Am I too clever to be a primary teacher?

21st February 2014 at 00:00
Academic success doesn't rule out being a teacher of young children. Quite the opposite - it's of great benefit in a tough job

Forgive me, because I'm about to say something that doesn't quite fall within society's accepted bounds of modesty. I'd like to preface it with the admission that I am neither cool nor particularly sporty, nor tremendously practical. What I am (and this is the part that you're not really supposed to say out loud) is academic. I was an A-grade student throughout school and graduated from my Russell Group university with a first-class degree, followed swiftly by a master's.

This is relevant, and not just a bit of casual showing-off, because I now spend half my week teaching in a primary school, and the two things - academic success and primary teaching - seem to be considered odd bedfellows. When I meet old friends who remember my top-of-the-class past, my current career generally seems to surprise them. They don't say so directly, but the subtext is that something must have gone awry with my life plan for me to have ended up spending two-and-a-half days a week with a bunch of 10-year-olds.

I am confused by this attitude, because when I step back and look at my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, an awful lot of the strengths stem from my academic qualities. I genuinely love learning and I think the children pick up on this; my subject knowledge is excellent, so I'm able to answer their questions and extend the ones who want to go further; and I instinctively grasp the theories behind different schools of thought.

If this sounds as though I've accidentally copied and pasted part of my CV then I apologise, but the truth is that I have on occasion had to explicitly justify my grades to potential employers. I often sense that they expect me to run off to be an investment banker at any moment. When I was job hunting, fresh from teacher training, I was quizzed directly about my A-levels and degree, with employers wanting to know what in particular had drawn me to primary teaching despite - not because of - my grades. It's the educational equivalent of being told that you're over-qualified for a job, only no one says it out loud.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that high grades are the only thing that can make someone an effective teacher, or that school leaders should be concentrating on these qualifications to the exclusion of other attributes. But it saddens me that the academically gifted might be put off teaching by the impression that mediocrity is a better qualification than excellence when it comes to shaping young minds. In England, the Department for Education insists that teachers entering the profession have at least a grade C at GCSE in English, maths and a science. But minimum entry-level requirements are just that: the minimum.

Is part of the problem that we still see primary education as largely concerned with glitter, glue sticks and snotty noses? I'm not denying their existence (on my first day as a supply teacher, a child sneezed on me with extraordinary velocity), but the real meat of the job is still about reading, writing and 'rithmetic. Helping still-developing brains to grapple with these is without doubt an intellectual challenge, even if the basics of 2+2 and The Very Hungry Caterpillar aren't. It requires imagination and analysis to work out why a child is struggling with a simple concept and it necessitates high-order thinking and problem-solving to decide what to do about it.

Chasing status

Of course, there is also the issue of status. Teaching is not financially lucrative (I still can't afford that yacht) and it doesn't currently command a great deal of respect from society. We all fear the dinner party question "What do you do?" and the assumptions people make based on your answer. Sometimes - and I'm not proud of this - I'm tempted to create a sign for such occasions: "Yes, I'm a primary school teacher, but I'm really clever, too!" Or perhaps I could get a tattoo of my degree results in Chinese lettering.

The whole thing becomes a vicious cycle when the brightest candidates are deterred from teaching precisely because of fears that others will assume it's "the best they can do". We need to make more of an effort to recognise that the best teaching is inspirational, challenging and capable of making more of a real difference than almost any other job. As far as bests go, it's up there.

I'm lucky. I work at a school that recognises and appreciates my academic gifts, and forgives me for my messy desk and haphazard approach to filing. I've been given opportunities to focus on my first love, literacy, and there is always someone around to offer advice and support when it comes to the areas of the curriculum that don't come so naturally to me - physical education, for instance, in which, despite my best efforts to set a good example, I still feel like a cat forced to wear a bonnet.

And perhaps this is the crucial thing. A host of A*s will not prepare you for every eventuality when it comes to effective primary teaching. There are plenty of elements of the job where my degree makes not the tiniest iota of difference. The fact that I can recite huge swathes from Shakespeare's sonnets and discuss Barthes' theory of the text is insignificant when I am faced with a bleeding, crying child who has slipped over in the playground. But, equally, there are many daily instances where I know that my academic personality type is key to what I can offer the children I teach. It's not even as though I'm alone in this: I've worked in primary schools alongside PhD holders and card-carrying Mensa members.

The bottom line is that you can't be "too clever" to be a primary school teacher. Sadly, society is sometimes not clever enough to realise this.

Kate Townshend is a teacher and freelance journalist based in Cheltenham, England.

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