Is teaching my life or just a job?
Updated: Oct 3, 2019
ACADEMY OF IDEAS EDUCATION FORUM
MONDAY 16 SEPTEMBER 2019
ACCENT STUDY CENTRE BEDFORD SQUARE
For the first three years of my time in teaching it felt as though I was being trained to entertain children. I can remember how frequently some of my colleagues spent hours planning a single lesson in the hope that it would be entertaining and ‘relevant’ to the learner. One teacher taught prefixes and suffixes in the format of the quiz show, ’They think it’s all over’. He stayed up half the night, until he had a series of quiz questions to try to make grammar accessible. Of course, no one can plan lessons in that sort of way all of the time, and even if they could, it is self defeating when teachers have to go to these lengths just to keep students engaged. Still, some felt it was great teaching. It certainly kept the Ofsted inspectors happy, and what else is a good teacher if not a guy who can get a school through an inspection procedure? I think teachers sometimes work too hard trying to please others. They need to work for principles, not for people.
For the last six years the government has failed to meet its own teacher recruitment targets (here). Teacher retention is also a concern, with rising numbers leaving the profession (but not due to retirement). It seems that for many the role of teacher is not what they expected. Workload is often cited as a problem, which is a point that should probably be taken seriously. Perhaps at the root of the problem is the very essence of what the role is for. What is a teacher? And is being a teacher just another job or does it have a vocational function which goes beyond a mere salary?
On Monday night, I attended the Education Forum of The Academy of Ideas, who meet regularly at Bedford Square in London to discuss and debate current issues in education. This was a more philosophical issue than others in the past, but no less relevant. The forum is an ever expanding group of people with interests in education: it certainly is not an event exclusively attended by teachers (something that we can all be grateful for!). I won’t be quoting anyone directly as the forum operates a Chatham House Rules policy, but instead will use what I heard to inform my own opinion (which I am aware is normally called plagiarism).
It turns out that many teachers enjoy the thrill of imparting knowledge; I don’t remember anyone mentioning that teaching skills was preferable. Similarly there was consensus that teachers should defend conservative values (with a small c). Each lesson can only really be productive if there is a general acceptance of how it should function: this ethos has to be shared by both parents and students. I found it really interesting when someone said that it was not fully clear what teachers expect from a student in terms of what the students should expect from a lesson. What should a learner be doing in a lesson? What does it mean to sit in a lesson and learn?
The central question of this debate was certainly not easy to answer. If teaching is “my life”, or “a calling” of some kind which transcends a job, then it might explain recruitment shortages. Perhaps this ‘calling’ brings with it certain expectations that simply do not match up to reality. It could also be that teachers, through their own idealistic nature, bring about their own workload downfall. The idealist can easily fall prey to the technocrats who lurk within the education system. In addition, it seems that teaching, in this vocational vision, simply places too great a strain on one’s personality.
The idea of workload and the pliability of teachers caused considerable debate Monday night. There were those who felt that they had to say ‘no’ in order to avoid exploitation, since some teachers in management positions might coerce younger colleagues into unnecessary time-consuming meetings and after school events. Not for the first time I heard someone say that people from industry who find themselves working in schools are often non-plussed by teacher attitudes: teachers do not do what they are told; they are given an instruction and just ignore it. This did not chime with a former teacher who pointed out that teachers should ensure that they are remunerated properly for their work. Actually, teachers are their own worst enemies when it comes to devaluing what they do.
What emerged from this discussion is that teachers are not held together by central principles relating to their role. It doesn’t help that politics refuses to let go of education, and the result is a system that tends to serve the values of the government in power. I sometimes think of the Education Secretary (whoever it is) as a lion on the Serengeti. Finding the offspring of his predecessor, he kills it and then quickly imparts his own ‘seed’ of initiatives. What is lost is a vision of what education is: what kind of individual do schools wish to produce?
The discussion returned to the theme of imparting knowledge. It was clear that imparting knowledge, and seeing a student’s understanding develop, are great motivators. In fact, idealistic as they sound, several teachers are prepared to put up with all of the challenges from students, parents, colleagues and inspectors in order to experience the thrill of seeing understanding in the eyes of the student. The price for this ‘thrill’ is the inevitably of routine and procedure, which comes with the job. The classroom part actually makes up a very small part of the time spent in the job. Teachers are employed by a school and the headteacher is entitled to expect a degree of compliance. I am not sure that the riddle of the maverick teacher, who doesn’t fall in line, was ever squared with the claim that teachers are inundated with needless work. Somehow both seemed to ring true. The cynic in me thinks that a teacher who knows that there is a recruitment crisis has no great imperative to do as instructed - who’s going to replace them? At the same time, if most teachers did everything that they were told, by everyone, I doubt that they would even get to class.
Clearly, teaching is not a role that exists in a vacuum. There are also schools, and these schools have a duty to serve parents and the community. To some extent, it seems to me, a degree of humility is needed for the job of teacher in which the employee must remind themselves it is not all about me. One theme introduced on Monday night was that of validation - the teacher seeks to be validated in a way that cannot be found elsewhere. It is no accident in this light that Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society is the go-to vision for the inspirational teacher. It suggests that idealism could be a central value that binds teachers together.
Monday 16 September was an excellent discussion and I enclose the link to the website for the Education Forum: http://academyofideas.org.uk/forums/education_forum/committee/ The next discussion is scheduled for October.