The Comparison Compulsion: Sailing your own boat

Damian Barr's Tweet: We are not all in the same boat.  We are all in the same storm.  Some are on super-yachts.  Some have just one oar.

On 21st April 2020 at the height of the UK’s first Covid-pandemic lockdown, Damian Barr’s tweet, about the varying ways people were experiencing and ‘coping’ with the challenges of that period, went viral.  This analogy took on a life of its own because it so brilliantly evokes something we all know to be true.  It resonated.  We are indeed all individuals experiencing the world in different ways. 

Now, whilst I’d prefer not to conceptualise the process of ‘becoming’ a teacher as a storm (even though at times it can feel a bit like one), this analogy holds a vitally important truth that all beginning teachers engaged in Initial Teacher Education/ Training (ITE, ITT) programmes need to hear and take to heart.  Where teaching is concerned, the only baseline ‘experience’ most of us share is that of having been a pupil ourselves.  Beyond that no-one enters the profession from the same starting point or with the same ‘toolkit’ to help them navigate the seas they are about to sail. 

Every teacher is unique

During my time in ITE I have tutored an enormous range of unique individuals, each of whom brought their own unique package of subject knowledge, skills, talents and experience to the classroom.  I have been privileged to work with (amongst many others):

  • a mother of 3 children returning to ‘work’ for the first time in over 10 years;
  • a manager in a large private sector company, used to running a team and winning big contracts;
  • several teachers of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) who knew how to ‘run’ a classroom in that context;
  • a couple of ‘unqualified teachers’ and cover supervisors who had already been teaching history for a number of years;
  • gap-year returners who had undertaken extensive periods of travelling, visiting historical sites across the world;
  • people who had held a range of shorter-term job roles and struggled to settle on a ‘career’ before entertaining the idea of teaching;
  • a number of PhD holders;
  • and a whole multitude of recent graduates moving directly from their undergraduate degree studies into a PGCE.

Without exception, EVERY SINGLE ONE of these beginning teachers had an incredible range of period experience, knowledge and understanding which they brought to their training year – things which they were able to capitalise and build upon to the benefit of pupils and the schools in which they now work. 

Without exception, EVERY SINGLE ONE of these beginning teachers also had concerns about different aspects of the training/ academic work/ job for which they did not feel their ‘previous life’ had prepared them.   

Without exception, EVERY SINGLE ONE of these beginning teachers had periods of anxiety about how they were not/ could not (in their mind) measure up to their peers on the course. 

Throughout the year the tendency to compare themselves to their friends and colleagues lurks large and dangerously around every corner –one of the most harmful compulsions to which a beginning teacher can fall prey in terms of their resilience.

The fallacy of comparison

From the moment we are born we seem destined to be compared to others – whether it’s ‘baby’s first milestones’ charts, GCSE results, or even fun extracurricular activities, where we may or may not make the cut for the match depending on our ranking within the team, humans seem to have an innate desire to compare ourselves to one another.  However, during the ITE/ ITT year this is a tendency we need our beginning teachers to resist.  They are all on their own individual pathway towards becoming a teacher – for a start they are all training in different school contexts.

Venn diagram with three circles reading: professionalism, curricular thinking, classroom enaction
Domains of practice

I talk to our beginning teachers about the different domains of expertise they need to draw upon and develop during their training year, and often find myself drawing this very simplified Venn diagram when I’m out on school visits speaking with them about the different areas of practice they are struggling to develop.

For example, some of the former cover supervisors I’ve worked understood professionalism from day one.  They needed to translate this knowledge to their new school context, but the notion of meeting deadlines, being a reliable colleague, following school systems etc. etc. came naturally to them.  Curricular thinking however was something which they found harder to grasp – having ‘delivered’ cover lesson plans before coming onto the PGCE, persuading them that there was not necessarily a ‘formula’ for planning and that each lesson needed to be careful constructed with a disciplinary rationale in mind was trickier for them to accept and make progress around.  Conversely, I’ve worked with some students straight out of degree study who were more attuned to the disciplinary priorities of curricular thinking and planning and more used to completing assignments, but less familiar with the professional demands that come with being in school.  When I write these examples, I am thinking of specific situations rather than trying to make broad generalisations because genuinely you cannot pre-determine the aspects of the training year beginning teachers will find easier or struggle with.  We might assume the mum of 3 children, for example, would be an ace at behaviour management but actually ends up being a voracious reader who astounds daily with her in depth understanding of the ‘theory’.

And this is why it is a fallacy for beginning teachers to compare themselves to each other.  They only ever get a snapshot of the practice of their colleague – the bits that colleague wishes to share.  The impressive lesson with Year 10 they talked about on the group WhatsApp was surely followed by a less than successful turn with Year 7.  The phenomenal planning/ resourcing they decide to show their colleagues, doesn’t reveal the struggles they are having with their professionalism – meeting deadlines, being a reliable colleague precisely because they are spending too long perfecting schemes of work to the detriment of the bigger picture.  Conversely, the beginning teacher who spends all their time talking down their successes in the classroom, painting every encounter with children as a disaster zone, may not be making the most accurate assessment of their own progress or recognising that whilst they are struggling in one domain, they are actually showing development in one of the others.

A unique pathway

Beginning teachers are all on their own unique pathway to becoming a teacher.  They will all experience moments of significant growth, times of struggle, and periods where their practice plateaus.  At times they all need a helping hand to pull them up on to the next stage of that journey.  They need mentors and tutors who help them understand the progress they are making themselves, who don’t compare them to the last student they trained and write them off because they aren’t making progress in the same way.

Beginning teachers need to recognise that whether their boat is a pedalo or a cruise ship, a ferry or a hydrofoil, it still floats and can still navigate the waters ahead.  They might just do it a bit differently from the next boat along.  

Further Reading

Choy, D., Wong, A., Lim, K., & Chong, S. (2013). Beginning Teachers’ Perceptions of their Pedagogical Knowledge and Skills in Teaching: A Three Year Study. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 38(5). http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2013v38n5.6

Hassaskhah, Jaleh & Gigasari, Niloufar. (2017). The effect of social comparison tendencies on EFL teachers’ experience of burnout and instructional self-efficacy. Cogent Psychology. 4. 10.1080/23311908.2017.1327130.

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