Caution: this dinosaur bites back

13th July 2007 at 01:00
In my first placement during my teacher training at a certain Glasgow academy some 12 years ago, I was asked why I had come into teaching. Was it because of the subject, or because of children? Rather naively, I declared that it was to explore and share my enthusiasm for my subject (religious, moral and philosophical studies).

Clearly, this was not the right answer, honest though it was. I wish I had known then that I was a teacher of children. It would have made those conversations in hairdressers that much easier (or shorter).

I'd like to question the politically correct line of teacher education, that we are teachers of children rather than of a particular subject; or at least the emphasis placed on it with regards to the secondary sector.

The galling aspect of this truism is the implied exclusivity student teachers must be one thing or the other (and one option is clearly frowned on by those who assess their progress).

Sure, there is a case for questioning compartmentalisation of knowledge and the competition between subject islands in secondary schools. I agree that there should be a more seamless understanding between primary and secondary (though this should not be a one-way street).

But how helpful is it to trumpet repeatedly the "you are teachers of children" mantra to prospective teachers, many of whom regard their love of a particular subject as core to their fledgling professional identity and to themselves as human beings?

I suspect the amount of zeal with which these pronouncements are made is proportional to the speaker's distance from the secondary chalkface. They have taken on a platitudinous and patronising tone. They are patronising to subject teachers, who are fully committed to cross-curricular pedagogy and educational theory. But they are also patronising to the children, who are perfectly capable of discerning between subjects and need to have enthused subject zealots before them in order to explore and shape their self-image. Obviously, this is increasingly the case in the secondary sector (cast your mind back to the formative teachers you experienced).

If this means that the primarysecondary division is less soluble than certain "renaissance" educationists think it should be, so be it. The philosopher Bertrand Russell put it rather well: "Knowledge wielded by love is what the educator needs, and what his pupils should acquire. In earlier years, love towards the pupils is the most important kind; in later years, love of the knowledge imparted becomes increasingly necessary."

Much is made of multiple intelligences, learning styles and individualised learning. Committed subject specialists provide a lived reality of these theories for pupils. While teacher education institutions persist with the "teachers of children" line, the needs of secondary children to encounter devoted specialists are being ignored.

I also worry that the uniformity that this presents is corrosive of professional identity and a turn-off for many who, precisely because of their subject enthusiasm, would offer a great deal to teaching. As Russell put it: "Progress should not be sacrificed to a mechanical equality."

If I could be that naive student teacher again, I would give the same answer. I am a teacher because of my subject. If this makes me a "dinosaur" in the eyes of some educationists, I would reply that it is a dinosaur akin to the crocodile or shark persistent, suited to the environment and ready to bite on the bum anyone who questions my place in the education food chain.

I suspect the majority of effective, popular and successful secondary teachers agree.

Graeme Nixon is a lecturer in religious, moral and philosophical studies at Aberdeen University

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