Speak up for success;Opinion

16th April 1999 at 01:00
If you want to hear some good news about teaching go out and spread itfor yourself, says Matthew Boyle

TEACHERS ARE really taking a knocking in the press. Everyone claims expertise, and alarmingly few have bothered to read the evidence. None seems aware that study upon study has confirmed steadily rising standards year on year. Here is the problem: the media are enjoying the current "teacher bashing" approach, because it suits their audience.

It is no surprise that heads are down, and morale is low. Add to this the changing curriculum with its background of poor classroom consultation, and anyone can see that this is a profession to avoid. Teacher training in Scotland has a crisis just around the corner due to low levels of applications in many subjects. It's all looking pretty bleak. Or is it?

I don't think so. Teaching is the most noble and satisfying of all jobs, and I have never regretted for a single day my decision to work at the chalkface. Every day that I taught with a cheerful determination to help pupils to learn, I made the world a little better. I am sure this is how most committed teachers feel.

When I obtained my physical science degree, many of my peers were seriously considering a career at the atomic weapons research centre at Aldermaston. The "money was good" and the facilities were "cutting-edge". But I wonder if you could achieve the same level of job satisfaction.

It is time the profession moved to reclaim its ideals. Most teachers care deeply about helping kids to learn well. If you put this in the context of ever improving exam standards, we seem to be doing rather well. Teachers are incredibly interested in learning and teaching issues, and clearly bend over backwards to fulfil the goals of quality teaching and learning within a constraining and ever shifting curriculum.

The tiny minority of teachers who don't identify with this should really consider whether they might be happier in some other line of work with greyer suits and shorter holidays.

The challenge in getting this message across to the committed teachers who want to hear their good work talked up and celebrated, as well as those enthusiastic newcomers we should be welcoming into the job, is in combating a growing victim mentality. Too many excellent teachers have given up the struggle, and lost their enthusiasm for the fight.

The issue for us here is one of re-framing. Happier teachers see themselves as being very much part of the process of educational progress, with their voices heard, and the tendrils of influence extending outwards from them as well as coming inwards from school management, local authorities and the Government.

The victim mentality means that you only see the dictates and commands coming inwards. You begin to feel that you have no influence or control, and so you stop using your voice constructively, turning instead to cathartic staffroom complaining. There are as many good initiatives in education that are "bottom up" as "top down", and it can be argued that the most successful ones are bottom up, with support from above.

My own area of passion, teaching "how to learn", is just such an example. Having emerged from committed and passionate individuals and departments, teaching of learning is now being adopted by education authorities as a good idea which helps children directly. It is essential for the good of our schools that teachers who are beginning to see themselves as victims rethink the talents that they bring to bear in classrooms, and re-engage with the constructive dialogue that will help us improve pupil lives.

This is not really a vague option. Not all of the top-down initiatives of the day are based on what is best for learners. There is a need for the profession to engage with the issues to ensure that the new millennium will see what is best for our schools. If we abdicate the "moral high ground" that politicians are so anxious to monopolise, then we will get what we deserve: political initiatives that grab headlines, and achieve little or nothing for classroom practice.

Sadly, pupils will not deserve this. We take the shilling (literally, I hear you cry) to look after their interests, not just our own, and we are obliged to manoeuvre ourselves into the optimum position to have our voices heard. We must then use our voices to shout from the rooftops about what a great profession this is, and what a great job we are doing.

Complaining about salaries and lack of thanks may seem justified, but it is not a good means to an end. The press likes to knock us, because we seem too often to complain about our own lot. We will achieve more from a positive platform.

At the recent "Success Stories" conference in Dundee, the BBC education reporter Ken MacDonald said that the media were not interested in the headline "50,000 planes miss mountain", they only want to milk the story of the one that didn't. This point was that we have to give the media good stories, and exciting viewpoints, to prevent them filling the vacuum with bad press.

Maybe it shouldn't be our responsibility, but in the absence of any incoming superheroes in bright Lycra wearing capes, the lot falls to us. Talk up our successes and celebrate our achievements, no one else will do it for us.

Next week: Sandy McAuley on the target-setting culture.

Matthew Boyle is a research fellow with the Quality in Education Centre, Strathclyde University.

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