Things have come a long way since I first trained to be a teacher. The course I did lasted a year and though thoroughly enjoyable did little to prepare me for what life was like day after day in the classroom. I learned a lot about the history of education (for me very interesting but for my science colleagues of no interest at all), the philosophy, sociology and psychology of education but it was really the term I spent on work experience that was of greatest value. I’m not sure the school felt the same. My head of department visited my class once and my tutor twice but I still ended up with a distinction…I still wonder why. I had one class on Monday afternoon, all day Tuesday and Wednesday and one class first thing on Thursday morning and when I asked what I should do for the remainder of the time was told to go home…so a very long weekend. Having mentored trainee teachers over a twenty year period myself, what is now offered as training is infinitely superior though undoubtedly less enjoyable. Does it produce better teachers, since many in the Labour Party and the current Minister (if not the head of Ofsted) appear to think that we now have the best teachers ever? I’m not convinced. Certainly teachers are now better at planning learning and lessons…no longer a back of the envelop job or as a colleague of mine once said, I planned my lessons in my first year of teaching and twenty years later I’m still using them. But, and I’ve observed this, there is then an almost determinist process of getting through the plan even when it is evident that the plan is not working or when the students have engaged with the lesson and want to explore things not on the plan and are disappointed because the teacher intends to follow the plan at all costs. You may think, and probably correctly, that this is evidence of a teacher insufficiently confident in their own ability and unwilling to tear up the plan. Perhaps I was lucky when doing a lesson during Ofsted on the poor in the sixteenth century and students turned the lesson into a comparison with how the poor were dealt with then and now and my plan went out of the window that the inspector (about my age and with similar experiences I suspect) really enjoyed it and graded it outstanding…planning is essential for good learning but in itself it will not necessarily lead to good learning. Students enjoy spontaneity, anecdotes, red herrings (they’re always good at finding them) and getting you off the point (ditto), but that’s what education is about…it isn’t neat, determinist or inflexible.
So should we be aiming for teaching, in the words of Stephen Twigg, to be ‘an elite profession of top graduates’? Well yes, if that means that teachers will again become a respected profession. But, just because you’re a top graduate, will not necessarily make you a competent let alone a good teacher. To be a good teacher you need three things: a willingness to learn along with your students, a personality that is open and accessible to students and, and I’ve always believed that this is essential, the ability to recognise that although you will get through to many even most of your students, in some cases you won’t and it doesn’t matter what you do; all you can hope is that another teacher will. Now that is not something that automatically comes from a high-level or a lower level degree , it’s not something that can really be taught (though training can refine it) and is ultimately something that you either have (in which case teaching is for you) or not (don’t touch it with a barge-pole as you’ll suffer and more importantly so will your kids). Having a National College for Teaching Excellence and using a debt write-off plan to bribe people to enter it (a bit harsh perhaps) will certainly encourage good candidates for teaching but there is one big problem. As soon as you establish any College for Excellence, the tendency is for its trainees to go into the profession and rapidly gain promotion and in teaching that means promotion out of the classroom. Yes you monitor the teaching of others and provide advice to improve it but the impact of your specific skills on students inevitably diminishes. As a teacher you might be in the classroom twenty hours a week, as a head of department fifteen and so on and like everyone you are promoted to your level of incompetence (that is, unless you decide to stop seeking advancement and do what you enjoy and are good at). When I became a teacher I did so because I wanted to get students to enjoy my subject and enjoy learning about it and I spent many enjoyable years successfully doing that. Today, teaching has lost that simplicity (you may think rightly) and, to my mind, students have lost out as a consequence. Yes we should always strive to improve the quality of teachers and Stephen Twigg is right when he says that ‘Our education system is only as good as its staff’ but unless what is being taught and how its is being taught addresses the needs and interests of students, it doesn't matter whether the teachers are top graduates or not, they won’t learn effectively.