2001 uses of a great teacher

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Inspired by a thousand Birmingham teachers, Tim Brighouse reflects on the future and his hopes for a nation that appreciates those who work in its schools.

THE first four working days of the third millennium - yes, I am a pedant - proved to be hectic, bewildering and illuminating. Let me explain.

As usual, two school in-service training days provided the chance to use time effectively. I found myself speaking about teaching and learning to nearly a thousand teachers in all, catching the flavour of a stunningly brilliant lesson and engaging in dozens of thoughtful conversations with Birmingham staff. I learnt so much. Finally, I was inspired by an awards evening - cleverly arranged for the first day of term to lift the spirits of the school.

What is it about school staff that they are so unquenchably optimistic? Although the autumn term was awash with wet lunchtimes and the Christmas break was so short these teachers were energetically refining plans and possibilities for the 10 weeks to Easter. Their conversations were full of "what if?", or "why don't we?" and "how we could", rather than "why we can't", as they debated topics, the scope of which testifies to teachers' intellectual curiosity.

The workshop topics were legion: cognitive acceleration, not only in maths and science but in the humanities too; the creation of a thesaurus of words at the key stage 23 interface, which might help kids to take real advantage of secondary schooling; accelerated learning; formative assessment to aid learning rather than just to measure it; reviews of the literacy and numeracy hour across the two key stages; e-tutoring and involving parents.

Most striking was the group of Year 5 teachers from four different schools planning sets of lessons together with a commitment to observe each other teach, make notes and then meet again to sharpen up their personal teaching practice and their own school's collective learning and teaching policy. "It is a good way of not being defensive", they told me. "And you learn so much by watching others."

There was, too, the glimpse of a teacher discussing with others how her Year 6 group were about to reconstruct the Christmas episode of EastEnders - you know, the one where Nick Cotton was persuaded to fly? - in Shakespearean style. Carefully prepared visits to Romeo and Juliet had left her group insatiable for textual criticism, artistic re-constructions and re-working the language of the playground into Shakespeare.

Finally, however, there was the awards evening at one f our improving secondary schools. I confess I am an addict. As each recipient walks past I chat about their interests, but always about their future plans. Over the past 20 years I have seen at least ten thousand youngsters and have acquired a unique view of career aspirations of those honoured at secondary awards evenings. Ambitions have changed, reflecting the times.

Seven years ago, except in very good schools, few wanted to be a teacher. Given the inevitable time lag, perhaps this explains in part the present shortage. The other evening I stopped counting after 15 would-be teachers - easily the most popular career choice - as I celebrated all the remarkable young people and listened to the citations of their achievements.

Each of the 15 "wannabes" had the good humour, energy, optimism, sense of fun and the determination to be an example of a learner, that are characteristics of successful teachers. "Why?" I asked of each. There were various shrugged replies, including "having fun", "changing the future", "working in a team", "liking people" and "school life".

So I later reflected about shortages, teaching and government action. The latter has put in more resources and after long years of neglect and contraction that's welcome. Beyond this and higher career salaries, less bureaucracy, the recruitment of returners and other mature graduates looking for a rewarding profession, three more suggestions cry out for attention. Overall they are cost neutral.

First, local education authorities and the Learning and Skills Councils need to identify all their aspiring teachers in Years 10 and 11 and ensure that their post-16 education includes rich work-shadowing and short courses designed to consolidate their ambition.

Second, the Office for Standards in Education model of harsh and frequent inspections needs to change to externally moderated self-evaluation with full inspections used sparingly.

Third, one of the many extraordinary own goals of the 1990s was an embargo, which in effect precluded all graduates in subjects outside the national curriculum from even considering secondary teaching as a career. That embargo needs to be lifted at once.

If these were done, my first four days in Birmingham 2001 would not be seen as exceptional, but as the natural signs of a nation beginning to recognise teachers as the creators of society's 21st century prosperity.

Tim Brighouse is chief education officer of Birmingham. For more information on 'teaching' and 'learning' go to www.bgfl.org

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