The TA comes up to me with a worried look on her face; she is due to extract pupils from my lesson for individual reading practice. The (school) book she has been handed by her first pupil, who has reading difficulties, contains the word w**ker – and on further examination, most of the rest of the text seems to consist of street slang. She expresses both her personal discomfort and her concern that this is not the way to help children struggling to read. Having gone away to question the wisdom of using the book, she returns with the instruction, “That’s just what kids read these days.” I despair.
Some days later, I’m leading a CPD session on some computer software, which promptly malfunctions. One young teacher calls for my help, but it seems to be a glitch in the program and I’m stumped as to what to do. “That’s just so not cool!” is the somewhat sulky response. I flinch again.
Having spent many years on the receiving end of people imposing their ideas and standards on me, I’m not about to start doing the same. But I have been thinking about the difficult issue of whether it is desirable – or indeed possible – to define collective standards for educators. Or maybe minimum standards would be a better idea.
The problem with this is, of course, that people are all different, and one person’s idea of acceptable standards may well not be another’s. The outlooks we bring into school are not some kind of professional gown we don at the gate, as much as our own world-views. And so it probably should be, if we wish to retain our authenticity as teachers and individuals, let alone avoid the dreaded (and in my view perfectly legitimate) accusation of hypocrisy. Then there is the problem of how one might guarantee (I’ll avoid the word ‘enforce’) such standards. Very soon, one stops talking about what teachers should do, and starts talking about what they should be.
There are perhaps two extremes to the possibilities: one, that the teacher should be some kind of exceptional person, who exemplifies the transformative effects of education in their own life, but at the risk of appearing rarified and out of touch; the other that the teacher should embody the person-next-door, who shares interests and outlooks with pupils, but at the risk of raising questions about what, in which case, education is supposed to achieve. While being acutely aware of the dilemmas, if pushed, I’ll plump for the former, though I doubt many would.
One might hope that the two are not in fact mutually exclusive – it ought to be perfectly possible to lead a thoughtful, intelligent life without becoming eccentric or other-worldly. One might even hope that the effect of education is in fact to make people more down-to-earth, inasmuch as they have a better understanding of what is actually happening in the world, and are consequently less prone to the escapism, sensationalism and delusion that seems to characterise much of current popular culture. One might dare to hope that education would make people aim higher within themselves.
That said, we are still forced to return to the issue of what teachers are, as opposed to what they do. In both of the cases mentioned above, I encountered clashes between what I personally would consider acceptable standards, and the differing views of others – the one because I believe it is incumbent on us to maintain the culture (in this case written English, especially when doing otherwise may in fact confuse pupils as to what is generally considered ‘correct’) and the other because I believe that we have a duty to uphold the standards we supposedly espouse (in this case, spoken English) in our own lives beyond the classroom.
One issue I have with the “all in it for the kids” view of teaching is that it ignores a major part of our wider remit: to some extent, teachers are custodians of shared culture and knowledge, and are responsible for passing it on to the next generation. Indeed, one could argue that this is even more relevant than at university level, where the audience is more limited. That extends to the correct use of the language. If teachers fall victim to speaking in street-slang, then who is going to maintain any notion of correctness? And yes, I can already hear the siren voices of relativism questioning what ‘correct’ means in the first place.
We are collectively also responsible for the public perception of the profession; whatever our own views, we cannot control what other people think of them. The individual interactions we have with people in the wider community, and the examples we set, probably do far more to shape those perceptions than any Royal College or political initiative could. This need not imply a call for teachers to become pillars of the Establishment (though to some extent, that is what the public expects professionals to be), but it probably does mean modelling socially responsible behaviour, and even ‘educated values’ in public. Behaving as though we are just overgrown sixth-formers ourselves will do little to help.
I am going to develop this theme is subsequent posts, but hopefully it will become a discussion of the notion of standards, without falling into the trap of becoming either a generational diatribe, or merely pushing personal dogma! Somewhere along the line, there needs to be a degree of consensus about what we stand for and what we don’t.
Without that, we as teachers are sunk.