Sunday, July 22, 2007

Why I'm not a schoolteacher

A recent Twitter exchange between Lisa Durff and myself made me think that perhaps I should explain this. I was bewailing the fact that my sons are now on their summer break, but that neither my husband nor I are able to take leave to spend time with them. Lisa's response was simple: become a teacher! So why don't I do/haven't I done just that? Well, it's like this:

Years ago, having been advised by my school guidance counsellor that I showed above average aptitude for most things and exceptional aptitude for nothing at all, I was taken to see a student psychologist at a university. He subjected me to a battery of tests and advised me that my scores showed a remarkable aptitude for teaching, but almost zero for working with children, which was what had probably skewed the scores in the tests taken at school. It confused the poor man, too. He had no idea what to make of them. He suggested I become a psychologist and take over his job when he retired. Looking back now, I can't see how he didn't make the connection that I should teach adults. At that stage, I didn't even realise adults received any teaching. I thought it was school, university, work, end of. It never occurred to me (or him, apparently) that university students were not children, and I knew nothing about personnel training (as it was known then). Fortunately I ended up there anyway.

I was born to teach, to impart, to enable, to empower. It gives me such a buzz to see that light come on. If you're a teacher in any guise, you know what I mean. Throughout my career, I have been privileged to work with people who volunteer to be there. There has usually been a waiting list for my sessions. To me, learning is a gift, a joy, a stepping stone, a door - I have no desire to try to teach people who don't see it that way, people who attend my sessions because the law says they have to. And increasingly in the UK, my impression is that high schools are full of disaffected kids who have completely and utterly fallen out of love with school. My sons regularly come home with stories of how some or other child has sworn at a teacher and/or completely disrupted a lesson but that the teacher was powerless to take action because of constraints upon them. It seems it is easier to suspend a good teacher than a bad student (note: I deliberately did not say bad child)

I struggle with the concept of the volumes of just-in-case material that gets dumped on kids without any explanation as to relevance or value. Where's the motivation to learn stuff that just seems to you to be useless. I can't help feeling that there has to be a better way to do things. I spent two years teaching in a FE college and the stringent curriculum and assessment requirements stifled me. I really believed in my own ability to identify a learner's needs and meet them, and suffocated under the dictum to teach them all the same material. I can't accept that a single curriculum that must be followed by every child in the country can possibly be appropriate (why for example do Y10 kids study Romeo and Juliet every single year - not only did Shakespeare write many other plays, some far superior to R&J, but there is a plethora of other English language playwrights to schoose from!). I might be an idealist, but, if a child loves snooker, say, why not use that to teach vectors, principles of motion, geometry, trigonometry?

Working conditions
My heart breaks as, with every passing year, I meet an increasing number of ex-teachers (some of them extraordinarily talented) who have left the field in their droves because the reality failed to live up to the dream. They are not a good advertisement for the profession, to say the least. From where I sit, teachers seem to be pretty disempowered as a group of people. For the two years I worked in FE, I found the attitude of management towards teaching staff was not terribly different from their attitude towards the students. It was very much a case of telling, rather than discussing. I have since gained some insight into the way in which CPD is conducted for teachers in the UK, and have noticed that this seems to be the approach there, too. Bring 'em from far and wide, pack 'em in to a room and then tell 'em at great length what they should be doing and how to do it. Tell 'em, tell 'em, tell 'em. Never mind the fact that, gathered in that room is a wealth of invaluable experience and anecdotal input that should be drawn out and shared. Mind you, having said that, Scotland seems to have the march on England, and their teachers appear to be far more empowered than south of the border.

One conversation that keeps coming up is "what is education for?" Until we can get that one sussed, I can't see myself on the inside of the formal education system. I don't advocate a system that teaches only work-related skills, but whatever else we teach them should still add value... and be enjoyable, if that isn't too tall an order.

I don't wish to give the impression that I will never teach in a school under any circumstances. What I will say is that the circumstances would have to be very different from the way they appear today. Mind you, having said all of that, I wouldn't mind having a go at the new schools in Merseyside!


Mr Harrington said...

Hi Karyn
I found you via Doug Belshaw - I find that even from within the profession as I have been for the past 19 years - recently I can see the need for change but find making it happen from within a school very difficult :)
Paul harrington

Anonymous said...

Glad to have you along, Paul! I can totally believe what you say. From within, you're up against the inertia. I guess it can be a bit like trying push a wheelbarrow while sitting in it.