So I want to tell you a story. Something you don’t know about me.
I won a Teaching Award once. I was the UK’s Best New Teacher of the Year, 2006. I got a trophy and everything. There was a big award ceremony in London that was televised on BBC2, it was all proper glitzy.
I had been teaching for a little over a year and, after being nominated by my school and winning Probationer of the Year in the Scottish Education Awards, the nationals followed. It was all very exciting. I did newspaper and radio interviews, I got my own wee party at the City of Chambers in Edinburgh where I was presented with a signed ‘Harry Potter’ first edition. I was invited to a reception at Buckingham Palace and met the Queen, then another reception to meet then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. I was asked to give presentations to students and teachers across the country.
It was an amazing, intense episode in my very new career. I remember the feeling of panicky excitement that I felt with each new opportunity. ‘Oh God, that’s so brilliant’ quickly followed by ‘Oh God, what if I screw up?’ My imposter syndrome went into overdrive, whispering in my ear at every opportunity; ‘They’ll find out you’re actually a bit rubbish’ and ‘You can’t keep this up, they’ll see the real you eventually’. It was a curious mix of nervous energy, flattery and abject fear.
Now, the idea of teaching awards is a divisive one, I get that. Parading teachers around and picking some out as the best is a distasteful concept to many. Some see it as demeaning to the profession, or damaging to our sense of the collegiate. Others claim pitting teachers against each other to win awards creates discord where there should be harmony. Some see it as just plain tacky.
I got the full force of some of these opinions via the TES chatrooms. There was a whole thread dedicated to Scottish teachers venting their spleen about how bad teaching awards were in general and a ‘who does she think she is anyway?’ discussion about how I was actually a bit rubbish. It was like my imposter syndrome had taken human form and hacked my laptop.
Now, you need to remember this was 2006. Getting slagged off on the internet was still quite a new phenomenon in Scotland and apparently, newsworthy. I was also very green. I was twenty-six years old. I had shoes in my wardrobe older than my teaching career. I did the worst thing possible and I gave the whole thing oxygen by posting my response online. It was part rant, part you-should-be-ashamed-of-yourselves scolding. A very small flurry of articles followed, most horrifyingly for me, the front page of the TES with the screaming headline ‘AWARDS TEACHER VILIFIED’ beneath a picture of me looking particularly annoyed (which had been taken in London right before the awards ceremony when I was so nervous I thought I was going to puke). Click here if you really must.
I was utterly mortified. My excitement turned to upset. The invitations dried up. I started receiving letters from teachers around the country, sympathising with me, telling me how sorry they were I was being bullied like this.
‘Bullied?’ I thought. ‘Seriously?’ Because it wasn’t nice what was said about me online, but I didn’t feel bullied. I was bullied in primary school and I know very well what it feels like. It strips away agency. It makes you feel like you have nothing to say, nothing to offer. It makes you feel worthless and pointless and invisible.
I came out of the other side of that with a determination that I would never be silenced in that way again. The broken girl who bullied me when I was ten years old gave me the most precious gift anyone could ever give- she gave me my voice, and I have guarded it fiercely ever since.
So it made me mad that people were now making out like I was a victim. It enraged me that I looked like a poor wee soul on the front of the paper.
What had been fun and exciting became frustrating and a bit humiliating. I felt like no one was really very interested in how I really felt about it so I decided to just not say anything. The awards got consigned to the back of the cupboard.
Of course, this was all a storm in a very tiny teacup. It blew over quickly and I got back to the much more interesting business of learning how to teach. My five seconds of fame was behind me.
I moved house recently, right next door to my mum and dad. It’s proper handy. Stuff just appears in my fridge and the heating’s always on when I get home. It’s brilliant. Last week, two teaching awards also just appeared on the shelf in my living room. You know what mums are like.
Seeing them again, ten years later, felt a bit strange. It was all so long ago, it feels a bit like it happened to someone else.
On Thursday night, I was chatting on Twitter during #scotedchat with other educators in and beyond Scotland. @GeorgeGilchrist raised the ‘reluctance of many teachers and school leaders to either think their views have validity, or to be prepared to put them out there on public forums like Twitter or express them through blogs.’ He explored further in his own blog the idea that as a profession we often lack the confidence to say what we really think.
It got me thinking about how I had come to see the whole teaching award thing as an embarrassing sidebar to my career, something I kept hidden from others for fear they would think I’ve got a big hit for myself. I have essentially become my own internet troll.
A decade on, and I can say with some perspective that I wouldn’t change a thing. Being involved with the Scottish Education Awards and Teaching Awards was overall a really positive experience. I met some amazing and inspiring people. It brought just credit to my school and colleagues, it brought huge excitement and pleasure to my wee P2 class (who will now all be in S3 or S4!) and it was a whole lot of fun. Even the rubbish bit did me some good I think- it helped me keep my feet on the ground and not get too carried away with myself. It kept my ego in check and reminded me to wind my neck in and learn my craft.
And that’s the balance we need I think in education- it’s not about a few voices listening to and agreeing with each other, back-slapping and congratulating each other on how brave we are to be blogging. That won’t move us forward. It’s about each educator finding a way to reflect on the creative process of teaching and learning with honesty and curiosity and committing to talking about it. George talks in his blog about ‘our professional responsibility to contribute to the debate’ and I think he’s hit the nail on the head. We are the voice from the shop floor, people. We are the authentic voice of the profession. We have a duty to use that voice for the good of all that we do.
Look, even as I type this, I’m worried about what you will think of me. Telling you my wee story is kind of a big deal for me; I haven’t even told my colleagues at work. But I’m doing it because I think it’s time I expose it to the light and because I want to give you the opportunity to say something back. It would be nice if you were kind, but I’ll live with it regardless. All good conversations need a bit of conflict as kindling; if we all agree all the time, how will we ever forge something new?
So make this the week you tell your story. Blog it, note it, video it, chat about it in the staffroom. Find you voice. Use your voice. I’m standing beside you. I’m holding your hand. I am giving you a virtual high five right now for even just considering it. Be brave. Have confidence in what you want to say and then just say it.
Commit to the debate and let’s start a new adventure together.