You Take the High Road…

the path forks

The end of a year in which the contradictions within education became even more apparent – as did the inequalities between the paths one can take…

The balance is shifting towards traditional teaching.

Though my instinct has always been for traditional techniques, years of exposure to progressive doctrine had their effect, especially while one’s perceived success as a teacher palpably hung on its adoption. But things have begun to change: most importantly, a coherent rationale is emerging for traditional approaches. This is important because it counters the claim from progressives that traditionalism is little more than the confirmation-bias of a bunch of luddites.

But whether it will translate to anything more substantial in schools remains to be seen. From my own experience, the progressive message has gone distinctly quiet, but the alternatives are hardly being given coverage.

My own determination to adopt a more traditional approach was sustained. I am not claiming unequivocal success: as with all outcomes in education, it’s not as simple as that. But despite the difficulties encountered with pupils whose expectations were clearly of something else entirely, I can cautiously say that plenty did start to exhibit (and expect) more formal educational behaviours.

We need a clearer path for classroom teachers

One of the problems with traditional teaching has been the lack of career progression. Once one had mastered one’s classroom, there was little left to do except gradually turn into Mr. Chips – hardly a mark of success in a career-obsessed world. This, fundamentally, is the reason for the growth of Management – it provides a more acceptable and defined career path for teachers. But in doing so, it removes people from the core business.

Many of my teacher-friends in Switzerland exhibit little desire to take the management route: they seem happy developing their academic and pedagogical skills, and this seems far more acceptable than it is in Britain. I suspect that the flatter management structures and the relative lack of career snobbery make it easier. My closest friend in particular seemed perfectly happy until his recent retirement (and despite his doctorate) to develop his personal practice without the need for hierarchical validation; he is not alone.

In the U.K., remaining in the classroom is still seen as a dead-end that is becoming increasingly unattractive due to the growing pressure on classroom teachers from elsewhere. We need a more appealing second route – and it needs its own type of performance criteria.

Despite initiatives such as Advanced Skills Teachers, it is not easy to pin down good teaching in ways that make it short-term accountable – or rewardable – in a system dependent on tick-box criteria. But it may not be necessary either. So long as teachers’ incomes are not significantly eroded, people who follow this path may be less concerned about hierarchical prestige or financial reward in the first place. What is more important is preserving the autonomy for them to teach as they need.

It is quite possible for teachers to ‘plateau’ once they have mastered their classroom – but I increasingly think this is not the end of the matter. My reading over the past couple of years has yielded many insights into behavioural and philosophical matters that have enriched my understanding of what I do, materially influenced my professional behaviour and increased the effectiveness with which I respond to my pupils.

Little of this is outwardly observable, let alone box-tickable, and little of it needs to be implemented in an unremitting, doctrinaire way. It is more a matter of the person one becomes – and the ways in which this informs one’s personal practice. There is a pleasing solidity to the inner knowledge that, at last, one has reached a degree of professional depth and resilience that endures, no matter what ‘the system’ throws at you.

So just at a time when the future appeared to promise only ‘more of the same’, through the clouds new heights have become visible – and maybe therein lies a way to develop a more profound definition of what it means to be a classroom professional. It needs to become more possible and acceptable for people to pursue this route – and this means providing the means for development equal to those available to managers.


You can’t go down both paths.

A vacancy arose for Head of Department, and at long last I felt confident that I could do the job and address the specific issues. But it became clear that I am too far down the Mr. Chips path and the role went to a young chap a couple of years in. I am sure he will learn (steeply) – but I doubt the wisdom of closing off such roles to those with the insight of years; time was when many heads of department were in the latter stages of their careers.

Maybe I am a late developer – but I know things now that would make for more considered decision-making, and the implementation of far sounder educational practices than when I was younger. I think it was the unformed awareness of this that prevented me from making a more convincing case for promotion in my own early years. But external appearances count – even though, as Kahneman observes, brassy confidence may simply betray lacking awareness of the limits of the possible. It seems as though one must choose at a stage of one’s career when these greater truths are still invisible.

There is still only one route open to the success-hungry teacher – and it leads away from the classroom. What is more, those left behind are ever more closely controlled by people who took it. By taking the path labelled ‘management’ one starts dining at entirely different tables – and one’s diet becomes that of effective management rather than effective teaching; they are not necessarily the same thing, even if those in charge seem to think otherwise.  Thereafter, developing further as a teacher is either taken for granted – or of limited interest. Clearly, management is needed – but why is the path of pedagogy allowed to peter out in a thicket, while that of management leads on to ever richer pastures?

How will this lead to better education in the future?

TP will be taking its customary break over the summer; no doubt issues will arise that require comment – but normal service will resume in September.


3 thoughts on “You Take the High Road…

  1. What a good post. I’m grateful that we may be soon be able openly to use traditional methods without feeling like we are defending an arcane practice, although I take your point that the lag in the system is sizeable! I’m not quite as happy with the eagerness I’ve seen in teachers’ posts, to quickly condemn everything progressive. It smacks of the same knee-jerk reaction that caused the problem in the first place. I’m pretty sure good, really good, teaching, has always been a balanced affair but perhaps that’s a topic for another 10 years of research.

    I think you make a really good point about pathways for teachers who don’t necessarily want to be managers. Though I am subject leader for science and an unremunerated ‘assessment leader’ I am not interested in management for its own sake, nor for the tiny financial reward. I certainly do not want to sacrifice classroom time for pointless bureaucratic activities. However, I am now in the position, having been in this line of work for many years, where I am more qualified and have greater experience, subject knowledge and expertise in most areas than any of the ‘leaders’ who outrank me. Yet I have to listen to and follow what is effectively just opinion backed by borrowed authority, sometimes from inexperienced teachers who are quite poorly educated.

    Years of service don’t necessarily mean expertise, of course, but I’d like to see some kind of recognition of those of us who have maintained and developed our knowledge and skill but do not wish to leave the classroom.

    • Thanks. I agree that we should not do unto others that which we disliked them doing to us! It’s not good practice anyway. There is use in some progressive ideas, and I think the way forward is a judicious mix of the two. The provisos on this should be a) that the chosen technique derives from the subject matter, not ideology and b) that whatever choice the teacher makes should be judged solely on its effectiveness – always assuming that can be observed. And if not, the default position should normally be to trust the teacher.

      The assumption that because one manages children one automatically wants /is cut out to manage adults is false. They are not at all the same thing. I recall the visible ‘sag’ from various managers when I admitted I had little management ambition.

      I think that being usurped by newbies is probably par for the course in any line of work, as the generational shift rolls on. But what has gone is the respect for experience that was still there when I started. I would not have dreamed of telling someone with decades of experience how or what to teach – I would have tried to learn from them.

      The problem with management is that it rapidly becomes its own raison d’être. I think that some in there need to remember who it is doing the core job. We are not simply pawns to be moved around on their chessboards at will, with little concern or respect – or should not be. Unfortunately, this has been my repeated experience in the past year.

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