Civilised society is defined by its 'good' teachers

15th January 2010 at 00:00

As we begin a new year, Scottish education (in common with the rest of education in these islands) faces fierce financial pressures and is going to be asked to do more with less. While government north and south of the border will undoubtedly do their level best to protect education, this will not be enough to keep funding levels at the historic highs we have seen in recent years.

The squeeze will cause real frustration, real anxiety, real anger and real hurt. Real people won't be employed, real children won't get access to the desired resources, real teachers will feel over-burdened.

At such times, it is understandable that professionals will be tempted to lose heart. Such a temptation should be roundly resisted because, and despite the false values of city slickers and dodgy purveyors of snake oil in education, being a teacher remains the most privileged position in modern life.

This privilege is rooted in our major responsibility for assisting others in shaping their future. If education wasn't so important, we might ask why so many communities, public figures, politicians and others are anxious to control the educational agenda and colonise the educational spaces. Surely it is precisely because they see the potential to shape the political, economic and cultural future in and through schools.

From science and technology, through languages and arts to personal development, citizenship education and economic literacy, teachers and schools are charged with transforming the lives and opportunities of young people, many of whom live in less-than-ideal economic, social and moral conditions. This charge is both exciting and demanding, because we must not only discharge our responsibilities on behalf of parents and the state but also offer some protection to children.

Such protection is no trivial matter - everyone wants a bite of childhood. From governments to advertisers, children are too often seen as "fair game", susceptible to exploitation and manipulation. Indeed, even within the educational world they are prey to fads and fashions; the latest pedagogic theory or social practice too easily becomes a professional orthodoxy, and children's cultural and moral learning can be displaced by a desire for a quick fix to this or that social problem - from obesity to poor political participation.

Schools exist to serve the child and society, but they cannot and should not attempt to compensate for poor social and political decision-making elsewhere. Politicians need to legislate where there are particular social ills and not expect education to do their work for them.

The biggest challenge for teachers is to educate students for their future, while simultaneously holding on to the best of our past. In some respects, teaching always has to be conservative; that is, it needs to conserve the best of our traditions. But it has to do this in a way that still offers students the freedom and capacity to be equipped for whatever life throws at them.

Too often, we think that this means everything has to be relevant and we turn to the contemporary, in the process forgetting the great historic and cultural resources at our disposal. Ironically, the very people who are inclined to tell us that Shakespeare or Mozart, Picasso or Rodin are not appropriate material for students who come from difficult backgrounds are those who have been able to use their knowledge of such cultural resources as a form of capital.

The insights to be gained from science, culture and art should be made available to all. In the age of the internet, we can be seduced into thinking that immediacy and relevance are the only important goals of education. But high culture is not a waste of time, moral claims are not redundant and books still offer treasures to be unearthed.

That is why, despite living in the most challenging period of the last 40 or 50 years, teaching remains the pre-eminent task of any civilised society - and "good" teachers its most important asset.

Jim Conroy is dean of education at Glasgow University. This is the first in a regular series.

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