Walking out of the NUT conference made an impact, but was it the right one? If teachers want the public to take them seriously, they must listen to
opposing views, not run away, says Huw Thomas
THE SIGHT of delegates walking out of the National Union of Teachers' conference in Harrogate as the schools minister Estelle Morris was about to speak is telling.
A few delegates chose to run away from views they did not like. At that point they cease to be representative of a large number of teachers who want to see constructive engagement between the profession and the powers that be. However, like the delegates who bullied David Blunkett a few years back, this year's batch of publicity fodder believed engagement was beneath them.
What does the public make of this? Well there is a tendency in our profession to believe that, like nurses, we automatically deserve and gain sympathy of the masses. Actually the public see us in a different light. Nurses do gory, caring stuff that most people know they couldn't stomach, whereas there is a mistaken belief that our job is cushy.
Nurses conjure the image of Casualty, we get Grange Hill. The public hear teacher complaints and see us as a whinging profession with too many holidays and too few hours. Of course, these are fallacious perceptions. Teaching is a skilled art undertaken by trained, hard-working professionals throughout long days and holidays. However, that "whinger" perception lingers. Could it be that the public has overdosed on our professional protests?
Do we need to be a little more thoughtful about the image we project of our profession? To do this we would need to debunk a few more myths.
First, the myth that we are only seen by ourselves. Those who walked out of the NUT conference will have their fan clubs, their congratulations in their staff-rooms. But this is the adulation of fellow teachers. In my local pub their behaviour is seen as the over-reaction of a pile of wasters. They are a small, arrogant and worrying band who don't care what anyone thinks of our profession but want their esteem for their job communicated to the public. The myth says we can take public recognition for granted. But it involves pro-active communication.
Second, the myth that change is evil. "Too much change..." has become a mantra, as if we could return to a mythical golden age. This hallowed time, a pre-national curriculum, pre-Woodhead, prehistory, is a lie. There was no golden age. Education has always changed to meet new circumstances, evolving rather than fossilising. Unless you believe teaching is now as good as it ill ever be, then you will be an advocate of change. The forces of conservatism in teaching are those mired in past theories and traditions. They are affronted by the idea that anyone could want to inspect them, baulk at the suggestion that there can be such a thing as a failing teacher, fear any change in the way we are paid. But however much you may oppose new pay structures, surely you can listen to the case for them? These colleagues didn't, and in a profession devoted to thinking and learning, they are a disgrace.
Third, the biggest myth of all is the most damaging. It's the one that we perpetuate among ourselves and peddle to outsiders. It's the myth of the horrible job. Teachers seem to believe that by making our job sound bad we will win public sympathy. The education press admits its fair share of long letters and articles about huge workloads and low morale.
All real problems - but if we moan too much we lose the audience. The public hear "Teachers objected..." and respond, "Tell me something new".
It's not that there are no reasons to complain. It's that when such anxieties are couched in unremitting misery that they don't work. We've all worked with people who moan too much. They end up being ignored and avoided. Pity help us if we adopt this as the standpoint of an entire profession.
A truly radical plan would be for teachers to create a different context for their concerns. This would be a context of celebration - and the heresy I want to propose is that there is much to celebrate. I am tired of colleagues who advise others "Never go into teaching". I would rather like them to go elsewhere. This job is full of interest, enjoyment and achievement. That's the context in which we are worth listening to. Teachers undermine the public's capacity to understand us by moaning too much.
Belief in this job provides a worthwhile perspective from which to voice professional concerns. The reason many teachers are anxious about pay reforms is that they enjoy the team structure within their staff. The reason many are concerned about using test results in assessing pay is that they have a passion for education and don't want it to be a race for test scores.
Expressing enthusiasm for our work may even be the best way to secure a pay rise. To realise we have a watching society to which we answer, and to honestly engage in discussion of changes will be two important steps.
To be able to say "I have these concerns and they stem from a love of this job..." sounds like a whole new road to try.
Huw Thomas is a teacher in a Sheffield primary school