The true measure of a good teacher

7th June 1996 at 01:00
To ascribe the low public standing of the teaching profession to Government neglect is to reach a conclusion shared by many disillusioned practitioners. If we accept, however that governments embody public opinion as often as they influence it, we must also accept that anti-teacher prejudice may have its root not in the politics of those who employ us but in the experience and outlook of those we serve.

Our problems begin in taxpayers' fractured memories of school. For many, teachers are permanently associated with compulsion and restriction. Every task was an obligation and every limit a deprivation. Even in less lurid recollections, teachers tend to figure as too remote from their pupils to have any insight into their concerns.

"It was pathetic, sometimes," says a reflective shop assistant in One Hand Clapping, Anthony Burgess's satirical novel of welfare state Britain, "the way they tried to make our schooldays happy."

Reinforcing the image of teaching as a dubious profession is the apparent absurdity of much of the work we do with learners. For generations, we have set ourselves complex teaching goals - the encouragement of creativity, the development of autonomy - to help pupils live productive and satisfying lives as individuals and citizens.

In the public imagination, however, school is still a place where children go to be prepared not for living but for earning a living, a perspective from which our most subtle and pertinent teaching aims seem fatuous and irrelevant.

A further impediment lies in the difficulty many lay observers have in understanding why intelligent and able graduates enter teaching in the first place. In competitive and individualistic societies, a career devoted to putting the needs of other people first appears not just ill-advised but morally perverse.

The impact of public bewilderment upon the status of any profession should not be underestimated. People generally find it easier to forgive the unforgivable than to accept the inexplicable. But if anti-teacher feeling is bred by incomprehension, it is fed by apprehension.

Because effective teaching often results in pupils absorbing not just something of what we know but something of what we are, our values, attitudes and philosophy of life, capable teachers are apt to be perceived as sources of dissension and con-flict from the breakfast table to the ballot box.

The image of gifted and idealistic educators is even more invidious. They are seen as Pied Pipers, child-stealers who transport learners from one perspective on the world to another with no thought for the consequences.

Changing the way we are perceived by others begins with letting them see us as we are rather than as they imagine us to be. This means presenting ourselves to pupils as people first and professionals second. It means helping parents understand our personal commitment to teaching and the hopes we harbour for its future. It means working to establish, through public discussion and debate rather than professional edict, the moral relevance and civic usefulness of our educational aims.

It goes without saying that the pursuit of such goals will not be trouble free. Widespread prejudices are as resilient as they are repellent, and the reluctance of some educators to explain themselves to the man or woman in the street is no less of an obstacle. To abandon the attempt, however is to resign ourselves to a level of public support which is as unreasonable as it is insubstantial and to professional lives spent struggling with its palpable results.

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