In the past few months, I’ve heard two depressingly Damascene stories from teachers, each of whom have about a decade of experience. Their tales are virtually identical and I’m in no doubt that they are representative of probably thousands of teachers like them in the UK and elsewhere. Perhaps you are one of them.
In essence, the story goes like this: “I entered the profession brimming with enthusiasm and energy, full of confidence because I knew I could change the world, make a difference to hundreds of children’s lives and improve society. Now I know I was wrong.”
They both went into more detail, of course, stressing that they had believed there to be a direct link between how hard they worked and their pupils’ exams results and ultimate life chances. Both also made it clear that this was not just what they believed, it was what they’d been told. “Eventually the world would become a better, fairer and happier place because of my work,” one of them wrote on his poignant blog.
I found listening to one account and reading the other to be touching and sad, partly because that was never my experience. So I asked myself how this had happened.
First of all, let’s put this in context. I don’t think “crisis” is the wrong word to describe the current recruitment and retention position for teachers in the UK. The latest Department for Education numbers reveal that about 40,000 teachers left the profession in 2016, amounting to about 9 per cent of the entire workforce. There is a shortfall of 30,000 teachers, especially acute in secondary, and 20 per cent of initial teacher training places lie empty. Tes analysis suggests that we will need another 47,000 secondary teachers by 2022.
Which is, of course, why I regularly receive messages inviting me to teach a range of subjects at a thriving secondary school, or sometimes a highly academic school well known for its incredible examination results, and occasionally even a prestigious independent secondary school. Curiously, these schools are always located in the same two or three quite attractive London boroughs.
Finely honed falsity
Adverts for teacher recruitment have appeared regularly on TV for some years now. The beauty-pageant messages are the same and I suspect they may have influenced my sample of two. It would be difficult to catalogue the numerous types of organisation (besides the old-fashioned university providers) now involved in recruiting and training teachers. Some are spin-offs of Teach First and also have the word “teach” in their title. What all these recruiters have in common is that, like the government’s TV campaigns, they use what they genuinely believe is effective commercial expertise in their marketing.
That marketing is directly responsible for the messages the two teachers fell for – all the stuff about making a difference, changing life chances, combating disadvantage or bringing about world peace.
The commercial expertise these organisations employ clearly works. In the past 10 to 15 years, many hundreds of idealistic young men and women have entered teaching believing they can deliver on grandiose promises. What these organisations don’t seem to appreciate is that, while it might well be sensible to tell lies like these if you’re selling diet water or a fake, hollow golf club into which you can urinate if you’re caught short on the green, it’s a pretty stupid thing to do if your aim is to recruit the best people you can to educate the nation’s children.
If your goal is merely to put bums on seats, then well done you. Such a shame that real human beings, like the two described above, have their professional careers undermined and tainted from the outset, and have to pick up the pieces for themselves. Because as they both now know, teachers can do none of these things.
What they can do is teach the content of the curriculum well and effectively to individual children who each have advantages and disadvantages. If they are a subject specialist, they might, on a good day, successfully convey their passion for the subject they teach to some of the children, and that is good news – not for the technocrats with nebulous visions of society or the economy, but for the individual human beings they teach. As my sample of two both learned, and one of them put it, they have discovered “the inherent worth in learning and education regardless of any concrete, measurable outcome”.
Milton expressed the reality more elegantly in his great essay on freedom of speech, Areopagitica, when he wrote: “Love learning for it self, not for lucre, or any other end, but the service of God and of truth, and perhaps that lasting fame and perpetuity of praise which God and good men have consented shall be the reward of those whose publisht labours advance the good of mankind.”
Now this is where it gets really interesting. I have no doubt, because I’ve worked for and met enough of them, that the individuals responsible for those grandiose, beauty-pageant marketing messages, really think they are, in Milton’s words, advancing the good of mankind. The two teachers beg to differ. They had to waste years in the classroom doing pointless things before they could reach the stage at which they were functioning professionally, despite all the training they had no doubt received and dutifully swallowed.
‘Homeopaths run the show’
Someone recently made the observation that in education, compared with medicine, the homeopaths are on the inside. I would argue, judging by the messaging narrative I’ve just recounted, that they’re not just in the inside – they’ve been running it for years.
In a previous commercial role, I once devoted an entire afternoon to crafting a single marketing message. It took me several hours and ended up as 11 words. Today, almost 10 years later, I’m quite amused, as well as proud, that those 11 words are still doing the same job on my former employer’s website.
So here is a marketing message for teacher training providers that won’t mean recruits are wasting 10 years before they can do their job properly, and might just mean the right people are recruited to teach the next generation: “Great schools are great because the most well-informed, academically passionate adults teach in them. Maybe you could be one of them.”
They can have that for free, just in case any of those recruiters so keen to get me back in the classroom are paying attention. I’d seriously consider it if they paid me at least twice the salary I was on when I left. Because I really believe a teacher is worth considerably more than someone who’s good at selling diet water or a golf club for peeing in.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. He writes fortnightly for tes.com/news