Teaching is incredibly difficult to master. It is a craft; the classroom is the canvas and the outcome is the art
“Teach first, learn later” seems to be the new trend in teacher training. In recent years, the Schools Direct route into teaching has usurped its university-based counterpart as the chief path into teaching for graduates. But, is this helping or hindering teacher recruitment and retention?
Currently, a large proportion of teachers are quitting in the first five years and this looks set to increase (the exact numbers are very much debated). But is there something about the way we are training teachers which is impacting on retention rates? The flagbearer for this new era of “learning on the job” is Teach First. They recently released figures showing that a significant number of their trainees drop out within the first two years and thereafter. In fact, around 60 per cent of Teach First teachers have dropped out in the last five years across the board, despite huge government funding for the programme.
Granted, Teach First is only one example of the Schools Direct approach, but it sets trends. One being that the dangerous presumption that because someone has a top degree, a masters or went to Oxford, they will make a great teacher. However, this seems to be part of a damaging misconception about, firstly, what makes a good teacher and, secondly, how difficult teaching is, which I believe is contributing to the recruitment and retention crisis.
The number of intellectual giants who, despite a line of letters after their name and a propensity for intellectual snobbery, have absolutely no ability or idea of how to manage a classroom is startling. I have seen this first hand at interview. Teachers with academic prowess who simply cannot connect with children in a way that can facilitate learning. Some of them lurk on twitter.
Then there are those teachers with “Desmonds” who can’t even get a look in at Teach First. Although purely anecdotal, the best example I have seen of this paradox was David Starkey in Jamie’s Dream School. Although his expertise in history was unquestionable, even his ability to speak to children on a level where they could access it was debatable. I’m not saying we want teachers with no subject knowledge. Not at all. We want teachers who are passionate about their subject and are constantly looking to improve their knowledge of it.
Ultimately, if my son or daughter had the choice of being taught by a privately educated subject expert who simply had no idea what he or she was doing, or a teacher with a 2.2 but a natural gift for creating a learning environment, I know which one I would prefer. There are plenty of David Starkeys out there, but fewer naturally gifted teachers who can thrive in the classroom in the long term. We are currently overlooking many.
This debate hits at the heart of what makes a great teacher. I agree with Dylan Wiliam when he said: “The teacher’s job is not to transmit knowledge nor to facilitate learning. It is to engineer effective learning environments for the students. The key feature of effective learning environments is that they create student engagement and allow teachers, learners and their peers to ensure that learning is proceeding in the intended direction.”
I interpret this as; a teacher needs to create the necessary atmosphere, boundaries and if you like, sphere of influence, to ensure that learning objectives are being met. If they can’t do that, it doesn’t matter whether you are Stephen Hawking or Bob from the local chippie, learning will not take place. Yet, the idea of parachuting top graduates into failing schools or disadvantaged areas is all the rage.
This ties in with the idea the political classes have (and also many who have spent no time in classrooms) that teaching is a job like any other and, not only that, their view of what a teacher needs to do is skewered by their own experience and bias. Deep lying and firmly established myths permeate the minds of outsiders; fleeting memories of Grantly Budgeon in Waterloo Road, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society or even Mr Chips are put together with their '70s, '80s or even '90s schooling experiences – perhaps a mixture of canes, dusters, blackboards and boredom. “Teachings a doddle,” they say. And they get 13 weeks of holiday!
We need to find a way of establishing the truth about teaching in the national consciousness. Listening to John Steinbeck wouldn’t be a bad start: "I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
I believe that teaching is a craft. The classroom is the canvas and the outcome is the art. Teaching is a finite skill and an incredibly difficult one to master. To create an environment where learning can take place requires decision-making of the highest order and consistency in it. There are only a few who instinctively know how to outmanoeuvre even the most disaffected groups of young people from the outset – the Tom Bennetts of this world, perhaps – but most have to learn; slowly, painfully and methodically.
So teaching done right is sapping in time, energy and emotion. This reality runs parallel to the trial-and-error, do-or-die, social Darwinist culture in teacher training and development. It is survival of the fittest, driven by market forces. In my view, we need to reset our expectations of teachers across the board, but particularly of our trainees and NQTs.
To reset that expectation, raising awareness of the elite skill level required to be an outstanding practitioner has to be a priority. We hear plenty of emotional stories about teachers “changing lives” – especially on TV shows like the Educating… series – which of course is part of being a teacher. But it’s rare that the media looks at how deep learning over time happens. Of course, the demands of prime-time viewing numbers mitigates for a diet of easily digestible chunks of triumph over adversity.
Above all, trainees and new teachers need time. The government has said that the traditional qualified teacher status (QTS) accreditation is to be scrapped and replaced with a new scheme, which will see teachers formally approved when they are considered ready by school leaders. This strikes me as a positive move, giving teachers with potential the space to improve, but it doesn’t address the idea of teachers starting to teach a full timetable after a couple of hours’ observation.
My own teacher training, through Aberystwyth University, started in the spirit of a great adventure, opening the first page of the book. We had six weeks with our own subject cohort to get acquainted with some basics. We then went on our first placement, 13 weeks but with a maximum teaching allocation of 50 per cent and no teaching at all for the first two.
It provided lots of time to reflect, get to grips with planning, meet with various mentors and read about teaching. It set down some foundations. Nowadays, trainees can have a few weeks of inspirational talks and then be thrown in at the deep end to sink or swim. Not only that, the pleasure of learning the ropes at a suitable pace is being compromised by a lust for something measurable in the present. We need to back off and nurture. It took Jamie Vardy a while to make his way from playing for Forest Green to England.
Putting the “special” back into the idea of a teacher and teaching is surely part of how we recruit and retain the best. Creating the time and space to nurture talent is another.
Tom Rogers runs rogershistory.com and tweets at @RogersHistory