaching is just too hard, and wander off to a simpler life in aeronautical engineering. Or the school interprets novice teacher behavior as incompetence, decides the teacher is 'not good' and (without apparent irony) goes hunting for a new one.
Or there is a paradigm clash, and the hard-working communicatively-minded teacher loses heart and decides to find solace in the melancholy of accounting. Or even, as is becoming common, a perfectly good teacher is deemed 'unqualified' by some controlling body and made to feel unwelcome. With a gap in the schedule, the school now goes on the arduous task of courting a new teacher.
Losing these teachers is regrettable because teachers are needed, and the conveyor belt of teachers that constitutes April is expensive, time-consuming and a terrible waste of a year's worth of good experience.
A loving relationship
The analogy of a teacher/school relationship with a pair of happy lovers doesn't bear close scrutiny, but there are parallels.
In both cases, doom strikes if there is mutual faultfinding, distrust, and the inability to have those tough conversations the psychologists say are so important. Finding the 'right' partner is probably not so much a matter of money, looks, or long term prospects (although these are compelling considerations) as it is about whether or not there is scope for meaningful communication.
If I talk, will I be heard? If there is a problem, will I be told about it? If there is a problem, will we be able to work together to find a solution and move forward?
If you're a school looking for a teacher, or a teacher looking for a school, there is someone out there for you. But if you're looking for more than a one-night stand, find the one you feel you can comfortably talk to.
For more on how to find your perfect school-love, perhaps you'll also find this interesting Ajarn blog useful. It features a doctor and a cup!
Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.