Monday, 7 May 2012

On teachers and teaching

Whilst I was reading this weekend, I came across some old ways of thinking about teachers and teaching, which I think are worth remembering and reclaiming.

Front Cover

Teaching as a career is a 21-page booklet produced in 1945 by the British Ministry of Education, and includes these two memorable passages about being a teacher. Here is the first that caught my eye:

"The chief characteristic of all children and young people is that they are growing, growing in body, mind and spirit; and any adult who does not possess, and cannot acquire an understanding of this characteristic and an appreciation of what it means to the daily life of a school had certainly better give up the idea of teaching. Again, those to whom little children are, and are likely always to be, a perpetual exasperation should not dream of teaching them."

I can certainly think of plenty of people I've come across in schools and early years settings whose perpetual exasperation about the children seems to suggest that they are in the wrong place.
But perhaps the emphasis on teachers needing to understand the significance of children's growth and change is the more profound challenge - because it implies a perpetual state of being able to revise what you are thinking, and how you are responding, to the children. Too often, teaching now seems to be thought of as delivering of a curriculum, not a process of joint development.

I was also struck by a passage which follows soon after. The use of "he" is jarring to the modern eye and sensibility, and rightly so, but the sentiment is nevertheless valuable:

"The hall-mark of a good teacher is that he is himself always learning and always developing his knowledge and understanding of children and young people. In short a teacher should be a person who because his attitude to knowledge, to ideas, to his fellows and to life generally is better educated today than he was yesterday and will tomorrow be better educated than he is today."

This prompts many thoughts, but I'll pause on this one. How many training events for teachers and early years educators seem to be presented as a kind of "edutainment", and planned on the assumption that the participants cannot maintain their attention for more than a few moments? For example, I recently saw a keynote address to a conference punctuated by bizarre activities, like asking the whole audience to stand up and pretend that they are holding onto the grab-rails in a swaying train.

In itself this might have been justifiable as a way of getting energy back into a sedentary audience. But when I think of the constant repetition of easy-to-digest soundbites and the shying away from dealing with the complexities of how children learn and develop, I seriously question whether there was any aspiration at all to educate the participants, let alone assume that they are educated people in the way that was envisaged in 1945.

Being a teacher, or an early years educators, requires you to be in a process of constant formation. Listing the competencies that trainees need to achieve may create a useful checklist; but it is not helpful it is assumed that once the final statement is ticked off, that's it, and the training process is done. And courses, training events and books that do not address themselves to the notion that the participants are there to be educated, have done the whole field of early education a disservice.

(Teaching as a career is cited in Peter Hyman's book 1 out of 10 - his engaging and thoughtful account of what happened when he left the world of 10 Downing Street and worked in an Islington comprehensive for a year.)