"Are you an 'old school' or 'new school' teacher?"

27th September 2013 at 13:08

Stephen Petty, a teacher, writes:

“Old school” is one of those fashionable, “new school” adjectival phrases of today. We hear it casually applied to various people in the public eye, including rock bands, comedians, despots and football coaches. We even talk about our own friends in such a way – “He’s a bit old-school when it comes to shirts/ relationships/food” etc.

Strangely, the one area where the term has rarely been mentioned is within the context of school itself. This seems particularly odd at a time when so many teachers across the modern world currently face the same crucial and often career-defining question: “Am I ‘old school’ or am I ‘new school’?” Not sure which fits you? Let me perhaps help.

What, for instance, do you first think about when you hear colleagues discussing Pisa? Do you perhaps drift away and remember that dreamy holiday years ago when you took that silly photo of your gorgeous new Italian companion “propping up” the leaning tower? (Though in my case any mention of Pisa makes me recall the time my student friends and I mistook a nearby brothel for a rather lush disco and of our then having to escape the clutches of two giant doormen as we bade a brisk farewell to tactile women and popping champagne corks.)

If Pisa mainly prompts thoughts of Italian holidays then you are already veering rapidly into the “old school” camp. If, on the other hand, you respond enthusiastically to your colleagues' Pisa talk with an informed and insightful view on the recent performance of your country in those tests then you already sound “new school”.

Similarly, how do you respond whenever you hear politicians saying “It’s vital to prepare young people for an increasingly global labour market”? Do you agree and believe teachers have a moral duty to prevent pupils underachieving in exams and that compulsory homework, coursework and revision “clubs” are now essential in lunchtimes, after school, at weekends and in holidays? In which case, tick that “new school” box again.

Or do you believe that this controlling of children’s exam preparation prevents them developing the independence, enterprise and initiative so important for competing in that blessed “global labour market”?  If you think this, that’s another mark for “old school”.

When it comes to data, do you value “student targets and progress tracking” and all the colourful traffic-light conditional formatting that goes with it (new school) or do you generally feel that any teacher worth their salt can always tell how their students are doing (old school)?

So which one are you? And does it matter? It certainly does if you teach in a country driven by league tables and performance-related pay. The more controlling “new school” attitude is plainly the safer bet if your school ranking and your pay depends on it, despite its deep and manifest limitations as a truly educational experience.

“New school” may eventually be discredited – after the mania for yet higher pass-rates eventually sees the first obsessed head providing compulsory all-night revision lessons despite employers and universities complaining about growing levels of inertness and teacher-dependency among their increasingly “force-feducated” recruits. “New school” would thus become “old school”, but for the time being most of us have children to feed and mortgages to pay. If we don’t go along with “new” we may not find ourselves in any kind of school at all. 

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