Don't let passion pass away

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Educators should be disturbed that less than a quarter of recruits loves their subject, says Joanna Williams

What motivates us to teach? To stand before 30 bored teenagers, putting up with one new government initiative after another? While all the attention surrounding last week's General Teaching Council survey into the profession focused on the third of teachers who wish to leave, the fact that only 14 per cent of teachers are motivated to carry on for the love of their subject warranted little discussion.

A mere 24 per cent enter teaching because they love their subject and the figure then tails off. These statistics should cause great concern to anyone with an interest in education.

A link can, perhaps, be made between the small number of subject lovers and the large number leaving teaching. Good teachers can keep going for years if they are driven by an all-consuming passion to promote an interest in their subject.

Many teachers talk about a general "love" of children. A love of children may prompt you to put in long hours counselling individuals. But with a few awful classes and regular experience of children swearing, spitting or fighting this fondness soon begins to wear a little thin.

When we think back to our own schooldays, more often than not the teachers who inspired us were the ones who were most excited by their subject. We remember the teachers who could throw the textbook away and bring new ideas to life. For these teachers you knew that the bell was an inconvenience, interrupting them from something they were enjoying. Their enthusiasm was so catching. As teachers, perhaps the biggest compliment a child can pay us is continuing with our subject in the sixth form or at university.

Like a young child showing a prized possession in circle time, a good teacher has the same eagerness to share a passion. Whether it is news of the latest scientific breakthrough, a new novel to be published or art exhibition opening, excitement of any kind is highly infectious. Facts and figures conveyed in this way are more likely to be remembered than any worksheet.

When you love the subject you teach, other tasks don't seem such a chore. Engaging with pupils in discussing your passion becomes a fascinating experience. Marking pupils' work is never the best way to spend an evening but a desire to see how others respond to the book, musical score or experiment you found so interesting, makes the job less onerous.

It is important for us to question how it can have arisen that only 14 per cent of teachers love their subject. In doing so we call into discussion everything about what it means to be a teacher in today's education system.

Unfortunately, the perception seems to be that a teacher who is motivated by subject enthusiasm is unlikely to be able to communicate well with children. The image is of a mad academic type who is so busy with his nose in a book that he can't see the children are falling asleep. I would prefer my children to be taught by the mad academic with something to teach than a caring communicator who could relate perfectly to children if only he had something to tell them.

Subject enthusiasts face the further charge of elitism - it is supposed they will only want to work with the brightest children. But the less able need teachers with a passion for their subject even more.

Education Secretary Charles Clarke recognises the problem of teachers without enthusiasm for their subject and has said: "I shall give strong priority to the need to enhance the professionalism of teaching through greater emphasis on subject specialisms." However, he makes an error in suggesting that a re-engagement with subject specialisms can come through government initiatives. It may well be the overload of initiatives that is partly responsible for robbing teachers of the time and energy to pick up a book or newspaper, or watch a documentary about their interests. We need to remove the culture in staff-rooms where it is seen as lazy to sit reading a book or newspaper and moral superiority is given to those drowning under a pile of paperwork.

Joanna Williams is an English home tuition teacher

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