I read with sadness this week’s Guardian’s Secret Teacher, written by a soon-to-be ex-teacher who, after a couple of years has realised that an aspiration simply to teach one’s subject is no longer sufficient. I feel the loss to the profession of one who may well have been or become a fine teacher – rejected by a professional monomania that cannot tolerate diversity of intent, and which places almost anything above a simple love of one’s subject. Education has become just too technocratic for its own good.
It’s difficult to pin-point any moment when an intellectual inclination ceased to be the principal asset of a would-be teacher, but there has nonetheless been clear shift in emphasis in the past few decades. Both my parents taught, but while there was a clear pastoral element to their work, their principal focus was always ‘their subject’. Contrast that with the comment I shall never forget (for the wrong reasons) when on the first morning of my own P.G.C.E., I was told, “If ever asked what you teach, the answer is, “Children””.
I’ve discussed the semantic difficulties of that statement before, but it also portrays the extent to which a certain mindset has dominated the teaching profession, no doubt egged-on by the politicians and educational theorists whose comfortable careers depended on grandiose ideas of social change. Just to want to teach one’s subject was no longer enough, when the purpose of education had become something between a velvet social revolution and life-coaching for the masses. And since then have been added the institutionalised performance pressures that mean it’s no longer sufficient just to try to change people’s lives; anything short of a fully measurable metamorphosis is just not acceptable.
As Secret Teacher concedes, it’s hard to argue that schools should have no concern at all for the wider wellbeing of their pupils – but that’s rather different from the full-on social engineering that we’re meant to engage in today with the supposed aim of ‘preparing pupils for life’. With the perennial debate about sex education again in the headlines, it’s clear that some things probably do need to be specifically taught, if only because one cannot rely on all parents to do so themselves. But that position also represents the top of a slippery slope whereby there is no end to the number of socially well-meaning interventions schools should make to compensate for supposed parental or wider societal failures.
The education system has hoisted itself well and truly on this petard. Over the years, it has never stood up to those arguing that it should ‘teach’ this, that or the other; to do so would have been to admit its impotence, or at least insignificance as the guarantor of the social Good. The result has been the ceaseless expectation that teachers will have no limits to what they can or will do for their pupils, whether academically or otherwise.
I’ve done my share of ‘social education’ over the years, having been rather inexpertly involved in careers education, First Aid and more; I’ve also spent hours sitting on various box-ticking committees whose job it was to transform, for example, children’s eating habits – but whose more mundane (but one suspects actually more desired) achievement was to add another accreditation-mark to the foot of the school’s letter-paper.
My conclusion is that such lessons are always going to be treated with time-honoured scepticism by many pupils; while there may be some who do gain directly (and they may not always be visible), the majority of young people do not take lightly to such worthiness. I suspect they see it as school going beyond its remit, and probably justifiably so – and they are adept at separating general discussions from anything that might apply directly to themselves. This is only compounded by the fact that it is extremely difficult to make such lessons anything other than nebulous.
While there has always been a place for a guiding word from an adult, in general such things cannot be overtly taught. Here is fine example of the need for a more oblique approach – and more so of the perception of the need for such; the transmission of values and attitudes is rarely effective when stipulated directly even by parents, let alone teachers. These are things which are assimilated, learned from other people’s ongoing example, though this is not to deny the need for intervention when actual transgression occurs. In general, a more helpful way is via the ethos of a school, and the behaviour modelled by those who lead and work in it. The error is then doubled by judging teachers and schools on the ‘outcomes’. In fact, it is equally possible that all we are doing is antagonising young people, perhaps even awakening their natural rebelliousness, or worse: it is known that prisons are a breeding ground for criminal technique…
Where more is needed, a pithy five-minute discussion within normal lessons can be productive, assisted by the fact that the matter in question tends to arise naturally, in a non self-conscious manner. This is a technique I have used to advantage on many occasions, and I have found that it tends to command more attention than any enforced programme of worthiness. It does, however, require sufficient flexibility in lesson –planning to make such digressions acceptable – and a teaching body sufficiently adept as to embrace issues as and when they arise.
This is a fine example of the own-goal typical of over-controlled education. While its intent may be valid, its desire to standardise, specify and measure has done more harm than good. The most meaningful way of embedding ‘desirable’ values in pupils is by having teachers who personify them; instead we have an imposed, extrinsic, corporate view of correctness. It has directed such things to be delivered in a way that almost guarantees resistance from many young people – and then it wonders why it fails to make an impact.
Yet it has become almost the dominant view that education is primarily about life-skills and life-chances. Well, in one sense, it always was – but not in the overt way that believes it can control both the inputs and the outcomes. The consequence, of course, has been ever-greater demands on teachers, backed with the emotional blackmail that if one drew a line then one was letting one’s pupils down.
Secret Teacher was absolutely right to draw closer limits to their aspirations – and not unreasonable to be seeking a degree of intellectual fulfilment as a motive for their work. That model also represents a more realistic and sustainable ambition for what one might expect of a typical teacher. It is especially regrettable that such intellectual fulfilment is now non grata and that the only acceptable motives derive from ‘welfare’.
Charley says… “Don’t go into teaching if you simply love your subject.” It’s a pity that we have lost this one to the profession as a result.
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