Leave your specialism behind, and teach

21st March 2003 at 00:00
Small and mushy part of my brain is reserved, I assume, for the contents of my undergraduate degree. But as I haven't checked for ages, I could be wrong.

This does not stop both the Department for Education and Skills in London and the Ontario College of Teachers over here in Canada from taking my stint at Keele very seriously indeed. As far as they are concerned, I am a specialist in English and social science - and high school teachers must, of course, be specialists.

Their assumptions are flawed for two obvious reasons. First, an undergraduate degree does not make you a specialist in anything. Instead, it teaches you to cobble things together, cram, and think on your feet.

(Real specialisation starts with a further degree, or the development of a personal obsession.) Second, what university-educated adult would not find the material covered in school - certainly up to GCSE level - very easy? The tradition of teachable subjects fails to recognise that teachers armed with degree-level skills and postgraduate certificates in education could turn their hand to virtually any high-school course. It is a skills-based profession, after all. Just ask any primary-teaching generalist.

Unfortunately, we high school teachers fall straight into the speciality trap. We are overprotective of our subjects and academic identities. We call ourselves geographers because, in the 1980s, we wrote essays on weather systems and now ask 11-year-olds to colour in maps. In doing so, we are denying ourselves professional growth - as I accidentally discovered when I moved to Canada.

Fresh off the plane and reeling with culture shock, I was asked to write part of Ontario's curriculum for elementary-level Canadian history. My diddly-squat knowledge of the country was somehow overlooked. Although I felt guilty for stepping on the toes of "real" historians, the job was enjoyable and far from daunting. I got to plug my skills into a new subject area and learn as I went. Go on - ask me anything you like about the fur trade.

Last September saw me teaching a course to 16-year-olds called "Understanding Canadian Law". Again I did not have a clue. But I do now, and can prattle for 70 minutes about torts, contracts and human rights.

Sorry, specialists, but it is not hard at this level. A law degree would be redundant. It is the teaching skills that you need.

This is not to undermine those teachers who do take their disciplines seriously - the physicist with a PhD or the English teacher who writes. But the knowledge gained from single-subject fever is unlikely to trickle down.

Have you tried teaching Derrida to Year 9s? I have. It was crap.

Surely it is better for pupils to have teachers with broad portfolios of subjects - people who can make connections across curriculum areas. It is only fair, as we expect the same from them.

We should specialise, then, in being teachers. And Education Secretary Charles Clarke's recent announcement that he will freeze pay and focus on working conditions should be taken as an opportunity (and not just to remortgage the house). Basically, he wants teachers to have more fun - so let's scrap the business of teaching our "specialist" subjects and have a go at whatever takes our fancy.

As well as the obvious entertainment factor for teachers, there will be a real advantage for Mr Clarke, who can stop worrying about finding staff for shortage subjects. He has watched us deal successfully with his predecessors' willy-nilly initiatives. Just think how adept we will be with courses that actually interest us. GCSE maths? I'll do it.

Ending specialisation will also help to fix our shaky professional reputation, and put the spotlight on our abilities as educators - how we manage our classrooms, how we assimilate and adapt material, how we motivate and enrich students' learning. Instead of being asked what we teach, the focus will be on how.

This shift in emphasis is vital while the teacher shortage continues. As desperate schools rely increasingly on unqualified graduates, the inevitable subtext is that anyone with a degree can teach. They can't, of course. A geography degree does not make a geography teacher.

And that is why, more than ever, we need to leave behind our mushy undergraduate "specialities". We are teachers first.

So, who wants a lesson on Mounties?

Nicholas Woolley teaches English and law in Ontario, Canada Letters, 26

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