Better teachers

January 18, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Posted in Education | 14 Comments

As it’s one of those issues which makes trainee teachers tremble with trepidation, today we were treated to a whole day of seminars on the topic of behaviour management. Among the choices on offer, there was guidance on how to practice ‘assertive discipline’, how teachers could get involved in the ‘alternative curriculum’ and what the challenges are for children in care or foster homes. These seminars were incredibly valuable; delivered by experienced practitioners who knew what does and does not work in a classroom. At the end of it, troubled minds were eased, new ideas were hatched and enthusiasm for teaching was energised. Trouble is, everyone I spoke to felt like those seminars could’ve lasted for a week.

The truth about a PGCE course is that a year is insufficient time to train us into the teachers we’d like to be, nevermind what the schools or the state would like us to be. Sure, those who returned after Christmas are confident they can teach and are hungry to get back to it, but it’s simply not possible for us to smooth out all the rough edges, the minor flaws and missed opportunities in our teaching. The profession is simply so broad, and the requirements of trainees so numerous that there will inevitably be important areas which we never get chance to explore.

This matters because once you do qualify as a teacher, your opportunities for professional development are limited. There may be some all-day training sessions you can attend and there might be some INSET days which help departments reflect on their practice, but you don’t have the time to really dwell on your practice with peers and consider how you can make youself better. Indeed, the best option you’ve got is to return to university for further study, but if you can’t afford the fees, you’re forced to decline an opportunity which could enrich both you and your pupils.

Such is the strength of the hopes and fears we have for our children’s future, education is always one of the top issues each election year. Unfortunately, this leads political parties to become obsessive about monitoring teaching standards: the National Curriculum; SATS; Ofsted; league tables; Every Child Matters and Assessment for Learning were all intended to raise standards across the system, and yet each election finds all parties agreeing that these are insufficient metrics, and it’s time to add more.

For the Conservatives, we need to restrict the pool of applicants to one which is ‘brazenly elitist’, in the hope that by only recruiting the very best graduates, you’ll recruit only the very best teachers. There are two major problems with this. First, we still have a teacher shortage, as evidenced by the fact that there are some substantial rewards for people training to teach subjects like science and maths. Second, quite apart from the fact that there are scores of people with mediocre qualifications who are exceptional teachers, there’s no guarantee that someone who graduated from Oxbridge with a first in Mathematics is going to possess the people skills needed to succeed in a classroom. It’s quite possible that the Tories’ plans would not only lead to fewer teachers, but fewer good teachers as well.

It seems to me that the current obsession with raising teaching standards is reaching a policy cul-de-sac, so instead of reaching for poorly-thought-out, media-friendly soundbytes, how about we just accept that a year is insufficient for training us into brilliant teachers, and that we should either double the length of a PGCE or provide time for us to embark on the kind of professional development many of us would love to do?

Put another way, “won’t somebody please think of the children?!”

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  1. Excellent – have linked to you.

    Not sure about this though:

    “Indeed, the best option you’ve got is to return to university for further study”

    Is university really the best option for improving one’s practice as a teacher? Most of us are doing it on a day-to-day basis…

    • Cheers! You’ve got a point about the university thing; maybe I’m generalising my experience too much. I’m not sure.

      The reason I got into this gig was because I spent six months as a teaching assistant and was absolutely blown-over by it. I realised that it was Special Educational Needs children that I wanted to dedicate my career to, but to reach positions of responsibility in that area I’d need to do further study. Other teachers won’t have that problem and will be fine just doing professional development courses, but I think it’s certainly true that study beyond PGCE level helps you get into the meetings where a lot of the big decisions (rightly or wrongly) are made.

      • True. Bit of a shame though, really. I’m fighting my own guerrilla war in the Classics field – the Cambridge Latin Course, upon which all of the public exams in Latin are based, is utter crap, and I think it’s scandalous that the public exams in Latin are set by… the authors of the Cambridge Latin Course.

        I’m not out to change the exams (at this point) but frankly there are other textbooks that facilitate the learning of Latin much better. And after all, we’re not teaching kids Latin so that they can pass exams; we’re teaching Latin so that they will know Latin. I’d rather use a different textbook and supplement their vocab with CLC stuff, but I’d have to be a head of department to do that.

        Unfortunately, nobody’s going to make me a department head unless I have a teaching qualification… but I can’t afford a teaching qualification because I’d be on the hook for overseas fees, and I couldn’t possibly pay overseas fees without a full-time job – but if I had a full-time job, I wouldn’t have time to do the teaching qualification! *sigh* It’s a real catch-22.

  2. Latin fascinates me, not because I know anything of it (or any other language, for that matter), but because my father studied it when he was training to become a Catholic priest. Now, obviously he didn’t actually become a Catholic priest (hence me being alive) but he’s always described Latin as being far more than the words you learn and the sentences you put together. He thought it was also about the way you learn. This interests me, particularly when it comes to what transferable skills you gain from knowing latin.

    • I reckon a lot of it is probably like maths – pattern recognition, paradigms and their exceptions, sets and subsets and possible combinations and impossible combinations. Latin is often described (by those with little experience of it) as a rigid, formulaic language, but in fact one of the best things about its many ‘rules’ is when the greats break them. And almost all of Latin literature carries its emphasis and impact in where the authors choose to break the rules, and how. I adore it.

  3. Yes, one of the things about Latin is that you can spot a philistine a mile off from their sneering dismissal of it as a dead & irrelevant language.

    I am essentially monoglot, but I’ve brushed up against French, German & Russian at the time. (I can still decipher the Cyrillic alphabet- for all the use it is when I still can’t understand the words!) I can understand a few street signs & on a good day make a vague excuse for knowing what’s on menus, etc. I actually found French the easiest of them all- even though the root words of English are mainly Germanic, the actual important, descrpitive words are more likely to be Norman or Latin. As in these sentences, eh?

    It is a great shame that we read so few books in translation in this country- & that we need translations in the first place, I suppose. I have given a great deal of thought at vague times, & I enjoyed reading “On The Life And Death Of Languages” by Claude Hagege. Side-splittingly enough, this is the only one of his books I’ve read because the others seem not to have been translated out of French.

    What a human tragedy it is, you see, when a language dies out, especially one which never had a literary tradition. It does get a bit blurred round the edges & experience shows that for a culture to seal itself off leads to ossification. But you do wonder.

    This is reason 94 why I am not a libertarian, if it takes the state to support, for example, the Welsh & Gaelic languages (for example through having special phone lines, requirements for entry in the civil service, schools, etc) then I am for this instead of having the memory snuffed out. They wouldn’t be in such a parlous state were it not for the state trying to stamp out their culture & life in the 19th century anyway. One of the things that most annoys me, actually, is right-wing cunts with their various forms of Celtophobia.

    Yes, it causes a few inconveniences, but living in a national park can be inconvenient, yet I wouldn’t want to have no national parks.

    Not got to do much with better teachers, eh? But being as I hated school, I don’t really talk about education. Except to say that anything about “more discipline” still makes me wince, thinking about some of the fuckers that “taught” me having greater power over the young.

    • asquith –

      I agree with your reservations about ‘more discipline’ – not for anything in the world should a teacher, say, strike a child or impose any other kind of corporal punishment.

      But one of the things teachers do need to be able to do is impose sanctions for mis-behaving children. If a child disrupts his peers’ learning and wastes their time, he must pay with his time in return. But you try giving a detention in this day and age! In state schools, the kid doesn’t bother showing up, because all you can do is punish him with yet another detention he won’t attend. In the private schools, extracurricular activities are considered so important that the teacher must schedule the detention around the child’s sports practices, clubs, and music lessons (or whatever) – which is hardly a punishment to the child, since the child loses no privileges and is not made to forego the activities he/she enjoys.

      About the only way around this dilemma I discovered was to assign lunchtime detentions. Instead of sitting with friends, the misbehaving child was made to sit with me during lunchtime and entertain me with conversation during the meal. If I judged the child’s conversation to be insufficiently interesting, I assigned another lunchtime detention. The whole process was intensely embarrassing for them – being seen with a teacher, ugh – and deprived them of important socialising time during the school day.

      The other teachers seemed to find this method of punishment bizarre, but it had two very useful results. One, the child considered it a sanction rather than an inconvenience; and two, it was much harder for the child to be obnoxious in my classroom once I’d proved to be a human who was interested in listening to and conversing with them. And though I’d never had admitted this, a lot of times the kid was vastly more entertaining than the staff I’d normally have eaten with, who seemed to think that chatting about their toddlers was the height of social interaction.

      Doubt I’d have been allowed to do that in a state school, though. Probably I would have been suspected of grooming or something.

      • Ooh, I am DEFINITELY trying that…

        …though I might need to make sure that I’m not giving out too many detentions! Maybe with special cases, repeat offenders etc.

        Oh, and asquith, though I’ve received no training on it thus far, I’m trying my level best not to turn into one of the fuckers who taught you ;-)

      • Well, I was an anomaly in school in that I was very intelligent (hope you can all figure that out, eh?), my marks were only slightly above average (but for all that, considered exceptionally good at the school I was at, a very low-achieving one) & quite badly behaved. I think it just wasn’t any kind of usual occurence for someone like me to be at such a rough school randomly.

        I do not know how one would go about dealing with them as simply do not care in the least. But I generally am sceptical of the disciplinarians. I remember listening to one middle-aged relative talk about how his music teacher, by inflicting brutal punishment on his pupils, kept even the rough ones in line. When I pointed out that he didn’t sound like someone who got round to actually teaching music, he said “No, of course he didn’t. That wasn’t the point”.

        I must say that I agree with streaming though. From all I’ve seen, mixed ability just doesn’t work at all. I was in the top set in most subjects- apart from the likes of textiles & music. :)

  4. Neil,

    It was not a punishment I had to dispense often! And it was usually levelled at chatterers and cheekers – anything more serious than that went straight to the head of year or the head teacher. You’d be surprised how these students, who were SO talkative in lessons, clammed right up when I actually demanded that they talk to me. It seems their desire for attention only went so far!

    But it really does work – one or two lunch detentions with me, and the kid stopped being a pain in lessons. It also turned out to be good for them pastorally in some cases, as one or two of them, in their grasping for conversational topics, told me about difficulties they’d been having in other subjects. I was able to flag that up to their form tutors and get them some extra help and attention.

  5. And this is why, after just 4 weeks of teacher training (!) I’m off to Japan, where the kids are well behaved.

    • Pah! I bet you don’t have as much fun ;-)

      Good luck with it, though!

  6. Hi Neil, Just got round to reading this one. Interesting reflections as always. I understand the points you are making but I truly think it’s the practice that is important and you can get that as a paid teacher. I think it is a shame about this eliist approach. You will have found yourself that many teaching assistants have a natural affinity with the children but some of them do not have the confidence to continue with higher level studies and thus will never bcome the teachers. Being an intellect doesn’t always mean you are good practically but for anyone skills can be developed.
    I’m reflecting as a teacher trained many years ago – sub-degree level over three years!! We had fab teaching placements however and really got a feel and had a place in a school. With the benefit of hindsight and maturity I’m unsure whether we were better teachers because of three years of training although I may be wrong as there are still many of my generation around and doing a good job. (Ofcourse some still take a full three years to specialise as teachers and not just PGCE). PG teachrs – we need to ensure they are well supported in their jobs, take good time out to reflect on their skills and requirements for development and ensure they get it.

    • Thanks for the comment. I certainly agree with you regarding the elitist approach; I went to a place which trained some of the best mathematicians in the world, and there are very few of them that I think would be successful as teachers. Frankly, I’m still surprised that I managed to get fairly competent at it myself.

      Doubling the length of a PGCE isn’t important for me, but professional development certainly is, and the timetable a lot of teachers get after their NQT year seems to discourage that development from taking place. So you either need longer training or more time to develop once you’ve qualified.

      Just from a selfish point of view: I want to do well, I realise that I can get a lot better, and I hope to find the space and time whilst teaching to do that. The govt could just make it a little easier…


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