See beyond the obvious

2nd December 2011 at 00:00

Let's forget education for a moment and think about health. When you are sat in the consulting room with your GP or lying in a hospital bed, what are the signs that you have a doctor who really knows what they are doing?

Patients' groups for different illnesses like to list their top tips for spotting you have bagged a good doctor. They vary according to the illness in question, but share common themes. Empathy and clarity often appear high on the list of ideal attributes. Patients want a doctor with a good bedside manner, but they also want someone who can explain clearly what is happening to them. The ideal doctor is expected to be highly knowledgeable and to have a good reputation, but also to genuinely listen and be responsive.

At this stage, the parallels between a good doctor and a good teacher may look blindingly obvious. But one attribute is normally more recognised in the medical world - and that is the ability to recognise that a patient is suffering from more than one problem.

When a patient has a significant pre-diagnosed condition, such as multiple sclerosis or heart disease, it is all too easy for an inexperienced doctor to leap to the assumption that it must be the cause of whatever new symptoms have arisen. A good doctor will obviously consider the major condition, but they will also recognise that people can suffer from more than one ailment at once and that they may have completely separate causes.

Teachers need a similar perspective when working with pupils, especially those with special educational needs (SEN). As the report in this edition notes (pages 4-7), almost half of the 1.7 million young people in the UK with SEN also have a mental-health issue. But their difficulty - whether it is depression, ADHD or a behavioural problem - is often masked by their more obvious needs.

So, teachers need to pay extra attention to see past the obvious. Unfortunately, this is yet another challenge to add to teachers' already very long lists. The one upside is that it might be another step towards society recognising that teachers can be as skilled as doctors. After all, doctors do not have to diagnose 30 patients simultaneously.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw

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