My mother was a teacher, and met my father when he, too, was briefly teaching. When they were both teaching they wore gowns as daily uniform, and had to shake chalk dust off them when they left their schools. They were about as calm, tolerant, middle-class and focused on education as it was possible for a couple to be back in the day. My mother’s mother was also a teacher.
I was resolute that I would NEVER be a teacher.
At school and university I was convinced that I was headed for show-business, and a glittering career in front of the camera and later, behind it. I was going to be lauded as a Serious Actor, and later a Famed Director. I daydreamed of BAFTAs.
It was not to be. I quickly discovered the fly in the ointment – I wasn’t a very good actress, and not resourceful enough to make my own films and overcome all the obstacles which faced me outside of a well-stocked university club. I got the lead role in the German department play, and I put on a play featuring my friends once, but beyond that…. nah. I was never going to cut the mustard.
But my limited drama experience was useful for teaching. I could set aside whatever was troubling me and get on with being a character.
I stumbled into a job in the corporate world. Which was fine initially, when I was enjoying the company car (a green Astra, since you ask… there was never anything remotely cool about me…) and the power dressing and the really fantastic social life among lots of people of my own age with the means to enjoy themselves in proper 80s style. It took me a few years to decide that I was a square peg in a round hole; a socialist in a capitalist heaven; a sab at the hunt ball.
I could present to rooms of senior executives and deal with questions and objections politely and positively, turning every ‘problem’ into a sales point. (“Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions!” my manager would cry. We got used to thinking of a possible resolution to a problem before we presented both to our seniors. I’m grateful for that habit – bringing problems without solutions is just whinging. Your solution doesn’t HAVE to involve you doing something, but it probably will…)
I had to have a very clear idea of what it was I wanted to achieve in every meeting. I was meeting with people who were much more important than me, and if I didn’t make my point quickly I didn’t get to make my point and lost a sale. So brevity, clarity and punch were really important.
It is very important that you understand that I was a really TERRIBLE account manager. I mean REALLY terrible; Sinclair C5 terrible, Betamax terrible, curly perm terrible… no, more than that, I was MULLET terrible… (I’m showing my age now, aren’t I?) One of the reasons I was so terrible was that I really didn’t care whether I made my target, because I didn’t really care if I earned my bonus; my basic salary was just fine, thank you very much. I didn’t care whether or not I made the 100% Club – the prospect of going away with a load of account managers, most of them male, to a large hotel in Monte Carlo where we would all drink way too much and congratulate ourselves on our excellence, while some of the men got what we used to call euphemistically “wandering hands trouble” after a few too many beers, just didn’t appeal at all.
But my limited corporate life was good training for some aspects of teaching. After 8 years I could talk to anyone, from the operators in the customer’s machine room to the CEO. Roomfuls of people didn’t faze me at all; with a little joke I could warm us all up and speak relatively persuasively to them.
I was made uncomfortable, for the second half of my corporate life, by the recognition that I wanted to do something more worthwhile, that I wanted more than “She made 100% 15 years in a row and contributed to the wealth of the company” as my epitaph. (Although I didn’t. Make 100%, I mean. I was terrible, remember.) In short, I wanted to do good. And the most direct route was the one I was trying so very hard to avoid: to become a teacher.
That was a long path to my message. But here is it: the classroom is your stage. It is your forum. It is your sales arena. It is yours to command. I don’t think enough is made in teacher training of the need to command the space and the people within it.
Even if you never spoke to large gatherings, or had any aspiration to performance, you know when you walk into your classroom that you will not be there alone; you will be speaking to a roomful of people. They may be small people… (in my case they are definitely big people by about halfway through year 9, when the bolder of them start to comment on the fact that I am now shorter than them, and the very bold emphasise this by leaning on my shoulder…) but there are quite a few of them. And they are there to listen to you, at least in theory.
I know I say this a lot, but I really believe it bears repeating: although it is a fact they SHOULD listen to you, it does not necessarily follow that they WILL listen to you. I believe that if you prepare to control your space through whatever means you have learned over time, to think of yourself as the star, the cynosure of all eyes in your classroom, you will more easily command the room and will be able to spend more time productively, teaching rather than refocusing attention on yourself.
Even if you’re the least diva-like person in the world, in your own classroom, equipped with skill, experience and knowledge of your subject, you’re the star, so go forth and shine!