Sartre or Soap?

The high-profile headmaster of Wellington College, Anthony Seldon,  got himself into some controversy a while ago when he expressed his willingness to hire unqualified people on the grounds of gut feeling that they would develop into strong teachers. While I instinctively baulk at the idea of unqualified teachers, I suspect that if I am honest, this is as much closed-shop vested interest as anything. One needs to ask just what ‘qualified’ actually means.

In the case of medicine or the Law, qualification means amongst other things, technically qualified – as in party to a body of complex but discrete knowledge and skills that are essential for doing the job. But teaching, with its soft skills, simply isn’t like that; especially now that educational psychology has been eradicated, from what I can ascertain, training amounts to indoctrination into certain forms of classroom technique – not in themselves wrong, but neither by any means the whole spectrum of what works – nor in themselves guaranteed to make a good teacher. It also seems to major on the whole target-setting statistical culture, which while certainly equipping new entrants for what they will encounter, is to my mind educationally questionable to say the least. And there is no pedagogical equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath that ‘guarantees’ ethical compliance.

What Seldon actually meant was his ability, as a very experienced educator, to spot people who are suitable to be teachers, whether they have the requisite bit of paper or not. He undoubtedly knows that the practicalities can be learned on the job, given judicious guidance and a willingness to develop. But in these days of employment law and litigation, he can’t actually say that. It is nigh-on impossible for job specifications to refer to suitability, on the grounds that it is subjective and hence liable to abuse. Thus we appoint people on supposed technical competence and paper qualifications, and are blind to any personal characteristics they may or may not exhibit. Maybe this is where the private sector finds its edge.

Here again we have an example of unintended consequences, for it is quite possible, even likely, that there are people who can qualify while arguably not being suitable. It is not only in teaching where fully-qualified individuals have gone on to act in ways catastrophically incompatible with their positions – I can think of examples in medicine and social work to start with; no amount of personal profiling and security checking is going to detect these things, and we delude ourselves if we think otherwise. That said, I suspect that it is actually common practice for personality-suitability to be taken loosely into account by interview panels (though it depends, of course, on their own priorities and perceptiveness). But intellectual suitability doesn’t seem to get a look-in.

So I suggest that while qualifications may be necessary, they are not sufficient.

This, then, brings us directly to the minefield of that which might be considered suitable – and I believe it is as much connected with what a person is, as what they do.

I think I should state at this point that I am fully aware of confirmation bias; this is not intended as an exercise in self-justification, though of course I hope I would manage to embody the qualities I supposedly espouse. I should also say that the examples here are composites of behaviour observed over many years, and do not refer to specific individuals. Should that fail to reassure, then I would point out there is, in any case, a difference between professional disagreement and personal criticism, even though the nature of this discussion means that the dividing line appears pretty thin in places. I respect others’ right to see things differently, while not always agreeing with the way they do things. I will stick my neck out, though, and say that we should nonetheless shy away from diluting those standards in the name of inclusivity, to the extent that they effectively become meaningless.

So I will deal here with just one of those qualities: being an educated person oneself. This is not the same as being qualified: I am referring to the way that one’s own educational experience informs one’s own life on a daily, even moment-by-moment basis, rather than the possession of a certificate.  It seems to me perfectly possible to experience even the highest levels of education without it making much apparent impact on one’s outlook, tastes or way of life. I’m not going to pretend that I know why it should be that for some, education remains firmly sealed in an intellectual bubble divorced from the rest of their lives, but I can equally think of numerous people on whom education – even to lesser levels – has clearly had a profound general impact. The only caveat in this observation may concern the relative effects of any innate qualities and the educational process, which are not the same thing. I don’t propose to digress into that issue here.

I’m not really concerned, either, with the material impacts of social mobility ; what matters here is having a ‘life of the mind’. We needn’t narrow this down to any very specific approach (this is not intended to be prescriptive) but in whatever sense, it should presumably mean that a person has wide horizons, an active interest in the world around them, and a curiosity to know more; perhaps also a disregard of artificial subject-boundaries and an instinct to analyse and speculate about the world in its widest sense. I suppose that worn old phrase a “well-rounded person” comes close. This paper develops the idea further – especially the list towards the end.

It is likely that such a person will demonstrate acute critical skills and independence of mind; their thinking will be evident in their conversation, and they may well have great regard for books. They are not necessarily partisan, but will probably be politically-aware, and they may have little patience with the more mundane, dumbed-down aspects of modern culture. They may also engage in wide and sometimes obscure interests purely for their own sake, not caring too much about the adverse perceptions of others. They may quietly have achieved highly in these activities, intrinsic motivation being one of the things that marks out such behaviour. In a teacher-context, an active interest in their subject will probably extend well beyond the classroom.

We needn’t pin it down much more than that – as I said, this is not intended to be prescriptive – but in several ad hoc ‘experiments’ with various acquaintances, it was surprising how much consensus there was about which individuals fitted the bill. People know them when they see them.

I think that a propensity for such behaviour is close to being a prerequisite for being a teacher; how else can we non-hypocritically stand in front of young people and preach the virtues of learning? Furthermore, how can we hope to model what this means without doing it instinctively ourselves, even in our personal lives? For authenticity is essential – you can’t turn this quality on and off when you enter the classroom, and still remain convincing.

Many years ago, I had a rather mercurial French colleague, who maintained that the difference between teaching in Britain and France was that in French staffrooms you discuss Sartre while in English ones you discuss East Enders. Having spent several weeks on exchanges involving lengthy philosophical discussions with numerous French teachers – and certainly having witnessed vast obsessions with soap operas, reality T.V. shows and mobile phone tariffs in English ones, maybe there is some truth in it; I’ve also observed similar weightiness in Switzerland. I’m not suggesting we should fill our staff-rooms with egg-heads, but one might expect to find a more-cultivated-than-average group of people in such places. Perhaps it’s all just an escape from the pressure of the job…

It certainly seems that teaching in Britain has been increasingly shorn of any academic or intellectual credibility, though whether that is the effects of the progressive agenda or simply the consequences of decades of recruiting from the lower end of the graduate spectrum, I don’t know. Even in the mid 1980’s when I entered the profession, the process entailed absolutely no explicit investigation into my own intellectual qualities, of the sort that I suspect Anthony Seldon makes. But it doesn’t seem to be getting any better – and making teaching into a merely mechanical process won’t solve it either.

If one is in possession of an ‘educated’ outlook, it reduces the need for elaborate technical teaching constructs in the first place – fleetness of mind remains a major asset when dealing with young people and likewise the ability to turn to pretty much any subject and have something thoughtful to say about it, if an when a lesson or other situation takes an unexpected turn. Yet I have observed Outstanding teachers who by their own admission had no topic knowledge beyond the specifics of the lessons – and on occasions being exposed for it. I have also encountered Advanced Skills Teachers who refused to teach something a little off-centre on the grounds that they hadn’t been trained to do that. One might have expected an educated, professional person to be able to go and mug up and give it a go – and to realise that they should do so, as well.

In my opinion, maintaining an active, enquiring mind is one of the most important prerequisites for being a teacher. This is how one stays abreast of one’s subject, and indeed one’s profession – but it’s much more than that. (I do wonder whether the ease with which progressive orthodoxies have been imposed with almost no debate, has simply been down to the unwillingness of the profession to exercise its collective critical faculties to question them).

Despite the view that teachers need to be not too far ahead of their pupils, if teachers themselves don’t understand or employ in their own lives the thinking processes that education supposedly cultivates, then they might as well themselves be considered educational failures, and there is little hope of their passing such qualities on to future generations. In fact, a surprising number of teachers do seem to claim that they themselves did not have good educational experiences, and I’m not sure, either, what to make of the small but persistent perception from pupils that really bright people don’t become teachers; perhaps they are conflating intelligence with earning-power. Worrying.

Without a highly-educated body of people employed in teaching, there is little hope of really setting alight the minds of the next generation, and no amount of target-setting will cure that. What’s more, there will be few people willing to question doubtful policies being foisted on the profession.

I recall a struggling colleague of a good few years ago who admitted to me one day that he was “not that bright, really” – and wondering what on earth had possessed him to become a teacher. But neither the teacher training nor professional recruitment procedures of the day had managed to notice. Qualified – but suitable?

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