Teachers are not born but made

I want my doctor to stand up every time I enter the surgery; take my blood pressure at every appointment, and write clearly in handwriting I can read. Actually, delete the last requirement since doctors all use word processors these days, and replace it with a requirement to write in language I can understand. This should be part of all their basis training. Now, I would never presume to impose training requirements on doctors, because as a lay person I have views, but not the expertise to do so, but I do expect them to be trained, and GP training can take four years.

In education it is different; perhaps because everyone went to some sort of school, commentators of all descriptions feel free to pronounce not only what training is needed for teachers but that no training is needed at all. Teachers are born they conclude, and don’t require to be made. Speaking from personal experience that view is just plain bunkum. Let me remind you what was said 50 years ago:

“In the primary and secondary modern schools teaching methods and techniques, with all the specialized knowledge that lies behind them, are as essential as mastery of subject matter. The prospect of these schools staffed to an increasing extent by untrained graduates is, in our view, intolerable.”

Now I am perfectly sure that anyone with the appropriate subject knowledge can teach after a fashion in private schools where parents and children want to succeed, and classroom management isn’t an issue. But even in the selective school I attended in the 1950s and 1960s there were untrained graduate teachers that couldn’t control classes. I recall one sixth form teacher prevented from starting a lesson by the ‘A’ level group placing the desks between the window wall and the door so that he was effectively barred from entering the classroom. Insubordination was not uncommon, and often vicious and personal in its manifestation. Untrained teachers often didn’t have any skills to combat this until they learnt them on the job over time; some learnt faster than others; and some never learnt them at all.

In January 1971, I embarked on my own career as a teacher by joining the staff of Tottenham School in Haringey. I was an untrained graduate persuaded to fill a casual vacancy by a head desperate to have a full staffroom that January. Frankly, I taught nothing to anyone for the first two terms. I had no skills, but lots of subject knowledge I couldn’t pass on to the pupils. Gradually, over the next five years I acquired the skills so that I believe that I could eventually teach any group of pupils and also manage the other parts of a teacher’s role to the level required in those days; a much lower standard than is required today. Along the way I resorted to all sorts of interesting control techniques such as Friday afternoon films played backwards through the projector as a reward for good behaviour, and punishing whole classes for the poor behaviour of a few pupils. I noticed that many of the trained teachers made much better progress than I achieved with pupils, but the lure of a salary was too great rather than a return to college for another year.

Interestingly, when I started working in teacher education in the 1980s I found the same lack of training for tutors. There was no training in classroom observation or understanding of how to be an effective trainer of adults as opposed to teacher of children.

Teaching is not an easy profession, not because it is difficult to acquire the subject knowledge, but because it is a challenge to pass that knowledge on to the next generation. Parental pressure to learn may help with some children but except where the school can threaten to remove the pupil that alone is not enough to bolster a graduate armed with subject knowledge and nothing else or to support them in the classroom and in their wider responsibilities for young people across 190 days of the year.

More than 150 years ago this was recognised by those recruiting teachers for elementary schools, and also by Dickens in his novels where teachers and educators receive something of a mixed press. Let me end with a quote from The National Society Annual Report of 1842 about selecting trainee teachers:

It is not every person who can be fitted for the office of schoolteacher. Good temper and good sense, gentleness coupled with firmness, a certain seriousness of character blended with cheerfulness, and even liveliness of disposition and manner; a love of children, and that sympathy with their feelings which experience alone can never supply – such are the moral requirements which we seek in those to whom we commit the education of the young.

This was the criteria from which they wished to add the training, recognising even then that these qualities alone were insufficient to make good teachers. It seems that some will never learn.


5 thoughts on “Teachers are not born but made

  1. This is interesting. I was invited to spend some time in an academy in 2008 by the head of the English department – cleared my diary and offered to spend five weeks there to prepare data on maybe a thousand kids. I ended up staying for four years – I took over the A-Levels, re-wrote the courses and developed a curriculum from the ground up. I just do a little consulting these days – I loved being in the classroom, but I couldn’t stand being around the teachers by the end. I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say, there was no subject knowledge in that faculty. Lovely people but shockingly limited understanding of their subject; very little life-experience, and a profound lack of understanding of what ‘learning’ actually is. It was as frustrating a time I’ve ever had professional – having collegues look at me as though I was talking gobbledegook.

    This is a subject close to my heart, I’ve experience from so many aspects of this; some of the arguments I hear from day to day are just so fallacious I wonder what in the hell teacher training is supposed to achieve: a lot of it is complete rubbish – unsubstantiated rubbish.

    To be told that subject knowledge is irrelevant to the point where I decided enough was enough … there’s really little wonder standards are as low as they are. I investigated GCSE grades to find an actual reading age/critical reasoning age across the entire year 12/13 base, because after a month or so with them, I had no idea what the GCSE meant they could do – I knew what they couldn’t do. But the teachers weren’t much better themselves.

    It’s so much easier to differentiate down – if you’re a subject specialist, with even the slightest bit of creativity – you can pitch high and drag kids upwards because simplifying stuff is easy.

    Anyway, sorry. I just can’t bring myself to write about this stuff in a blog – although I did use the obsession with concept-based teaching over teaching that works as a frame for a familiar thought-error.


  2. Just re: the comment about independent schools, John – I was a deputy head in an independent school and later the head in another. In both of those schools we were reluctant to appoint staff who weren’t qualified teachers. Even with generally motivated and biddable pupils (which they were) and generally supportive parents (which they were – though some could be very demanding as a result!), in my experience those with appropriate training fared far better in the classroom.

    It’s only anecdotal but most of the independent school heads I know seem to have taken the same line, and if they have appointed staff without QTS they’ve supported them to gain it while in post. Not sure whether there is any data out there about the proportion of independent school teachers who don’t have a teaching qualification but I suspect it is a small minority.

  3. Ever noticed the ‘success’ rate of teachers on quiz shows? The younger they are the narrower their general knowledge. I don’t blame the individuals concerned but the slant of training as mentioned above by JustaLittleBackgroundNoise. Still it’s exasperating to hear supposedly educated paople saying of a history question, ‘This is a little before my time”!

    • Our education system has gone from people knowing ‘more and more about less and less’ to less and less about more and more’. That is why the Russell Group of universities are unhappy. Neither approach is either right or wrong, just different. Those that knew a lot of history probably knew little about the sciences. Although I did ‘A’ level history i knew nothing before 1789 and still struggle with the medieval kings and their order of succession. However to can recall prime ministers like Bonar Law and Campbell Banneman.

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