Over the past few hundred years this country has lost its love for teachers. Those of us who have managed to stay in the classroom, and not left like the 40% who leave soon into their careers, do love our job; the problem is that the nation has not felt the same about teachers and teaching for many decades. Individually it will be a varied story, but our society’s collective feeling about teachers is pretty negative. (This is certainly not directed at any school, department or leader; this is all about the general spirit or zeitgeist in which we find ourselves as a profession.)
I can’t pretend to be a sociologist, or psychologist either, and those who are may indeed wince at my clumsiness here; I am simply a teacher trying to understand why it always seems like such a battle for so many teachers to succeed. The truth is, many teachers just can’t survive the rigors of the classroom without the kind of esteem teachers once felt and deserve. It is no longer considered a noble profession, like a nurse or doctor. You say you’re a teacher and people tend to change the subject, or sigh with a compassionate smile, as if to say, ‘don’t worry, maybe one day you’ll be free.’
Without doubt, nothing is straight forward in education and there is never one answer that will solve everything. The profession is constantly bombarded with new initiatives that send everyone running to one side of the deck, threatening to tip everything into the sea, only to send everyone running back the other way. This constant upheaval is destroying the profession as nothing ever seems to be good enough and teachers spend their lives having to reinvent everything over and over again, but why? Why have we been teaching children for so long, yet still seem unable to settle on the best way to teach our young?
Perhaps however, this is the nature of a profession that is so intricately entwined in both politics and economics, as well as the deeply personal, social, emotional and psychological experiences of everyone; after all, every single adult can talk about school, and usually with a fervour that ranges from antipathy and rage to romance and nostalgia, but rarely much in between. School is a passionate place. What I’d like to do here, is examine some of the fundamental ideas about teaching that underpin many everyday practices and approaches to schooling, yet are not often analysed or dissected to uncover their possible origins, or potential consequences.
Having studied Education at degree level, then post graduate teacher training and finally a Masters in Education, I was moulded into a way of thinking about teaching that became so deeply entrenched, it seemed as unconscious as blinking, even breathing. This thought was confirmed all the way thorough my career by almost everything I encountered, both in and out of school. It was the origin of nearly all sleepless nights, all stresses and worries, yet most often disguised as confusion about my role and how to be the best teacher I could. Despite having a really successful career as a teacher, getting as high as you really can without moving into headship, and even receiving accolades like ‘primary science teacher of the year,’ I have been dogged by the idea that throughout all this, teaching is essentially an incongruous thing to do.
Initially, teaching is perpetually problematised because everyone has a view on everything a teacher does, so nearly always someone, somewhere has a better way of doing it. The pressure of being judged is relentless for teachers; it is why most leave the profession. Parents, leaders, inspectors judge us, and most of all we judge ourselves and each other in an effort to find that golden nugget of teaching that somehow eludes the profession over and over again. We are dogged by wanting to perfect the messy, unpredictable and complicated process of learning. And forever it seems to evades professional consensus.
Yet while we may never reach that realisation as a profession, it may ease our restlessness to look back in time and examine how attitudes to childhood have changed over hundreds of years which in turn have led to a fundamental change in our collective consciousness regarding teachers.
It would be simplistic to try to isolate single moments or events that caused changes in how society thinks, but a number of changes have together had significant impact on how teachers are viewed. Firstly, society changed its attitude to children from around the 17th century. Gradually children were thought of as less like miniature adults; we stopped dressing them like us, marrying them off to each other and, although I’m aware it is far more complex than just this, broadly speaking, the modern concept of childhood emerged.
Then over time, we recognised that if children weren’t adults then they required nurturing and schooling. Religious ideas of original sin, envisaging the child as wild and primitive and requiring taming, if not purging, dominated education. Schools were hard places where nature, the animal, was knocked out of children, and in some cases quite literally.
Steadily however, following enlightenment, we began to shrug off the idea of original sin and we began to make friends with nature. We painted and wrote about our environment as never before; we wanted to make friends with it, harness it and thus romanticism was born. There was a shift towards a romantic understanding of the child as being born pure and in tune with nature. Romantic poets like Bryon, described nature no longer as wild and angry, but as untainted and idyllic. While previously, there was the idea that nature, including our young, needed taming, the romantic movement introduced the idea that nature was inspirational, healing and cleansing. Children were envisaged as being born pure, only over time corrupted by the unnatural world of adulthood.
The stage was then set for completely new ideas to emerge into the social consciousness. No longer miniature adults, or primitive creatures who needed to be civilised, children became sacred and childhood something we should seek to preserve for its purity and affinity with nature.
From this movement, educational philosophers like Dewey and Rousseau expounded the idea of working with the natural aptitudes of children rather than imposing the world onto children through transmission teaching. Thus, ideas like child-centredness, discovery learning and learning through play emerged. This movement framed teachers as facilitators whose role should be to create the stage where the child was able to develop naturally, untainted by the impositions of the educator. The imparting of knowledge became problematic, but teachers had to do something, so the idea of teaching skills rather than knowledge emerged and the emphasis moved from transmission of knowledge to the facilitation of experiences that would hone skills.
Following this came the addition of the natural developmental theories by psychologists like Piaget, and we arrived at the unspoken idea that children really don’t need teachers; teachers get in the way, and perhaps even it is teachers who should be seen and not heard. The institutions of education remain standing, but teachers and teaching are problematic, obstructive and even superfluous. Teaching is left in an awkward place (not unlike a spare something or other at a wedding) a very different place from the classical concept of the novice and the learned instructor, or the Eastern idea of the master and disciple that endures in Eastern cultures still, and is perhaps why teachers continue to have great admiration and respect in those areas of the world that bypassed Western Enlightenment and romanticism altogether.
On the one hand, Western society has asked that schools produce children who are educated, yet on the other, it quietly questions teachers’ authority to educate. This creates a subtle confusion about the role of the teacher within the profession; it leaves us wary of it, makes us want to check up on it all the time. Unconsciously and subtly over time, we have told ourselves that teachers are not to be trusted. The stereotyped image of a teacher is very often authoritarian and tyrannical, rather than noble and wise. Over time, teaching has lost its dignity and magnificence; being taught has been transformed into an unnatural imposition that our young must endure rather than warmly embrace. We are bricks in the wall that education erects around childhood.
This unspoken antagonism towards teaching is born out in the promotion of practices and curricula over the last hundred years that are in opposition to the transmission of knowledge from teacher to pupil. The idea of teaching, the passing of knowledge from a more knowledgeable other to a novice, filling pupils with information, is irrevocably problematised because it goes against the idea of natural development, of the child being like a flower waiting to open, of the child growing and passing through predetermined stages of development. Teaching does not fit with this. Intervention, training from a more knowledgeable other, interferes.
When examined this way, it is not hard to see the awkward position in which teaching finds itself. Of course, I have taken a very crude a simplistic look at our history, made bold, perhaps even hyperbolic assertions about what we collectively think, but to helicopter out and look down from afar might help to understand ourselves as a profession. Why have we put so much emphasis on child-led learning, problem solving and supposed ‘skills’ acquisition until now? Why have teachers been systematically told to talk as little as possible, to always strive to be the ‘guide on the side’ rather than ‘the sage on the stage,’ and why so vehemently? Surely, all approaches have their place? (Surely it’s what benefits learners most?) Our antipathy towards the expounding and imparting of knowledge has been unhinged and left teaching an apologetic profession, not really believing in itself. It may have also left large groups of pupils bereft of the powerful knowledge so many more affluent children take for granted, and which leads, unfairly as it may be, to success in life.
As our intolerance of our situation wears thin, we are beginning to question the essence of teaching once again. We are delving deeply into what learning is through cognitive science and on this basis, how best to teach. It seems too that we are discovering that effective teaching has never changed, only our understanding of it as we reconcile false dichotomies like skills v knowledge, transmission v enquiry and more. It is also especially relevant now when we understand more and more about the role of genetics and the types of knowledge humans learn naturally, and that which requires teaching. No doubt some of us are afraid of returning to austere, regimented ways of teaching, wary too of the power of knowledge and its consequences, and skewing of knowledge in order to favour some and marginalise others.
Yet our understanding of the innocence and preciousness of childhood remains intact and our understanding of the potential of all children stands. We have done well to put the child at the centre of education and we should not turn our backs on that; however, now we must make no apology for being the knowledgeable instructors, the givers of knowledge to those lacking in it, the novices, the beginners, the learners; for we are teachers and teaching is not only natural, a natural result of humans retaining knowledge and understanding of the world which passes on, it is naturally good too.
We should also take great care at these times when polarisation often seems the default during debates and discussion. Progressive ideas about education have revolutionised teaching, inserting great humanity into the profession, making schools places that children come to love and feel nurtured within and where they can be themselves, while ideas that reveal the benefits of instructions, practice and understanding how memory works should not run contrary to this, but enhance the strides we have made in education to put children’s well-being at the heart of everything. And above all, let’s make no apology for being teachers who teach!