It's about the neds and nuisances too

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Whingers who want to ditch the difficult pupils are letting the profession down, says Douglas Osler

Among a summer of positive experiences at a school prize-giving and an innovative university summer school, it was depressing, as it would be for the many teachers who are committed professionals, to read a letter in a national newspaper from a teacher who called for "ned free, disruption free" classes.

Apart from the offensive terminology used to describe other people's children, the writer does not seem to realise that the test of a true expert is dealing with the difficult situations. Presumably had she been a doctor, she would have wanted a surgery of healthy patients and if she was a police officer she would not have expected to face lawbreakers.

It underlines a contemporary problem: what to do when a policy of inclusion meets a culture of exclusion? There is still a gap between the language of inclusion and the language of the classroom. Letters like that one do the teaching profession no favours.

If it is challenges I'm about, then let me tackle a real one. What makes a good teacher? My great grandfather, one of the earliest station masters of the railway age, always kept three pictures above his mantelpiece: Gladstone, his minister and the local dominie. He also made a point when he was elderly of getting a lift in a Labour Party car to the polls to vote Liberal because that proved the Secret Ballot Act was working.

He expected the dominie, like the minister, to be someone he should respect. That was more straightforward in his day, but the problem now would be which of the many possible roles, valued by different sections of society, a teacher should try to represent. The notion of being a figure in the community has been lost too with teachers less likely to be resident in the community they work in.

There is a strong argument that a condition of appointment for headteachers should be to live within five miles of the catchment area so that they can understand and engage with the community for whose children they are responsible and from which they draw their salary.

Perhaps being confident and consistent in whatever role the teacher chooses is most important. Teaching is still an activity based on human interaction. Personalities and styles vary and that is important for the experience of youngsters. Good teachers build on their strengths and develop a repertoire of teaching strategies. Above all, good teachers like children - all children, which is why the letter in the national newspaper was so sad.

Good teachers value children's enthusiasms, respect their hopes and encourage their self-esteem. They communicate well with individual children and groups; they are on their wavelength. When I had only been teaching for two years, I was invited to speak to an informal group of youngsters along with a school contemporary who is now a famous cancer specialist. What we had in common when we told them about our jobs was that we both enjoyed and valued what we were doing. That enjoyment communicates itself to pupils and motivates them to learn.

One of the best compliments I was ever paid was when I became engaged to another member of staff who was told by a very challenging group of S3 boys I took that she was lucky. On enquiring why, one replied: "Because you get better treated there."

It works with the disaffected too. A good teacher injects a sense of purpose into learning that convinces pupils of its relevance and significance. These attributes have always defined a good teacher, but life is not so simple now. The job has become more demanding than it was when I taught. Teachers need a clearer sense of the purpose of education and of the skills and competences their pupils will need to contribute to society.

That takes vision.

They need to be up-to-date professionals for whom self-evaluation is part of an everyday engagement in systematic personal and professional development throughout a 40-year career. That takes stamina and commitment.

Teachers have to be socially and professionally inclusive and that means taking a stand against the culture of exclusion in staffrooms.

That includes an acceptance that no matter how good it is, a school can't do everything for its pupils on its own.

Good teachers work with other professionals, families and the community to realise each child's full potential. That takes a high level of interpersonal skills.

Teachers have a professional duty to allow young people to develop socially responsible values. Good teachers present evidence objectively and give children the skills of critical thinking to establish their own values.

That takes integrity.

There are teachers out there with these qualities. Fortunately for Scottish education, they are in good supply and of all ages. The danger is that a list like this puts all the onus on teachers. If the child needs the support of a good teacher, good teachers deserve society's support. Good teachers need to be valued just as the teacher values the child.

Working in a school is not the secluded backwater some people suggest.

Every day teachers see a range of human need and experience from which most workers are sheltered and they are expected to take it in their stride. It is right that teachers should be publicly accountable. It is also right that public accountability recognises the complexities, the opportunities and the value of the job that good teachers do.

All this was sparked off by one piece of poor PR. Perhaps the writer of the letter should consider being a librarian - but then people would want to borrow the books.

Douglas Osler is former head of the Education Inspectorate.

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