Are you a Teacher or a Talker?;Another Voice;Opinion

26th March 1999 at 00:00
We like to define society in terms of dichotomies. Disraeli wrote of "Two nations" - the visible England of politics, wealth and power, and the hidden England of urban despair and poverty - and CP Snow wrote of the "Two cultures" of science and the arts.

Now, I suggest, we can define the world of education in similar terms, as being made up of two "engagement levels". Less pretentiously, these two levels are, quite simply, those who teach the children - "The Teachers" - and those who talk, write and legislate about teaching the children - "The Talkers".

The gap between them is wide. It is not, however, equally perceived from both sides. The Teachers know perfectly well that The Talkers are far removed from the point of focus between child and teacher. The Talkers, however, forget this all the time. Let me illustrate what I mean.

The Talker gets up in the morning, reads e-mails, travels on a train, perhaps doing a little work and reading the newspapers. He makes his way to a meeting room, arriving early enough for coffee before the meeting starts. The meeting is long, and important - perhaps it is about small schools, or truancy, or mental arithmetic, or computers in school, or continuing professional development.

All are big issues for teachers, but The Talker has spent a lot of time reading the paperwork over the weekend, and is fully briefed, so he finds the issues absorbing and challenging.

There is only a short lunchbreak, and the meeting continues until quite late. The Talker is mentally drained at the end of it, and the cool city air comes as a refreshing shock when he emerges. He walks quickly, feeling satisfied that much has been accomplished - the meeting has taken a significant step that will knock on into a real improvement in school performance.

The Teacher gets up in the morning, drives to school, reads e-mails, goes to class and within minutes is entirely absorbed by the immediate demands of 30 real children. As the day goes on she deals with a fight, continues a long battle of attrition with a seriously disturbed child who is insufficiently supported, pushes her class through a literacy hour, snatches a sandwich at her desk, goes out on the playground to keep a special eye on the disturbed child.

At the end of the day, which finished with a staff meeting, she is mentally and physically drained. Her feelings veer between satisfaction at a job well done, and frustration that she ought to have done more. As she goes home, though, she laughs out loud at the memory of the several lunatic incidents that have enlivened the day.

I really do not mean here to make too facile a comparison, or to suggest that one of these two works harder than the other. Both have stressful and highly responsible jobs. Both enjoy what they do. The work of both is necessary if our children are to be well educated.

The difference is simply this. For The Talker, education is an absorbing intellectual challenge, filled with interesting controversies - selection versus non-selection, phonics versus word recognition, calculators versus pen and pencil. All are intriguing - any committee could talk about them for hours. For The Teacher, though, education is a never-ending succession of draining - albeit also stimulating and enjoyable - encounters with children.

It is fatally easy for The Talkers to forget what life for The Teacher is like - even though many Talkers were once Teachers. A meeting round a table can become animated, principles are dissected, methods are vigorously proposed and supported. Everyone at the table probably has, somewhere inside, a mental image of the child, the teacher and the relationship between them. This picture, though, can become very indistinct as the issue under discussion takes on a life of its own, and rivalries - personal, professional, inter-departmental - come into play.

It is also easy, it has to be said, for The Teacher to join The Talkers. A meeting of heads can soon become a Talkers' Conference. A teacher seconded to The Talkers can quickly take on the attributes. It is as if there is a law of nature that says issues and debating points are more interesting than the reality of daily life.

I do not ask for much - simply this. At the beginning of every meeting of Talkers - be it in a university, a Whitehall office, a County Hall, a Commons Committee Room, a school library hosting a governors' meeting - there should be a moment of quiet reflection. During that moment, every member should close his or her eyes and conjure up a picture of a school classroom.

Let each of them mentally pan around the children -the eager ones, the frightened ones, the puzzled ones, the defiant ones, the physically or mentally-disadvantaged ones.

Then let the mind's eye include the teacher, whose task is to take each one of these children a little further every day, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally.

Finally let each Talker say, inwardly - or, indeed outwardly: "This is what we are here for. Only this. Nothing else."

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