Reality Bites

Several years ago, a friend was offered the option of a ‘Skilled Professional’s Mortgage’, on account of being titled ‘Dr’. When the broker realised that my acquaintance was not a medic but, rather, a teacher, the offer – along with the assumption of professionalism – was withdrawn immediately. The lender concerned has since reversed the policy, and the friend has removed most of the pins from the figurine he fashioned from his own earwax. However, the belief that teaching is not skilled work lingers like an autograph hunter at a studio door.

I’ve referred, in previous posts, to recent trainees and their respective paths into teaching. Most have managed to qualify and, not knowing whether I’d survive the regime myself these days, I doff my fedora to their indomitability: thorough research and the clear-sighted understanding that none of it’s the full story seem to pay off. Only one did a runner from the PGCE – unsurprisingly, as our fledgling had been drawn to the course largely by the prospect of being paid to train, and by the guest appearance of someone from Educating Essex at a recruitment fair. The realisation that one is not ready to teach within minutes, and that training involves criticism – some of it stinging enough to leave a welt across a tender face – can hit hard. As can the obsidian fact that schools are usually more about brass neck than televisual gold.

The queue of those eager to appear in the Educating strand grows longer, and I can see why. In its world, banter is the quotidian currency between adults and children, much of it good-natured and some of it genuinely funny. Staff form a cohesive unit, unriven by discrepancies of purpose and the steely blade of ‘restructuring’, as if capability procedures had never been invented. Impact – heck, change – is, apparently, possible in the most trying of circumstances. And the editing policy that misled a young (ex-)trainee has made fast-track candidates for beatification of many participants. Which, it has to be said, is a welcome change from being characterised as the bastard offspring of Kitty Farmer and the Child Catcher.

It’s a neat reversal, given that teaching has long been an occasional refuge for resting actors. Nonetheless, I do wonder how much Educating advances the appreciation of teachers’ very specific and multiple areas of competence. I have heard of and from many who, having developed a formidable range of transferable skills, have found that the very idea of their re-employability is regarded as a hoot – not only by colleagues (a part of the unofficial job description), but also by those in other professions to which such skills are relevant. It’s a galling perception in general; for those trying to change career tracks, it’s an obstructive one too. To what extent does Educating Anywhere At All counter the misapprehensions that blight teachers’ chances of being taken seriously?

Though well-intentioned – and, indeed, the reason for many of its critical plaudits – the programme’s overwhelming focus on students in challenging circumstances arguably compounds the problem: rare is the episode in which we see lives enriched as much by subject learning as by pastoral support. Or in which teachers are not only de facto childminders but also experts in, and passionate advocates for, their specialisms. A vigilant pastoral system can, indeed, work wonders for some; but so, too, can a subject’s capacity to speak to a hitherto uninterested mind, especially when delivered with inspirational gusto. I’ve seen it happen many times, and I’m not alone.

In the hands of Educating’s editors, however, the curriculum is little more than the medium through which the ‘real’ business of schools, namely quasi-parenting, is conducted. Yes, yes, in loco parentis and all that. But it’s an approach that, while eliciting redemption narratives a-plenty, offers little to challenge the view – expectation, even – that a teacher is the same thing as a social worker, albeit untrained and even more badly dressed. The assumption is an insidious one, bemoaned by numerous teachers – including, perhaps, some of those who’ve been, or aspire to be, Educated.

We know that education is the current field of choice for really clever people, like SpAds, on the fast-track to ideological leadership. However, when the opportunity to engage in the sine qua non of actual, y’know, teaching is simultaneously extended to an ever-widening constituency that includes the unqualified, the bewildered and their imaginary friends, the conviction that the job requires no particular skill is reinforced. Centralised control, whether from government or head teacher, over what is taught and how, further reduces the teacher to a factotum: ecoutez et repetez après moi. Which may be why Cerebral, or whatever Caecilius’ dog was called, no longer est in horto. Perhaps someone should readmit him.

When other parts of the education sector collude, even implicitly, with the notion that effective teaching requires little skill, you know there’s a problem. A recent attendee at a university open day was surprised at the number of seminars and lectures delivered by postgraduate students. The GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistant), a staple of American university faculties, is a relatively recent but increasingly popular import. A number of UK institutions now employ graduates to deliver front-line teaching which, at least, ensures a baseline of subject knowledge, unlike the use of teaching assistants to deliver whole-class lessons in schools. However, the GTAs’ preparation to teach varies widely: a few have the option of courses that span the academic year and result in formal certification; most receive a day or two of pre-Freshers’ Week instruction.

A few years ago, I abandoned a Masters degree because of its teaching standards. Penalised by the EQL rules for pursuing a qualification lower than one of those I already possessed, I was charged international-level fees for tuition whose quality was wildly inconsistent. Some of the professors were very competent teachers who had, clearly, spent time honing their pedagogy as well as their subject knowledge. Others had managed to reach exalted levels within the academic hierarchy delivering teaching that was, frankly, terrible. Perhaps, as a teacher myself, my expectations are less forgiving. But, had more stringent staff training and professional development been in place, I suspect that I may well have stayed the course.

It’s unlikely that the aforementioned aspiring student will apply to the institution she visited: her preference is for another that boasts a megastar academic. May it be that a single lecture per term is contact enough for those, like her, drawn to the university by its professor’s high profile. For, while he harnesses the power of popular media to disseminate a bit of knowledge and secure publicity for his employer, it’ll be the faculty’s graduate students, with a single day of training under their belts, who’ll be delivering the teaching load.

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About Joe Allardyce

Joe Allardyce has been a teacher for more than fifteen years. State and private; secondary and primary; man and woman: Joe has been there. Perhaps not the last one. View all posts by Joe Allardyce

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