A time for true grit and hard thinking

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
In his second article, Walter Humes considers a new professional identity for teachers

I argued here last week that it is possible to give positive and sceptical readings to the current status of the teaching profession, depending on the interpretation placed on a range of evidence - social, political, institutional and cultural. This week, I want to explore some of the ways in which the public standing of teachers might be improved.

In developing my thoughts, I have been partly influenced by Judyth Sachs, an Australian academic, whose book The Activist Teaching Profession (2003) has attracted a great deal of interest. Sachs contrasts what she calls "old professionalism" with "transformative professionalism". Whereas old professionalism is conservative, self-interested, subject to external regulation, reactive and slow to change, transformative professionalism is inclusive, collegial, enquiry-oriented, flexible and responsive to change.

She argues that moving in an activist direction will lead to the emergence of a new professional identity.

Teachers need to be encouraged to interrogate the dominant policy discourses more critically. This is not easy because of the day-to-day pressures under which they work but it is a necessary part of regaining some intellectual ground, instead of responding passively - or cynically - to the latest policy directive.

I say "intellectual ground" because I am disturbed by the degree of anti-intellectualism that is sometimes evident in discussions about teaching. If teaching is simply defined as a craft skill which is improved and refined only through routine experience, then it should come as no surprise if members of the public do not rate it as highly as occupations that draw as a matter of course on evidence and research, and which take it for granted that advanced qualifications are an important indicator of engagement and commitment.

In some countries a master's degree is a prerequisite for promotion within teaching. The current emphasis on continuing professional development goes some way to address this concern, but much depends on the kinds of courses on offer. My own view is that, too often, they are constrained by the current policy agenda and provide limited scope for open exploration of ideas.

In Scotland, we have recently had a review of initial teacher education which has come up with a series of modest recommendations. Indeed in a trenchant article in The TES Scotland (June 10), Douglas Weir, vice-convener of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, describes the process through which this report emerged as a whale that gave birth to a mouse. We need to be much more creative in envisioning future models of teacher education, which encourage imagination and innovation in new teachers, instead of the compliant conformity which is so often demanded.

The place of research in this is important. Teaching is far from being a research-based profession, and there are arguably limits to the extent to which it can become one. But there needs to be greater willingness on the part of policy-makers and educational administrators to take account of the insights of research. This should not be in the form of seeking "quick fix" solutions to complex problems but rather as one means of informing policy debates.

As part of the process, researchers themselves must learn to become more skilful in communicating and disseminating the results of their findings.

It is encouraging to see the support for teacher research which the GTC has given for a number of years. Some local authorities are now following this example: Aberdeenshire, for instance, has a research newsletter which goes out to all schools.

The teacher unions also have an important role to play in public perceptions of teaching. Here I have to be quite critical. Union representatives, whether at school, local or national level, like to present themselves as radical, as left of centre in political terms. In professional matters, however, they are generally deeply conservative, often perceived as stout defenders of the status quo, and characteristically negative in their responses to new ideas.

This is not just my view. It is the view of many classroom teachers. Let me quote from a letter from a principal teacher in a recent issue of Teaching Scotland, the journal of the GTC Scotland. "Teachers' organisations . . .

are almost all continually reactive to the agenda of the establishment.

When will teachers inaugurate innovative groups seeking better ways to work? When will the Educational Institute of Scotland, for example, set the agenda by proposing radical improvement via novel developments, instead of editing a preset government agenda during a dissatisfying consultation exercise?"

Such comments are usually just ignored, dismissed as the remarks of the disenchanted. I think we need to pay more attention to them for two reasons. First, the voices of classroom teachers deserve to be heard; after all, they are the people immediately concerned with the part of the service that matters most - the part that promotes the learning of young people.

And second, if teachers do not have trust in or respect for those who occupy leadership roles in education, that is likely to be damaging to the morale of staff and the status of teaching.

My final suggestion is one that applies to all of us. We all need to show greater courage in addressing the big issues of our time. Education is right at the heart of the major questions that face modern societies - questions of freedom and authority, rights and responsibility, power and democracy, poverty and opportunity. We need to connect our internal debates more effectively to these big issues instead of being bogged down by the minutiae of our internal institutional operations.

Insofar as we can do that - and communicate our ideas effectively to learners, parents, politicians and the public - we are likely to do more to enhance the status of teaching than if we rely on that modern alternative to real thinking, the vacuous mission or vision statement which is long on rhetoric and short on intellectual bite. A new professional identity is possible but it will take time, determination and hard thinking.

Walter Humes is professor of education at the University of Aberdeen.

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