Stop worrying and cut some corners;Another Voice;Opinion

13th March 1998 at 00:00
Which is the appropriate collective noun for teachers? We have a "pack" of journalists and a "nest" of spies. I think we might usefully add: an "expense" of lawyers, a "study" of headteachers, an "anxiety" of parents and an "expletive deleted" of inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education.

So, I would like to suggest a "conscience" of teachers. Why? Simply because most teachers are far too conscientious for their own good and sometimes that means they can be too conscientious for the good of their pupils too.

This is a harsh judgment of a profession that receives more criticism than most. It might also seem perverse as it is more common to criticise teachers for having it easy. Despite evidence to the contrary, outside education circles it is still the common view that teachers work short hours and have long holidays.

Yet, in my experience, teachers rarely stop thinking and talking about work and are far too conscientious about implementing reforms and keeping up with the latest professional advice. Yes, the trouble with teachers is they are just not lazy enough.

I came to this conclusion on a recent holiday. Education correspondents, like teachers, have to take their holidays during school holidays. Wherever you go there are always some teachers and they will insist on talking about schools whether they are on the beach or on the piste.

Then I realised that all the teachers I know talk about schools in their off-duty hours. They seem to seek each other out as if missing the comfort of the staffroom. They worry about their pupils, budgets and the next Department for Education directive. I should know - most of my family are teachers, either retired, current, or in training.

Normally we praise people for being conscientious. So why am I criticising teachers for being a little too ardent? The problem is that their dedication exhausts them, leaving them vulnerable to the latest initiative or fad, and less resilient to bombardment by pupils, parents, governors and politicians.

The result is low teacher morale. We hear a lot about this. The former Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, used to respond to accusations that he was to blame for this, by asking "which profession, apart from estate agents, does not have low morale?" You might also ask when was teacher morale ever anything but low? That is one reason why newsdesks shun stories about "whingeing teachers".

Of course, other professions whinge too. Yet teachers really do seem to depress themselves more than most other groups. Look at the deep gloom and wasted energy that precedes an OFSTED visit. Of course, no one likes to be inspected and the notice period is ridiculously long (a fortnight would be ample). Yet I know of schools where normal life, and teaching, were put on hold for almost a year and where teachers have worked themselves into such a lather that they have succumbed to stress-related illnesses.

The introduction of the national curriculum is another example. When it arrived teachers rightly argued it was putting a quart into a pint bottle. Yet they settled down to teach it, spending far too many hours on programmes of study and attainment targets and rewriting lesson plans and curriculum policies. A less conscientious approach would have saved a lot of time and anguish.

In the latest change, the Government has given schools greater freedom from the compulsory programme of study in the non-core subjects. You might expect unbridled joy in the staff room. But instead we get a chorus of complaint about the loss of valued subjects like music, art, history and geography. Talk about gluttons for punishment.

The danger of this conscientiousness is that when the most recently-arrived set of politicians or education-gurus come up with an idea, teachers are, perhaps, too ready to implement it - even when they know it is daft.

So, my advice would be relax, cut a few corners, and keep your energies for the children not the paperwork. Do what you know works; proceed cautiously with the rest. Of course, you probably should not take too much notice of this either. After all, the most appropriate collective noun for my profession is a "cynicism" of journalists.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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