Superman is paid the same as Clark Kent;Platform;Opinion

1st October 1999 at 01:00
Jean Anderson doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at the idea of super teachers. She does know she's insulted.

AT FIRST I scoffed at another New Labour gimmick - identify "super teachers" and pay them more than the rest of the highly qualified and experienced but mediocre members of the profession. My laughter changed to gloom as I pictured what may be considered to be a super teacher.

Ask S1 pupils for their idea of a super teacher and they will vote for the one who gives them fun lessons. At that stage most competent teachers, with a bit of imagination, can make most lessons "fun". This does not make a super teacher - just one who knows children learn best when they are interested in the subject matter. Shouldn't all teachers know this?

Another thing children like at this stage is humour. Good discipline often owes more to the teacher's sense of humour than anything else. Children do learn more when they are happy with the environment, yet they like the teacher to be in charge. Although most pupils will take advantage of the situation when they realise a teacher is not in control, they really do not like it. They like teachers who are "strict but a good laugh as well". The majority of teachers fulfil this tall order comfortably. This does not make them "super" - just teachers.

The idea that they should be paid by results makes a nonsense of all the research on Standard grade and 5-14 which shows that children reach different levels of attainment at different stages of their development. Some children will reach a plateau in some subjects at Foundation level, no matter how inspired or rigorous the teaching. In fact, many would not reach even that plateau but for good teaching.

I recall a Standard grade English class who gave me one of my hardest years in teaching, a disillusioned and unruly bunch destined for Foundation awards. A great head of department manipulated the timetable to keep the numbers down to 20 and have our young probationer in with me most periods. I managed to make them work hard and keep them interested. Five gained General passes and the rest Foundation.

If super teachers are those with a high rate of academic passes, I did not make the grade that year or many others since. (When you are successful with so-called lower ability classes, they are on your timetable every year.) But I felt that I had used my teaching skills to much greater effect with that class than the best Higher class I ever had.

So, if it's not the pass rate, how do we identify these super teachers? Ask the pupils? Pupils have faith in a teacher's reputation for results. They like to work hard and are impressed by the teacher who gets top classes. They have confidence in the teacher who takes time with them and has good discipline. Anything super?

Ask the parents? In the main, parents are happy with teachers who tell them what they want to know, and they are often naturally prejudiced in favour of their children. If they are not told their child is behaving and will get good exam passes, parents tend to question the teacher's competence and judgment. They would rather not think about any lack of ability, attentiveness or self-discipline in their child.

Ask other teachers? It would be safer to visit a group of tigers before lunchtime. Teachers cannot agree on what a good teacher is, only what works for them. But one thing they do agree on is that if extra payments are be made for exam results, the only factor that will count is the ability level of the classes on your timetable. Superman himself could not turn pupils who have reached their peak at General level (and it is not a bad peak) into Credit passes.

Everyone has met the teachers who get the top stream year after year, because they just cannot hack it with pupils who are not academics in the making. The myth of the best teacher then builds up, because most passes come from their classes, when actually they are doing less teaching than in a Foundation class or a Communications module.

Another worrying spin-off is that some teachers are discouraging borderline pupils from going for Highers, because they want the certainty of passes. This works against late developers and those who just need that extra bit of effort, or luck on the day to pass.

Ask the headteacher or principal teacher? Definitely not, unless we want posts filled by sycophants and yes-men.

Should we draw up some criteria for super teachers then? Imagine the working party: TEACHER ONE:We should have a strict dress code for these teachers.

TEACHER TWO : They should have very strict discipline.

TEACHER THREE:The proportion of Higher passes should be taken into account, say over three years (silently thanking God that he is head of department and can give himself the top class yet again this year).

TEACHER FOUR: Extra-curricular activities should count.

It is unlikely to work.

Everyone knows there are super teachers who stand head and shoulders above the rest. What makes them special? Pupils admire them and work hard for them. Parents approve because they get a response from their children that others cannot.

A good teacher is a combination of many things: intuition, training, experience, personality and probably love of the job. These are qualities which cannot be quantified or assessed, apart from the training. So my advice is: forget the idea of paying some teachers more because unworkable criteria can be manipulated to make them fit the bill of super teachers. Pay all teachers a salary fitting their worth to society. Tighten up procedures for redirecting those who are obviously not suited to the job, and you will have a whole profession which can be called "super".

Jean Anderson is a retired secondary teacher.

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