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Want to attract more teachers? Start with professionalism

The DfE's advert is sentimental. But actually, teachers are more than just caring adults: they're professionals, writes Joe Nutt

recruitment, retention, crisis, teachers, head teachers, survey, governors, ngs, tes, emma knights

The DfE's advert is sentimental. But actually, teachers are more than just caring adults: they're professionals, writes Joe Nutt

Sentimentality is a heady brew. The government’s new teacher recruitment film appears to have been eagerly swallowed by the profession as a whole. A department feeling unusually besieged probably breathed a sigh of relief that at least this one went down well with its critics.

If the brief was to mollify thousands of existing teachers, many of whom appear to be teetering on the edge of leaving the classroom, then the creative team responsible should feel pleased with a job well done. Bung in an entry for a film industry award and get ready to crack open the champagne on black tie night.  

If the brief was more along the lines of produce a film that will seduce thousands of young people undecided about their careers to consider teaching, then I’d say that the celebrations are a little premature.

As a film, it really is an admirable piece of work. The minimalist piano score, perfectly pitched to enrapture Einaudi fans, swells and expands alongside a montage of facial and footwear close-ups, anyone who has spent time in schools will instantly recognise because they will have featured again and again in their own careers. The realism is inspirational. “Authenticity was key,” according to the agency that produced it, so they deliberately opted for real teachers and not actors.

The brilliantly compact, humble, single parent background narrative, revolving around Abby, who is beautifully cast not to stand out, gallops from her first day at school to the end of Year 11 and glowing GCSE success in less than two minutes.

About a dozen different teachers feature, either as faces or voices. All of them are refreshingly convincing as professionals, rather than the negative, black-shirted parodies we are more used to seeing paraded on TV and in cinema. They even manage to make their clichés sound sincere: “You’re better than this, the pair of you,” and: “This time tomorrow, you’re not going to be feeling this way.” It all adds up to a eulogy to the profession, visible proof of the film’s core message that “every lesson shapes a life”.

It’s a heart-warming message – if you’re a serving teacher.

That’s where my sentimentality dries its tears, shrugs and thinks: same old, same old. If we’re serious about all our children receiving an excellent education, if what we want for them are schools staffed by well-qualified, highly knowledgeable adults, then surely the message has to be about teachers as professionals, not just caring adults.

Over decades now we’ve steadily thought of teaching as a generic skill to do with children, regardless of age. We have eroded the idea that in order to do the job well secondary teachers must be knowledgeable, skilled subject experts, to one where it matters far more that they “care”, or want to “make a difference”.

Yet we seem surprised that such a weakening of intent has in turn bled into the university sector where many students are now far more concerned about being protected from others’ knowledge and learning than challenging it. A nation frightened of learning is sowing the seeds of its own demise.  

You see this most clearly in the discussions around whether teachers should share resources and collaborate, or create their own lessons. Increasingly people argue that secondary school teachers should be using the same resources and teaching the same things, even at the same time. There are moves by some to script lessons. Others, including ministers, talk up the power and practicality of textbooks. All this exhibits is a profound misunderstanding of how knowledgeable, subject experts teach. A phrase I first heard in the US is really useful here: "Great teachers own the curriculum."

Yes, great teachers use textbooks, sometimes. I’ve never known one who relied on them. Regardless of the subject you may be teaching, any single lesson usually revolves around an educational asset, or assets, you bring into the room with you. It might be something in a textbook, it might be something you’ve found and chosen yourself but that you chose it is what really matters. Because that choice has to embrace your curriculum knowledge, where the pupils you’re teaching are in that curriculum, and crucially, your own personal interest and enthusiasm for that asset.

Experienced teachers will all be familiar with that one time they tried to duplicate a lesson from someone else, identical in every detail, and how they failed. Of course, you can take ideas and resources from colleagues but if the lesson is going to be any good, then you need to be completely on top of the material yourself too. You literally need to know what you’re talking about.

Thinking you can just toss some resources or assets into a classroom, add any old caring adult and a decent lesson magically appears, is a political and managerial fantasy worthy of a contestant on The Apprentice.

I’m frequently asked if I miss teaching, and inevitably I say no. But there is one aspect of it I really do miss, deeply, because in all the numerous workplaces and businesses I’ve subsequently worked for, I’ve never encountered anything even remotely like it.

Collaboration with colleagues shouldn’t be about laziness or theft. It should be about intelligent, well-informed conversation and discussion, the kind of exchange of ideas and information people who respect each other’s opinions, expertise and subject knowledge aren’t afraid to indulge in, not as a workplace necessity, but as an unmitigated, intellectual delight. I miss that delight.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue.

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