#TeacherTuesday What it means to be a teacher in the UK

imageWhat does it means to be a teacher in the UK? This is the question I was asked on twitter, when the Steve Sinnott Foundation asked me to write a post for #TeacherTuesday. I can only really speak from my experience, and I am currently trying to steer away from debates on pedagogy that seem to serve only to entrench positions. My post last week was an attempt to define myself through what I do, and this method has proved very effective in helping me be self-reflective, and in being able to express more clearly my values than through philosophising on pedagogy. Whilst I will thus approach this question from the same, personal, perspective, I will also attempt as far as possible to speak for my colleagues in the UK, and more specifically in England.

The question has two parts really: what it means to be a teacher, and what this means specifically in the UK. The professional network and learning community I have discovered through Twitter has enabled me to connect with educators in various countries, and whilst we share many common values and challenges, I will seek to define that which may be more specific to the UK.

So, what does it mean to be a teacher? Perhaps the first thing to say is that I rarely see myself as a teacher. There are two reasons for this. One, I suffer from the impostor complex, where I regularly believe I will be unmasked as a fake, an intruder. I look at my colleagues and see them as teachers, but still struggle to class myself, to label myself, as one. I see myself primarily as a learner, and this is, paradoxically perhaps, where my strength as a teacher lies. The second reason is that I have done other things before becoming a teacher and have thus been able to define myself professionally and personally in many other ways, and some of those definitions still appear valid to me. I am a teacher, but I am still a traveller, a resort manager, a receptionist, a shipwright, a property developer and a builder! These other definitions and other skills mean that I am able to relate learning to many different situations and skills. I am not alone in this diverse experience before coming to teaching. The image of a career teacher is still in the public conscience, but the reality is changing, as this collaborative blog is starting to show us. Teachers are all fascinating individuals with other passions, experiences and skills.

Being a teacher is a career which has a very long and complicated job description, which goes from pastoral care of children (in loco parentis), through daily classroom teaching, to administrative and managerial tasks. I believe that the care element of our job is the most important one, and without it, all the other tasks are impossible or ineffective. I remember that when I first saw the table of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I understood better my gut feelings about relationships and the classroom environment. If children are cold or hungry, or in fear, then they will find it harder to learn.

The purposes of education are various and often escape definition, but for me, our goal is to foster the personal development of young people, to help them to learn, and to prepare them for the world they will face when they leave full-time education. By this I do not mean moulding them to fit society, but rather equipping them with the skills they will need to shape the world of the future. As many commentators on education have noted, the system we have at the moment is perhaps not broken, but is at the very least out-dated and ill prepares our children for the future. Schools in England do not in general devote enough time or resources to career advice, and individual teachers are often ill-equipped to advise students. The best practice is often in isolated pockets, in rare schools which have developed a vision for the future, in departments, and more often than not, in the hands of individual teachers.

I believe that the most productive thing we can do to rise to this challenge is to listen to our students. It was very refreshing to read Cees’ post highlighting the benefits of student-focused learning and feedback from pupils. Too often there are barriers between teacher and student, hierarchies and power structures which can impede rather than help the learning process. It is through our dialogue with students that we can break down these barriers between us, between the present and the future. The relationships we build with students, together with the classroom environment in which we evolve, are as vital to learning as any pedagogy. Being a teacher means understanding your students, in terms of their academic level as well as their individual histories and needs. We are not machines transmitting or dispensing knowledge. As Arthur C. Clarke said, teachers who can be replaced by robots should be. The increasing use of technology in learning is forcing teachers to re-evaluate their role, and to make sure that they continue to offer what robots cannot.

What does it mean to be a teacher in the UK? This document shows that the status of teachers in the UK is not high, but it is about average for OECD countries. The public believe we should be paid a little more than we are for the job we do. We are generally respected as a profession – over 80% of the public trust us to tell the truth – although one must worry that over 10 % of the population do not trust teachers to tell the truth. We are second only to doctors in this survey and well above the police (65%), journalists (21%) and politicians (18%). We must maintain and build on this trust, and one of the key challenges to us is engaging parents and the wider community in what we do.

This information in the survey above begs the question: why do politicians have so much say in how we educate our children in this country? I do not intend to descend into politics, but for those reading this post outside of the UK, there is some background information (necessarily biased by my own values) of which you should be aware. The government, and specifically the Minister for Education, wield enormous power in terms of how they can reform the school system in England (there are separate systems in place in the other countries of the UK), and teachers are rarely consulted about these changes. The general impression at the moment is that while the government may be well-intentioned in trying to raise standards, their unilateral decisions and failure to consult teachers and educational researchers means that there are many wrong decisions being made.

Unions are in place, and do attempt to negotiate with the government. According to the unions, teachers are demotivated and dissatisfied with their jobs, yet whilst 47% have “seriously considered leaving the profession”, 68% are satisfied with their jobs. I find enormous satisfaction in my job, and whilst there are days when it is one of the hardest jobs in the world, teaching is a very rewarding profession. Many of the pressures we are feeling are being felt elsewhere as well, often more sharply. One of the biggest challenges facing teachers is to find the balance between defending the working conditions we need to do our jobs, and accepting the necessary changes that must take place in education.

The use of twitter and blogs has shown me the power that teachers can have in collaboration. Recently the schools inspection body in England (OFSTED) invited five prominent educators from the blogosphere to discuss the inspection process and the role of OFSTED in improving schools. The conversation resulted in the important development of OFSTED acknowledging that they would no longer grade individual teachers during their visits. This process shows how teachers can have more voice through informal collaboration than they may have through the unions.
So what are the main challenges and barriers facing teachers in the UK at the moment? Contrary to many teachers, I do not believe that the government, OFSTED, or school leaders are necessarily barriers to individual teachers effecting change. We can do this through the example of what we do, through speaking out on social media, and through building powerful professional networks. Whilst we must aim to improve our own classroom practice, to work with immediate colleagues and for the good of our schools, we must also look outside our classrooms, outside our departments and our schools to learn, to share and to collaborate. We must not forget the huge advances in education over the last century, the usually well-equipped working environment and the public support we have. The challenges are there, but we can accept them and enjoy meeting them. The barriers are there, but they are also, to a large extent, within us.


Rory Gallagher (@eddiekayshun) is a teacher of languages at The Thomas Hardye School, Dorchester in southern England.
He has been teaching in secondary schools in the UK for three years. Before that he taught English as a Foreign Language in Italy and in Japan, worked as a Resort Manager in the south of France, and ran his own business as a builder and decorator on the island of Corsica. He is always learning, and loves sharing his learning. His latest projects include a Masters in Education on student feedback, and a collaborative blog which gives teachers a forum to voice their values and experiences.

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