Two professional titles, both alike in dignity

30th May 2014 at 01:00
Teachers and lecturers are united by their devotion to learning, and the world of FE is diverse enough to encompass all labels

Given the changes in the educational landscape, should there still be a difference between how professionals teach in schools and in further education colleges? Should there be a distinction between the labels "teacher" and "lecturer"? Are the skills and delivery now the same? And is the difference only one of terminology?

It is fascinating to me that there is such a desire to ensure that we in FE are homogenised into one easily definable category. With so much emphasis rightly placed on celebrating the diversity of our learners, why should all staff in all institutions be semi-skimmed? Can we not celebrate the skimmed nature of some and the rich, full-fat nature of others?

Within any institution there are a variety of labels: instructor, facilitator, coach, tutor, teacher, lecturer. The list is almost endless. The focus of all, though, is the same: to help students to learn and progress. Education evolves, and whether you believe in cognitivism, constructivism or humanism, Maslow, Kolb or Bloom, what ultimately matters is learners learning.

We all teach. We use different and age-appropriate methods with due regard to health, safety, equality, diversity and the backgrounds of our students. We use our skills to pass on subject knowledge, whether that is acquired from our vocation or from academic study - one has no more value than the other and both are essential to learning.

If we continue to worry about labels, then will we diminish the value of the role? If we persist in building a hierarchy of sharply defined titles that enclose our actions and abilities, then are we limiting our own development and, ultimately, impinging on learning? Staff who come to FE as teachers want to be teachers, lecturers want to be lecturers; we are different but we share the same values, professionalism and methods.

Collaboration between schools and FE, and between universities and FE, is well established; we accept without question that school educators are teachers and that higher education has lecturers, so why do these labels seem to matter so much to FE? Why not simply have both?

My feeling is that this has something to do with the much discussed Cinderella complex that we have tried so hard to bury. Do we still feel like the new kid on the block, trying to prove our worth in the education playground and figure out what or who we are? Does an insecurity lurk behind our technological facade, driving us to want to choose a side and apply a label to our staff before we can move on?

Possibly. But consider this: FE is more than an educational institution; it is a bridge between schools and universities, the most individual and collaborative sector there is. Attempts to label what we do, to shoehorn us into one product, are anathema to most FE staff. Our roles are multiple, our talents undoubted and our skills and professionalism are evident to all.

Teachers and lecturers are not the same and nor should they be. Rather than resort to boxing, labelling and confining, we should celebrate the diversity of staff within FE and be glad that it contains doctors, lecturers and HE staff, that it attracts outstanding teachers who move to the sector from schools.

Strength in diversity

We are lucky to attract the widest possible range of students, and to offer them the widest range of courses and opportunities in the widest range of geographical locations. And we are similarly fortunate to attract the widest possible range of staff.

Our diversity is our greatest strength; let's not weaken ourselves by retreating into conformity. That has never been the point of FE. We broke from local authority funding to go our own way because it was the right thing to do for learners, employers and the economy. So why force a choice? Individually, staff will select what suits them, just as learners do.

Traditionally, teachers taught in primary and secondary schools and lecturers were in tertiary - that is, further and higher - education. FE staff joined the lecturers' union alongside HE staff. Sixth-form and school staff joined teaching unions. But as FE now delivers to 14-plus students, do we teach them or lecture to them? In schools the answer would be "teach", and given that we in FE deliver the same qualifications using the same professional skills and delivery methods, are we not teachers, too?

As I have recently completed validation for a number of degrees in partnership with a large university, the question becomes even more difficult to answer. Our HE student handbook states: "Teaching methods may include: lectures, practicals, group and independent research, case studies, problem-solving sessions, personal and group tutorials, web-based interactive tutorials." That sounds less like a professor talking at learners and more like teaching.

However, the two types of institution are not the same. No matter how strong the teaching focus of their employer, lecturers are lecturers, not teachers. It is a different status, a historical hangover from the separate levels of education: primary, secondary and tertiary. Only now our levels are blurred, merged and far more inclusive than ever before.

Lecturers in HE do teach, but they also have research to conduct and publications to write. Teachers have a wide range of roles, too, including administration and management but not traditionally research. FE is not noted for giving staff time to devote to research, so they have taken to using their limited spare time, as have teachers. Given the rising number of blogs on learning research from FE lecturers and schoolteachers, the division may no longer be as clear as it once was. So, are teachers becoming lecturers and lecturers teachers?

Perhaps a better measure would be outcomes. Lecturers and teachers want to see learning and progression in their students - these are the things that matter. Both require a large measure of enthusiasm for your subject and motivation for hard work. So maybe, after all, we should embrace the idea of labels and then swap them around.

Jayne Stigger is an FE manager in the South East of England

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