How Dickens’ novella left this teacher haunted with ideas
Most people don’t re-read the same novel every year.
Then again, teachers aren’t most people. This December marks the fourth year in a row that I have taught A Christmas Carol to Year 7. It has always been a magical tale, and a joy to teach, but this term the readings have resonated more loudly than ever before. Just as the spirits help Scrooge recognise the errors of his ways, they have left me wondering where I too fail to measure up.
If re-reading A Christmas Carol has taught me anything, it’s these six ways to become a better teacher in 2021.
Address my students’ needs
‘It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s’
In the beginning, the miserly Scrooge uses this logic to quickly dismiss the two portly gentlemen collecting for charity. And while we are shocked by Scrooge’s lack of good will, I unfortunately recognise some of my own personality in Scrooge here. He remarks ‘I wish to be left alone’ which is a thought I have had from time to time (lunchtime in the stock cupboard, anyone?).
In 2021, then, it will be my intention to ‘interfere with other people’ more.
What do my students need the most? How could I deliver that? I’ve been guilty of wishing such complex problems away; hoping they will solve themselves or, like Scrooge, deferred to other ‘establishments’ which appear to solve the issue, but without doing so (dust-gathering revision guides – I’m looking at you).
Engage students in ways that truly matter
‘The chain … was long … and it was made … of cash-boxes, padlocks, ledgers, deeds and heavy purses…’
Scrooge’s late business partner, Jacob Marley, appears to Scrooge as a ghost fettered in iron chains, attached to which are symbols of the earthly distractions which kept him from caring for humankind.
When planning a lesson I often lose sight of the tree and get distracted by the baubles: sweating over the right gif to insert into a PowerPoint slide or deliberating over which font to use. And while these can be impactful in small ways, some of my best lessons this term were just me talking knowledgably about the topic with only a whiteboard pen to hand.
Like Marley’s ghost, I regret wasting so much time on details that don’t matter and should concentrate more on what does.
Have colleagues be more honest with me
‘The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago, and paved all round with quaint Dutch tiles, designed to illustrate the Scriptures.’
Scrooge’s home is sparsely furnished except for a fireplace which has been tiled with illustrations from the Bible. Scrooge’s insular nature is so extreme he is blind to the moral lessons writ large in front of him. It is no surprise, then, that an intervention of supernatural magnitude is required to wake him.
I too sometimes fail to see the writing on the wall until it is too late: I don’t always tackle behaviour problems proactively nor do I always see the glaring issues in my seating plans until weeks or months have passed by.
What I need this coming year is a group of spirits to counsel me (or colleagues – whoever is closest to hand).
Recognise what is in my control
‘Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they the shadows of the things that May be only?’
My favourite part of the tale has to be the tense conflict between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. He hopelessly pleads with the phantom, asking it to confirm whether he has control over his future or if he is indeed doomed to die alone.
Like many, I have had moments this term that have felt hopeless. I have endured periods of self-isolation. I have worked through the challenges of teaching online. I have been sick with Covid.
But through all of this I should have remembered what has always been in my control: my fate.
Relax for moments of light-heartedness
‘I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore … I am about to raise your salary!’
In the novella’s closing pages, the redeemed Scrooge takes a leaf out of Martha Cratchit’s book and plays a harmless prank on Bob.
Students have told me that most of the time I come across as ‘serious’. And while I don’t think there’s anything too wrong with that (I’ve certainly had worse criticism!) I’d like to feel more comfortable with letting go. To not be quite so in control all the time. To let the mask slip and (perhaps) crack a joke.
Listen more to my own heart
‘Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, …for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter at the outset. …His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him’
The narrator assures the reader that Scrooge does not resort back to his old ways, spending the rest of his life as benevolently as he can. I love Dickens’ observation that people judge Scrooge. Even though he has changed for the better, of which there are no apparent downsides, everybody appears to quietly mock him for it.
It sometimes feels that teachers receive more than their fair share of judgement; from students, staff, leadership, parents, the government, Ofsted, the press and social media.
But deep-down I know that the work I do is of great benefit.
My job for next year, then, will be about delivering on the following promises:
- to address my students’ needs
- to engage students in ways that truly matter
- to have colleagues be more honest with me
- to recognise what is in my control
- to relax for moments of light-heartedness
- to listen more to my own heart
That should be quite enough for me.