Teachers - heal yourselves

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Education has been used as a political football. But now it is time to stop whingeing and build bridges, says Neil McIntosh

Quite naturally, the last two months have seen a plethora of comment about what the new Government should do to address the ills of education.

A lot of that comment, not least in The TES, has emphasised restoring the shattered morale of teachers. With the focus firmly on the politicians there has been little examination of what educationists themselves should do to foster a new relationship with government.

There were engaging contributors from Living Marxism at the GuardianInstitute of Education debates earlier this year, who argued for the desirability of self-criticism. They hit the nail on the head. Complaining within their own closed circles may bring teachers momentary solace - but among people right across the political spectrum, the agenda for the debate is an uncomfortable one.

Teachers will only be able to engage intelligently and confidently with the new Government if they are self-critical, if they start with the question: "Where have we got it wrong?" rather than: "Look how we have been wronged".

The common response to this plea for a more self-critical profession is to assert that no profession questions itself as regularly and rigorously as teachers. Individually and within their own closed world perhaps that is true, but there is little sense of a real engagement with the world outside.

At one of those Guardian debates, Birmingham's chief education officer, Tim Brighouse, began by questioning how Liverpool football players in the mid 1980s would have been affected by the sort of criticism which teachers are subjected to - and ended by welcoming criticism as long as it came from people with classroom experience.

Both comments were revealingly typical. Comparison of the mass of teachers in 1997 to Europe's best footballers at the height of their powers was a splendid illustration of the tendency to talk of teachers as if they were uniformly excellent.

The notion that no one apart from their peers can comment on teachers is just the sort of attempt to shut out the many other stake-holders in education, which alienates parents and politicians alike.

This is not another anti-teacher diatribe. What I most fear is that already my readers will be turning, like Greek sailors abandoning the rigours of the homeward voyage for the attractions of Circe's island, to the comforting thought that their critics are fools at best, and knaves at worst. Any such discouragement to mature reflection should be resisted.

Teaching is a vitally important, extremely creative job. Teachers are decent, professional people who deserve proper remuneration. The best teachers are wonderful.

But by definition the majority of teachers are average performers, no more or less dedicated than millions of their fellow citizens in a multiplicity of jobs. We need to be honest first about that, and secondly about the possibility that some of the undoubted difficulties facing the average teacher may have come from within the education profession.

To the lay observer it seems that, in comparison with many other countries, British teachers have to cope with less well-defined teacherlearner relationships, more complex forms of classroom organisation, more sophisticated (though not necessarily more effective) pedagogies and less well-defined syllabuses - leading to more lesson and material preparation.

This may not matter to the excellent teacher, who will transcend most things that the outside world tries to impose. But it is difficult to believe these features of British education do not contribute to the average teacher's sense of the growing difficulty of the job.

The issue of accountability for teachers is a delicate one. On the one hand I would suggest that, in general, teachers have been somewhat resistant to any intrusion into their place of work, and that they have not been properly accountable.

On the other hand, the supervision which most of us outside teaching undergo is fairly informal and private. The classroom does not lend itself to such an approach, so that when assessment of teachers does take place it is unusually overt and, inevitably, worrying.

There is now great enthusiasm for self-evaluation; but educationists need to acknowledge that it is a mark of education's past failings that such a self-evidently necessary activity is being discussed as if it were new. Ironically it is the teachers who are not thrown into weeks of panic by the thought of external inspection, and who recognise that the sort of classroom envisaged by chief inspector Chris Woodhead could be a satisfying place in which to work, who are likely to be the most reliable exponents of self-evaluation.

The most grave disservice to people working in the classroom has been performed by those people who have made the defence of practices which make life more difficult for the average teacher synonymous with the defence of teaching as a profession and teachers as professionals. Teaching is about effective communication.

The idea that the scope for creativity which exists in the thousands of interactions which take place in every teacher's day is critically undermined by, for example, a national curriculum, teaching to textbooks, more school-based initial training, whole-class teaching or more formal learning environments is ludicrous.

If teachers can demonstrate trust in the new Government, much can be done. Some academics and, most importantly, union leaders like Nigel de Gruchy of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and Peter Smith of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers are showing willing. Teachers can exploit the current mood of optimism only if they address their own weaknesses.

Neil McIntosh is the chief executive of the Centre for British Teachers

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