A new kind of display for the new school year

I have been teaching for 14 years. I know lots of things: photocopier codes, teachers’ nicknames, who will lend me a board pen at short notice. But every new academic year is still full of monsters: previous failures, planned upheavals, unknown whole-school assessment strategies. So, along with pinning my new timetable to the board above my desk, here are three other things I plan to pin up.

1 Goya’s Monsters

Goya’s painting is haunting and troubling. The monsters are dark, alert, hideous. They are threatening, intimidating, closing-in.

— The owl with outstretched wings might be shrieking: you will never get 9B to behave this year
— The furry beaked bat might be hissing: you will never learn all the Spec and markschemes in time. 
— The lynx-like thing at the bottom looks on in judgement: I’m so disappointed in your curricula vision.

Goya’s painting reminds me to manage my monsters. To build solid, kind arguments against them. I take comfort from the idea that the night-time monsters will get less vicious the more I remind myself about the lessons that have gone well and the strong relationships I have built.

Goya’s painting isn’t just a nightmare: I use it to point myself – more hopefully — to how I might in time tame my monsters through reflection and support from my colleagues. I can tackle them one-by-one.

Rather than dwelling on my monsters alone, in the dark of a Thursday evening, I will bring them into the light. Tomorrow, next to a friendly teaching colleague, a cup of tea in hand, I will talk each one through, and they will become far less terrifying.

2 Bruegel’s Icarus

Bruegel’s Icarus shows a superficially peaceful and beautiful scene: a proud boat, hard-working farmers, a grand city in the distance.

In the bottom-right hand corner of the canvas, however, a tragedy unfolds: reckless Icarus, the legendary figure from Classical mythology, is in the final stages of one of the ancient world’s most famous disasters. Despite being warned not to fly too close to the sun with his wax wings, Icarus still flew too high, and tumbled into the waves – to a watery death.

The ploughman at the centre references the popular proverb: ‘No plough stops for the dying man.’

Icarus’s end is deliberately not the central focus of the painting. You have to peer very closely to see the drowning man. You might miss him entirely if you were looking at the larger parts of the scene – the people, the city, the sheep.

The painting is desperately sad, but also hugely redemptive. It is one of the central sources of my unhappiness when I spend too much of my life fearing for my own teacherly reputation. What if, this year, my classes don’t like me as much, and I’m not held in high regard? What if yet another new colleague turns out to be a much more inspirational teacher than me? What if my new scheme of work on Empire falls flat on its face, and someone complains?

The slightest change in my image can obsess me. And it’s at times like these that I look to Icarus – when I mess up this year, almost no one will care that much. The farmer is too busy ploughing, the children have returned to Instagram. My tragedies won’t occupy the school body in the way I worry it will. My HOD might notice for a moment, then swiftly move onto the next thing. The painting is strangely liberating.

3 Pieter de Hooch’s Delousing

We live in an age of high regard for extraordinary lives. I am always ready to be amazed – and rather jealous – of the grand achievements of other educators. The papers they have written, the conferences they have presented at, the books they have published, the children they have inspired.

The dazzling achievements of other teachers – especially those who can, actually, get 9B to behave – is, in some ways, rather humiliating.

But the artists Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch help me to think again.

This painting, by de Hooch, shows nothing more impressive than a mother patiently removing nits from her child’s hair. There is a kindly afternoon light showing through a window, and a small pet that might be comforting to stroke.

Other paintings of de Hooch’s time emphasises the merits and value of aristocratic and religious lives. There were countless paintings of extraordinary adventures and glittering kings and queens.

But Vermeer and de Hooch went in another direction. De Hooch suggests that there is something honourable about patiently attending to the needs of a child. Just like there is something honorable in keeping the classroom tidy, turning up to break duty on time, patiently going through a difficult homework task with Johnny from 9B.

I’ll never be able to alter what parents, colleagues or students think of me. But I can remember that my work carries some importance, however small that is, and – perhaps more importantly – that my teaching work is not easy to manage. Alain de Botton, who has inspired this blog-post, talks of the immense skill and true nobility that is involved in teaching a child, maintaining a good relationship with a partner, keeping a home in reasonable order, and – in general – not succumbing to the madness and rage of Thinking Skills and Learning Styles.

The painting isn’t inviting me to claim that what I’m doing in teaching is invariably impressive. It merely directs me with grace to the idea that there is much to appreciate in the forthcoming academic year. Perhaps a few new students might like my stories. Perhaps I’ll be a helpful, friendly face for a new teaching colleague on a scary Thursday morning. Perhaps Johnny – if not Freddie or Saskia – might listen to me when it’s time to teach 9B.

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