Pet hate: Be Vigilant

Time to put on my Outspoken Hat.

I hate the phrase “be vigilant” and here is why:-

The first time I heard the phrase “be vigilant” it was just after 9/11. The authorities assured us that only by constant vigilance could we end terror. Instead of paying attention to loved ones or concentrating on buying train tickets or looking at the clouds, we should be on constant alert for terrorism. Only by concentrating our attention onto looking for suspicious behaviour could we stop bin Laden in his tracks.

I much prefer the phrase “See something: say something”. As in, go about your daily business but if you notice something a bit ‘off’, then that’s when you take action. “Be vigilant” implies that you must actively seek to observe terror in all its forms.

When I started teaching, I noticed my colleagues were saying it about being in the classroom.

Be vigilant.

About uniform, bullying, racism, low level disruption, inattention, lack of understanding, upset children, withdrawn children, isolated children, teaching material, how we share opinions, of our belongings, our own dress, student safety, monitoring prematurely born children, underachieving students… it’s endless.

Obviously, as a teacher, I need to have some awareness of all of these things. And many other factors besides. But telling me to ‘be vigilant’ sort of misses the point of how attention works. I cannot ‘be vigilant’ about all of these things at the same time. I cannot even ‘be vigilant’ about one of those things for the whole lesson and still be able to teach.

As a teacher, I need to focus my attention for short bursts onto several arena over the course of the lesson. As I get more experienced, this plate spinning becomes more manageable. I can ‘chunk’ my attention and I can prioritise things to notice. But things will slip by me. Less now than before. But still.

My problem with the phrase ‘be vigilant’ is usually the person who says it. “Be vigilant! PROBLEM SOLVED”  If there are any further issues, it’s obviously the teacher who didn’t listen to the world-class advice.

Of course, I want to pay attention to the things that matter. That’s a given. But there are a lot of things that require my attention.

The best teaching advice I ever heard was on The Wire, after a new teacher has a terrible first day

“You need soft eyes.”

You simply cannot ‘be vigilant’, and expect that to be enough. Teachers need awareness but also an appreciation that their awareness is not 100% and they need to switch their attention between a variety of inputs all lesson. They cannot stare at the tree and hope to see the forest. They need soft eyes.


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