Gifted and talented - but he's a teacher

23rd February 2007 at 00:00
Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited

Why are we not confident enough to celebrate outstanding teaching?

There is nothing in my professional life that gives me a greater buzz than seeing or reading about such feats. I only came to recognise this after reading a book called I Choose to Stay by Salome Thomas-EL, a black teacher who refuses to desert inner-city Philadelphia and who has achieved fame in the United States for helping young blacks achieve their academic potential through playing chess.

The dust jacket doesn't lie. Here is a deeply inspiring story of determination, love and courage. But what struck me most, was that Mr Thomas-EL is a specially gifted and talented teacher. He himself believes he was born to teach, and it seems he knew exactly what the books say about motivation before he read them.

I've been thinking recently about how we deal with those who are special, gifted or talented in our education system, be they students or teachers.

In October, The TESS ran a front page news item entitled "Awards teacher vilified". The subject was the first Scottish teacher, Susan Ward, right, to win one of the UK teaching awards.

It was reported that, within hours of this, teachers were debating the pros and cons of best teacher awards, accusing them of making other teachers "feel like crap" because they hadn't won anything. One teacher was even reported as saying the televised awards were "vomit-inducing".

In December, Sir Cyril Taylor, the architect of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust in England, claimed that "we are wasting the talents of our brightest kids" and talked about teachers having an "anti-elitist ideology"

and a "lowest common denominator approach". He was talking about the reluctance of many schools in England to spend time and money on gifted and talen-ted children. His comments echo the views of the right-wing commentator Melanie Phillips who, in the past, has slated education for an "all must have prizes" approach.

I come from a different political planet from Sir Cyril and Ms Phillips, but I suspect they, too, believe that every child is special and that we should develop all talents.

One thing they fail to understand, however, is that, where young people are not emotionally robust, excessive competition can undermine their motivation and self-confidence. An over-emphasis on being the best can lead them into negative mind-sets where they no longer believe they can be successful and simply seek to avoid failure.

What is it about some teachers that they cannot celebrate giftedness, talent or excellence in their midst when they see it? Why can't some cope with the obvious fact that some people are more gifted and talented than others and be happy for them? Are teachers not emotionally robust enough to recognise great teachers without being belittled by their excellence?

Salome Thomas-EL is a better teacher than I ever was or ever could have been. I've met hundreds in Scotland about whom I could say the same.

Knowing that doesn't diminish me. It adds to my admiration for them.

My advice to beginner teachers is: find out who the best teachers are in your school. Ask them if you can sit in on some of their classes. If they seem puzzled as to why you want to, just tell them: "I hear you are a good teacher and I want to learn from you."

That approach can't be replicated at a national level. But there are hundreds of teachers throughout Scotland who are good enough to be wonderful adverts for the profession. That was one of the ideas behind the awards scheme in England. Isn't it time for the unions to change their minds about supporting such a scheme in Scotland?

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