Action Hero Teacher
Is Teaching Worth it? Definitely and Here's Why.
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
This week’s blogpost is going to be a little different to what I normally write - in last week’s post, I told you that great teachers harness emotions and don’t hinder them.
And I feel that I need to take a bit of my own medicine here.
Probably one of the only 'positives' that this COVID19 crisis has brought is the chance to slow down and to think.
As I reflect on this 10-year teaching rollercoaster that I have ridden on, there have been several times I just wanted to get off. Many times that I thought that I couldn't hack the tsunami of demands that the job requires.
There were times I just wanted to curl into a ball at the end of my bed and rock gently backwards and forward. Times when I felt like Heath Ledger's Joker, and just wanted to see it all burn.
But is teaching still worth it? Hell yeah.
I couldn't see myself doing anything else.
In this week’s blogpost, I will take you back with me to 2013 when I first became a NEETs coordinator and here’s what you will learn:
Why the ‘school rules’ are not enough to get your students to engage with you
Why it’s OK to be vulnerable sometimes
Why teaching is worth it
Why failure is the key to success in the classroom and in life
When I got the NEETs coordinator job, my new manager said “You’ve gotta keep ‘em engaged, keep them on their toes and get ‘em to start bloody workin’”
As I looked at my NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) learners for the first time, I knew I had more of a chance of becoming the American President than getting any of these lot to do any work. And for a long time, it was me who was on my little pinkies - not them.
A mere hour before, my boss and I first entered the Study Centre, based in East London, where we were going to do an initial assessment of students that we were going to put on a pilot NEET project for our college.
When I got the job as the NEETs Coordinator, I thought that I hit the ‘Big Leagues’ - I wasn’t just teaching but I was also in charge of shaping the Schemes of Work and the direction that this course would go.
I was working with a great team and now driving a new shiny project that was a big deal for the college and had a good shot at transforming the lives of the students we were to teach. I was making a difference and it felt great.
Those feelings started to disappear, seemingly through my sweat glands as we walked through the heavily reinforced structure. The staff were really, really friendly and cheerful almost as if they wanted to offset the stern look of the building.
Everything and I mean everything, was magnetically locked or ‘maglocked’ in this place.
Need to check the Internet? Nope, the computers were maglocked.
Need to go to the toilet? Nope, the toilets were maglocked.
Need to go into another classroom to talk to someone? Nope, they were maglocked.
The corridors would often have doors at the beginning and the end of them and you guessed it, they were maglocked.
This made the process of getting to the class longer and even more intimidating. What was happening in here? Were they protecting Government Secrets? Was there a monster in the building that they had to stop from getting to civilisation? Were they hiding the road to El Dorado?
When I finally reached my class, the Youth Worker lead us in there with the nervous smile of a man who was leading sheep into a Lion’s Den. There they were — my young bright charges and they were not happy.
At this time, the UK Government had recently changed the Education Policy stating that students could only formally leave when they were eighteen, whereas before it was sixteen.
That meant most students who completed their GCSEs would go to do A-Levels, College Qualifications like the BTEC, GNVQs or work-based schemes like paid Apprenticeships.
Not our lot. These learners were either permanently excluded from school or simply didn’t turn up to do their GCSEs.
Looking through my case notes, I could see that many of these students were diagnosed with Social Emotional and Mental Health difficulties (SEMH), some had learning difficulties like dyslexia and autism and although it wasn’t finalised before we got there, some may have had complex social, emotional and mental challenges like Borderline and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorders.
Because of their poor grades and their behaviour, our students wouldn’t be taken by any Further Education institutions. Their outlooks looked equally bleak: Many of these guys were already members of gangs, seen their friends get murdered and were disturbingly familiar with the street and drug culture.
The borough they came from was one of the poorest in the country and these guys would have slipped through the cracks in society and without intervention, could end up repeating this cycle of violence and despair.
This centre for most of them was the Last-Chance-Saloon and our job was to help set them on the right path. At the time, this was more than I can handle and I felt out of my depth.
They were a tough lot. We tried to talk to them but many were either not responsive or they liked to give us one-word answers. Although the initial presentation was OK, I knew it would be a rollercoaster ride from here on out.
Teaching this lot was like playing with a box of matches while sitting on a crate of dynamite. You always thought that something was going to go off.
I have nothing but immense respect for the Youth Workers and Mentors who would sit in our lessons as I felt that they were often the barrier between some form of order and utter chaos.
The first couple of sessions were a little ropey, as many of them could come to the centre hours late, be totally unresponsive or do very little work. Trying to throw my weight around wasn’t going to cut it. Any hint of authority was met with stonewalling, sarcasm or a whole heap of aggression.
Emotional outbursts were common as one student could say a seemingly innocent comment to his mate and the other one would fly into a blind rage, physically having to be restrained or escorted out of the room.
The students wouldn’t pay any attention to the rules nor the consequences — they just would simply not show up, leaving us stumped in what to do.
It wasn’t working.
They didn’t want to be there and we didn’t want to be there either. They didn’t want to work and it felt like sometimes we were just hanging in there by the skin of our teeth. My previous experiences in school were not translating well in this environment. I was wondering whether I made a mistake to take this role.
During a Media lesson, one of the students picked up a metal cased sound card and threatened to beat the crap out of another student with it. World War 3 started. The students were up-in-arms and we had enough.
The Course Director (my boss), myself, the other tutors had an emergency meeting and looked at what we could do to control the situation. The Boss looked at me and said it was my call on how we can change things around. I felt the pressure.
One of the Senior Youth Workers, a great guy called Abz, said something that not only changed the direction of the course but the way that I dealt with all my students from that point. Abz said, “Just be real with them. Try to understand where they were coming from. Don’t talk down to them — ask them what they want out the classes.”
We walked back into the classroom and did just that. I told them that I could understand how they are feeling. I also told them that I came from another part of East London that was very similar to where they came from.
I told them that I knew people that had been murdered, those who ended up on drugs and are now either homeless or dead or those who didn’t get an education and were just getting by doing petty crime, living a miserable life.
After I spoke, there was silence. I thought that I said something wrong and I had totally blown it. But one by one, they started opening up about their experiences: many felt like schools never gave them a chance and that they were discriminated against because of their backgrounds.
Some said that they felt like schools and colleges were ‘prisons’ and they didn’t see the point of going. Some felt that the rules only seemed to apply to the students and that many teachers were trying to “bully” them and they were not going to let it happen.
We all listened attentively — it was the most that a lot of them had talked while they had been on the course.
We then asked them how they would like the remainder of the course to run: we asked them how should everyone in the room be treated, how we should work and what type of atmosphere that we wanted to maintain. We worked on this together and everyone agreed to this ‘contract’ and that we would try our best to live up to those values.
Although that particular class was still tricky, there was a massive improvement in terms of behaviour and everyone in the class enjoying being in there.
As each month passed, we refined our “social contract” and we realised all students wanted the same things:
To be respected.
To be safe.
And to be listened to and ultimately have fun.
The length of time to set up this contract became shorter and shorter and most of the tutors felt comfortable using it. This was honestly a breakthrough moment in my teaching career and for many of us on the project.
Despite their ’tough-guy/girl’ exteriors, they were just kids. The centre became a place for them to chill, to relax and forget their struggles. I realised that we weren’t just providing education, but we were showing them a better life.
They could be silly without feeling like they were being disrespected. Allowed to be honest with their feelings without appearing weak. Share their opinions without feeling like they would be shutdown.
Slowly a couple of them started to dream again. Believe their lives were bigger than the square mile that they called their area.
To this day, it is my favourite time in being a teacher. I learnt that leadership isn’t just about decisive or being an alpha. It’s about being willing to understand your students, be vulnerable and be collaborative.
Teaching IS Worth It
On a cold May day in 2014, I remember standing with my group at the bottom of this gigantic, beautiful building in complete awe. I was wearing my fancy brown, bespoke tailored suit, (the one I usually wear for weddings that I care about) and I still felt underdressed.
My students were… well, unimpressed. We told them to dress smart for the occasion and some of them just wore their best black Nike Air Maxes - One lad even managed to wear a blazer — well that was a massive achievement for him at least. We pushed past the surprisingly heavy glass doors and made our way into the lobby.
After many hard, gruelling months, most of our students had passed their assessments and most of them had chosen to go into Further Education. When we first got these guys, most of them were kicked out of school, angry and had really bleak life outcomes. Now armed with these qualifications, they had a fighting chance and a clear road for a better future. Our mission was complete and now it was time to celebrate and shake a leg.
One of the funders of our project was a huge Multinational Bank with multiple offices around the world. As part of their Corporate Responsibility Strategy, they put out a bid to the local colleges in the area to design a project that will help the most at risk, vulnerable young people in East London and give them the skills and tools to access Further Education or decent employment.
The Bank was so pleased with our results, that they invited the students, along with our other partners to their swanky Head Office in the heart of Canary Wharf to hand out their certificates and have a little soiree in their honour.
The host was one of the Senior Directors of the Bank and my boss told me that there were going to be a lot of big wigs at this party. This was a big deal.
For my students, this was a waste of time. They just wanted to be back at the studio making music, shooting films and being creative. One of our boys said, “Bruv I don’t have no time to meet some boring old stiffs — ain’t they got things to do like, writing spreadsheets or something?”
We are laughed and told him to be polite but that didn’t lift his mood. But as we stepped out of the elevator right on the top floor and they were greeted by the beautiful London skyline through the French glass windows, the other teachers and I saw their irritation turn to excitement — now they knew this was no ordinary day.
The waiters brought around all these fancy dishes salmon canopies, posh cheeses and the fancy crackers you see in the films. Our students weren’t interested in any of that but went straight for the pizzas and ate to their heart's content. The Director came out and spoke about community, education and why it was important to invest in the young people of London and the success of the project.
He then asked me to come on stage to make a short speech about the project. I was taken completely off guard. I had nothing prepared. With my mouth half full of salmon and cheese, I hastily made my way to podium asking myself what on Earth am I going to say without my students laughing at me.
But as I stood out on the podium and looked out unto to all the faces of my students, my fellow teachers, the various youth organisations that helped us along the way, the members of the Bank that gave us the money that made it all possible and the Youth Workers that worked so hard to keep our students on the right path, I realised something.
It was all worth it.
Despite the stress, the downtimes, the ruined lessons, the frustrations and the meetings. We made a difference. A real difference in the lives of our students and in our tiny way made our city a better place.
That is the number 1 job of any educator. Your job, no, your duty is to make the lives better of the children in your care. There is no amount of money in the world that will ever beat that feeling.
And you get to do it. Every. Single. Day.
That’s what makes education worth it and something that you must hold unto when the going gets difficult.
Fail To Succeed
Since then so much of my life has changed. I am not as skinny, not as youthful and I have now have the belly to prove I’m at the doorstep of middle age.
But in that time since then, my experiences with my NEET students formed the basis of what would become “The Action Hero Teacher.” The book, the training sessions and now the website has given me an incredible opportunity to share what I have learnt.
But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine.
Some of you may think that because I wrote the book, all my classes must run smoothly and I have the power to turn the worst terrors into lovely little angels.
Well, let me burst that bubble right there — it’s still hard work and I don’t win every battle.
Sometimes I don’t get the balance right and it all goes splat.
I still have days when I am frustrated, worn out, fed-up — teaching is not a walk in the park and it can be a grind. There are some students that no matter how hard I try, I cannot build that relationship and it’s a difficult year.
Early in my career, when I experienced these setbacks, I would automatically beat myself up about it, feeling like a ‘failure’ and questioning why I ever decided to be a teacher. But through great mentors, training and hard-fought life experience, I have realised that although you may lose some battles, it doesn’t mean that you have lost the war.
Like a rollercoaster, there's ups and downs - but that's what makes it exciting. No day is ever the same.
You get to change lives for the better & get paid to do it. That's an honour and a privilege. Enjoy it.
I once found a quote from one of my favourite authors, Seth Godin which I think sums up what it takes to be a better teacher. Seth said:
“The rule is simple: The person who fails the most will win. If I fail more than you do, I will win. Because in order to keep failing, you've got to be good enough to keep playing.
So, if you fail cataclysmically and never play again, you only fail once. But if you are always there shipping, putting your work into the world, creating and starting things, you will learn endless things.
You will learn to see more accurately, you will learn the difference between a good idea and a bad idea and, most of all, you will keep producing1.”
Go out and try things. Fail and fail again. Fail better and fail forward.
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Karl from actionheroteacher.com
14. Sonia Thompson. 2016. Why Tons of Failure Is the Key to Success, According to Seth Godin. Inc.com [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.inc.com/sonia-thompson/why-tons-of-failure-is-the-key-to-success-according-to-seth-godin.html. [Accessed 11 May 2020].