Why we should stop selling ourselves short

9th February 2001 at 00:00
SO, teachers see themselves as scumbags. That's what film maker David Puttnam says, though he puts it in rather more diplomatic language than that. He says we lack self-esteem.

First we must be clear that this isn't yet another contribution to that ever-popular game of "sticking the boot in the teacher's face". Far from it. If he were a stick of rock, the man who brought us the education Oscars would have "teachers' pal" stamped right throughout him.

And just look at what else he has to say about us: "They (teachers) are, without doubt, the most interesting and stimulating group of people I've ever worked with, and generally much more entertaining than most so-called entertainers I've known." Clearly he hasn't been inside some of the staffrooms I have, but we'll let that pass.

His original point is undoubtedly true though. Whether in schools, sixth forms or colleges, we don't think a lot of ourselves.

In some ways that's strange, because many of us still think of what we do as being distinctly important. Like many others, I came into teaching as a positive choice rather than a last resort. Newly-graduated as a mature student and casting around for a way of life more meaningful than the production of formulaic news items about cats stuck up South Yorkshire trees, I welcomed the chance to do something that made a difference.

I still do. By which I mean that I still find teaching enormously worthwhile - a noble profession - and one that brings a satisfaction that few others can match. Perhaps it's the long-term nature of the work, that the difference you make to others' lives will still be there in years to come - long after yellowed news cuttings have lost whatever passing relevance they might once have had.

This I know. Intellectually I know it. But esteem - self-esteem - is a curious concoction, and one that doesn't necessarily follow the intellect. Knowing that our work is valuable is one thing, but valuing ourselves for doing it is quite another.

Puttnam himself has tried to tease out the reasons behind it. Could it be, he wonders, that "the role and status of the teacher in the community" has changed? Could it? I can't help wondering about the sort of status we had when Dickens was creating his Squers or Mr M'Choakumchild. Or when George Bernard Shaw was damning those who teach because they "can't do". And what of the teacher's role projected by the cane-wielding inadequates of the Billy Bunter stories or the Bash Street Kids? Was there ever really a golden age when sir smoked a pipe and miss wore gingham and students hung on their every word in reverential silence?

On another tack, Puttnam suggests that it might have something to do with teachers' lack of job mobility. Changing jobs means selling yourself, and selling yourself leads you to appreciate your own virtues and abilities. "It's knowing that you're likely to change jobs that prompts most of us to take greater care of our own employability - our own skillsets - than if we intended to stay in the same place, doing roughly the same thing for 30 years."

Perhaps. But for me some of the other factors he cites are much more likely causes. "Is it," he asks, "that teachers feel de-skilled in the face of endless new administrations keen to impose their imprint on the education system?" In a speech at a computers in education fair, he expressed disappointment at teachers' negative reaction to developing their own IT skills. Rather than the boon it is, they tend to see it as "yet another addition to a seemingly endless list of responsibilities and impositions sent from on high".

For those of us in colleges, these last two reasons have more of a ring of truth about them. Years of top-down initiatives undermine autonomy and sap confidence. We all want to update skills, but need time away from more pressing demands if we are to see it as a benefit rather than a chore.

Strangely, the one thing Puttnam doesn't mention is money. Perhaps he overlooked it. But a bus driver can earn more than most FE teachers; a policeman far more. No doubt true saints can preserve their self-respect while living on fresh air - but then there probably isn't much of a mortgage to be paid on the average hovel.

It's a shame we can't feel better about ourselves. But it isn't really any one thing that makes us don that scumbag mantle. Shaking it off won't be easy either. But more money and less hassle wouldn't be bad for starters.

Stephen Jones is an FE lecturer in London

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