James Williams: `Teachers must seize the opportunity to become a true profession'

1st January 2015 at 00:00
James Williams, education lecturer at the University of Sussex, writes:

What's in a name?

There's an opportunity for teachers to establish a new College of Teaching, independent from government interference, acting as the professional body for teachers with certain regulatory powers currently residing with the Department for Education (DfE) and the National College of Teaching and Leadership (NCTL).

There already exists a College of Teachers (note the difference in the name), a professional institution running CPD and promoting the teaching profession. This College, however, doesn't have the range of powers that a regulatory professional body should have, eg, hearing disciplinary cases against teachers.

The name of the new College is important, not just the distinction between teachers and teaching, but how the name invokes a particular view of the profession by teachers and the general public.

Word association

What do you associate with these three words: union, teacher, teaching?

Ask people who aren't teachers and I suspect that responses will range from "Blob" to "lefty, socialist, Marxist", or "long holidays, short days"; perhaps "vocation", "imparting knowledge", "inspirational", etc. Words can convey a lot of positive imagery, but they can also be toxic. We cannot let any professional body for teaching start with any toxic associations. But it's not just the name that's important, it's the membership that will really determine its credibility and success.

Who can join?

There's always a danger that any professional body can be derailed by having a membership that is either too broad or narrow, or that is dominated by individuals or factions with little understanding of the work of its members. Already we are seeing arguments break out on who should be allowed to join the College of Teaching. One prominent education blogger, Andrew Old, suggests that only teachers who teach children on a regular basis should be allowed to join. People like me, qualified teachers with years of classroom experience who then move to Initial Teacher Education (ITE), would not be allowed to join.

Such a narrow membership cannot succeed. If we exclude senior teachers such as heads, retired teachers, perhaps those in FE, teaching post 16 GCSEA-level, even education specialists in ITE, the College, rather than being a voice for all teachers, will become marginalised and its voice diminished. Professional bodies need diversity in its membership. Even if we exclude people like me, do we include or exclude unqualified teachers in schools? Supply teachers? Cover supervisors? FE Lecturers teaching GCSEA-levels to 16- to 18-year-olds?

There's a fear that unless every member of the College of Teaching is a classroom based-teacher, it will just be an `establishment' mouthpiece. I'm not so cynical. I believe that as a profession, we can set up a College of Teaching that welcomes diversity in its membership, which reflects the complexity of classroom teaching and our education system.

The dominant voice in the College of Teaching must be that of the teacher, working day-to-day in classrooms, teaching and dealing with the real problems and issues of delivering a curriculum fit for purpose. In my view, diversity does not have to result in a minority `takeover' pushing wacky ideas like brain gym or the ideology of the resident education secretary.

The first rule of a College of Teaching

We should actively be talking and encouraging debate about it in every school, academy and college. To do that, we must establish clearly the benefits for teachers in joining a professional body. In other professions, this ranges from being allowed to use post-nominal letters, (eg, I am a chartered science teacher and so can use CSciTeach after my name), to different grades of membership, from associate member to fellow, reflecting professional expertise.

Other benefits could range from scholarships (national and international) for teachers, to professional examinations for career progression (middle, senior leader); research fellowships would be another possible incentive and, of course, some of the more mundane things such as discounted insurance for ITbooks, etc. But the real benefit must come from how the college engages with its representation of teachers and the teaching profession with government and the general public.

A voice for teachers

Teachers need a professional voice that is free from political influence. The voice of teachers currently is scattered across professional subject associations and the teaching unions. The former have an important part to play in representing the various subjects, the latter are often dismissed as militant Marxists, a constituent part of the Blob. A College of Teaching must provide a sense of unity on the important issues that affect teachers every day.

Membership should be voluntary - unlike the last aborted attempt where membership was compulsory. Initially, I would like to see the College of Teaching set out its agenda for becoming the voice of the profession and encouraging its potential membership to determine its constitution, its policies and the direction in which it wants to take the profession. Ideally, I would like to see links between existing professional associations and bodies, such that membership of one would provide a much reduced rate for membership of the College of Teaching and vice versa. Such affiliations would be mutually beneficial providing an even stronger voice for the profession.

It's time for teachers to answer the clarion call, to unite and determine the direction of their profession rather than let others define and decide for them what their job should be, and be certain that, without professional status, teaching may as well be, `just another job'.

James Williams is a teacher who happens to be a lecturer in education, but still uses his teaching skills to educate undergraduates, postgraduates and, occasionally, children at the University of Sussex. You can follow him on Twitter @edujdw

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