Still looking for the perfect teacher;Opinion

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
THERE WAS a time, not long ago, when teaching jobs were ten a penny. The selection process for my first post involved me sticking a pin in the list of vacant classes presented by the depute director. After a year I felt like a change and I asked to join a soon to be opened school in another town. My appointment was immediately confirmed by telephone.

I do not know if my performance satisfied my headteachers. No one ever told me and no one ever paid enough attention to what was going on in my classroom to know. If I succeeded it was because the children seemed happy enough and I did not annoy their parents.

This approach was loaded in favour of the teacher and I did not think of questioning it until I became responsible for a school and noticed that staff were appointed on no better reason than it was their turn for a transfer or that they were Catholics and this would be enough to keep the Church authorities happy.

No one mentioned any ability to teach a class of 33 children effectively and it appeared that there was little concern about providing children with a high quality of education.

Perhaps it was the 5-14 curriculum that made a difference. In describing levels A to E, it gave attainment benchmarks against which classroom performance could broadly be measured. If this information was to become semi-public it would be important to have a say in the appointment of teachers who would carry this responsibility.

Today interviews and appointments are in the hands of school board members, headteachers and peer interviewers who are expected to appreciate the school's individual circumstances. We have been there, done the course on fair selection, interviewing skills, person specs, job descriptions and learnt how to analyse application forms with tick boxes.

The addition of classroom assistants and nursery nurses means that many more working hours are spent in the process of leeting and interviewing, and all of this is a good thing. If heads are to be held responsible for what happens in schools they should be heavily involved in the staff selection process.

Yet, despite all the extra hours which go into maintaining this improved system, it is still difficult to ensure we are getting the best person for the job. The system is fairer for candidates but it is doubtful if it is much better for schools. We do not see how good our chosen candidate is at forming relationships with children and organising their learning until it is too late to undo a poor choice.

The best available information on an applicant's ability is in the application form and the accompanying references, but applicants can structure their responses easily to give us what we want to hear before and during the interview.

As for references, they are not worth the paper they are written on. All the references I have waded through in the past two years stated that the candidate was exemplary and would be just what we were looking for. I do not believe that the world is so full of top class candidates.

We might improve our hopes if we visited short-leeted candidates in their classrooms where the quality of interaction between adult and children could be observed. If things went wrong, so much the better since one of the measures of a good teacher is the ability to deal effectively with the unexpected.

If expenses could not stretch to accommodating cross-country visits it could become a requirement of an application that short-leeted candidates submit a video of themselves at work. This would contribute to the local economy by providing employment opportunities for video producers, hair stylists and make-up artists and the video could be edited to provide a "Best of . . ." compilation. The children also could be bribed to contribute perfect behaviour.

It is important we know what we are getting before it is too late. The appointments system has some way to go in serving the needs of children and schools.

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