The casualties of teaching

19th September 2008 at 01:00
It is always a pleasure to meet a new cohort of students beginning their training as teachers: their enthusiasm and commitment are a reminder of the qualities that motivate people to want to join the profession.

It is always a pleasure to meet a new cohort of students beginning their training as teachers: their enthusiasm and commitment are a reminder of the qualities that motivate people to want to join the profession.

The one-year postgraduate programme for primary and secondary teachers is particularly intense, with a vast amount to be crammed into a short time- frame. They have to get up to speed quickly on the structure and content of the school curriculum, which may have changed substantially since they themselves were pupils, as teaching now attracts many mature entrants with highly-varied backgrounds. There are the usual academic demands of a university course in the shape of essays and assignments. And, not least, there is preparation for placements in schools, involving not only lesson planning but also a whole range of practical matters to do with classroom management, discipline and assessment.

Most trainee teachers cope well with the demands they face, aided by the considerable support they get from experienced staff in schools. Each year, however, there are a few casualties, and it is worth reflecting on why some don't manage to stay the course.

Sometimes, it is because the trainees start with a rather romantic notion of what teaching involves. When faced with the reality of modern schools, and the challenges posed by some pupils, they decide that teaching is not for them after all. In other instances, the problem may be essentially one of communication: a graduate may be well-qualified academically in his or her subject but lack the verbal and social skills to convey that knowledge to pupils. Early recognition of a mismatch between aspiration and ability allows for withdrawal and redirection before much harm is done.

The cases that have caused me concern are those where I feel a potentially very good teacher has been lost to the profession. For example, I can think of one young man with lots of energy and ideas, who quit because he couldn't stand what he saw as the conformist climate of schools, with its narrow interpretation of "professional" behaviour.

There was an element of bad luck in his case: he was sent to rather traditional schools for his placements and provoked resentment by wanting to try out approaches that departed from approved institutional norms. In this sense, he was naive, failing to realise that tact and diplomacy may be required when negotiating the "politics" of schools.

For a while after he left, I received postcards from him from various parts of Europe, recounting his adventures and containing delightfully cheeky comments about his exit from the course. He was a free spirit and, with a bit more give and take on both sides, he could have been a real asset to teaching.

Not all of the casualties depart at the pre-service stage. There is a significant retention issue where teachers, for a variety of reasons, including failure to obtain a permanent post, leave the profession after only a few years. And it was revealed recently that Scottish teachers take more than three times the national average in sick leave as a result of stress and depression (TESS August 22). No doubt the efforts of Teacher Support Scotland will help to address some of the concerns, but perhaps what is needed is a more fundamental re-appraisal of the culture of schooling.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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