Some are not cut out for teaching

21st April 2006 at 01:00
Educational psychologist Ian McEwan returns from a placement in Australia with messages for schools here

One of the criticisms frequently levelled at education psychologists is that their pattern of working keeps them disconnected from the reality of life in schools; that by not being in school, all day and every day, they don't really know what is going on and they have the "luxury" of adopting an academic overview of school life.

A year's exchange programme allowed me to swap the nomadic life-style of an educational psychologist in rural south-west Scotland for the position of a full-time student counsellor in a 1,100-pupil secondary school on eastern Australia's Gold Coast and, thus, be embedded in a school system for the first time in many years.

While accepting that I was not faced with any teaching commitment, most of the slings and arrows of school life came my way. The observations I now offer can be contextualised in terms of the debate about inclusion.

The role of the headteacher in promoting a positive ethos in school is absolutely critical, establishing positive relationships, modelling respect and empathy, displaying enthusiasm and energy, promoting inclusion, explicitly and implicitly - verbally and non-verbally - and showing an interest and affection for the pupils. It is a difficult job but potentially hugely rewarding.

Many schools have teachers who actively and openly dislike children. They are in the minority but still a significant number. There are even some who are so lacking in social skills and empathy that they should never be allowed to go near children.

Within days of being in the school in Australia, it was possible to predict which members of staff would encounter problems with children, and they did.

Private discussions showed most headteachers are aware of this problem but the profession, as a whole, has never really addressed it. The unions are probably most guilty in this respect.

Most staffrooms appear to possess a seductive, negative culture about teaching and children. While it may not be the dominant culture, it often has a loud voice. It must be fairly easy for younger or less confident teachers to gain peer group approval by adopting these negative views.

Challenging this culture must be difficult and require inner strength.

The gap between reality and rhetoric is enormous in many schools and the official descriptors of the school system, as promulgated by management teams, prospectuses and so on, often fall well short of what actually happens on an everyday basis.

It is probably impossible to implement whole-school policies on many, if not all, issues. Most teachers are remarkably resistant, and skilled, at avoiding such challenges and remain conservative in their practice. This is most evident in the secondary sector.

As a system, we are very poor at managing change and selling the benefits.

Change seems to equal threat for many secondary teachers. The social and political dimension of education seems to be lost on many teachers, some of whom appear to exist in some kind of bubble.

The variability of teacher performance is enormous and is not publicly acknowledged or factored into educational debate. And yet, most headteachers will speak privately, with accuracy and feeling, about those staff that can cause difficulty on occasions, for children and colleagues.

Clearly, this is as much a problem for the profession as it is for the individuals concerned, who are often experiencing difficulty as much as causing it and would, perhaps, benefit from being redirected into other professional fields.

We need to be better at accepting that some people just don't have what it takes to be a teacher, whether that be empathy, people skills or emotional intelligence.

Many teachers - thankfully probably still the majority - seldom, if ever, encounter any real difficulties and enjoy teaching. They may find it tiring and challenging on occasions, but rewarding and enjoyable most of the time.

They recognise, and relish, the interpersonal dynamic that goes on in their classrooms daily and the positive relationship and banter they have with the young people in their charge.

We need to listen better to the message from research about the characteristics of good teaching and good teachers. The message has changed little over the years and was as obvious in a school in Australia as it is in Scotland.

Ian McEwan, a principal educational psychologist with Dumfries and Galloway, spent an exchange year as a full-time psychologistcounsellor at a secondary school near Brisbane

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