“One cannot walk through an assembly factory and not feel that one is in Hell.”
I am inclined to think that I was one of a fortunate generation of school teachers. Throughout my career in schools I generally enjoyed teaching and found the whole process immensely satisfying. That doesn’t mean that I never experienced days when everything seemed to be out of kilter, with the end of the day coming as a blessed relief. But in general I always felt privileged to be engaged in something I enjoyed, felt fully committed to doing and gave me opportunities to work with interesting similarly motivated people. I suppose that like most teachers I encountered some children who were more difficult to like than others, but generally I found that time spent in class whilst undoubtedly demanding was a great pleasure and the pupils I taught were fun to be with.
My passion for teaching has not diminished, though now most of my work is with post-graduate students and serving teachers who are attending classes by choice, rather than being there because they have to be. Whilst there are obvious differences between teaching children and adults, many of the features are the same. Enthusiasm, love of the subject, a sense of humour and an ability to communicate are all essential characteristics of the successful teacher.
Whilst not suggesting that I lived through a “golden age” of teaching, I am convinced that teachers in English schools today are far less likely to be as enthusiastic about their current situation. This belief was reinforced over the weekend in an article written by John Harris in the colour supplement of The Guardian. Being married to a primary school teacher I am acutely aware of the long hours of lesson preparation, marking and paperwork that occupies every evening and a large portion of weekends, but Harris’ article has confirmed many of my worst fears for the profession I love.
At the outset of his article the journalist introduces us to a drama teacher who has given 22 years of service to a secondary school in the south west of England. Harris, clearly inspired and impressed by this teacher, describes a lesson she taught called “The Terrible Fate of Humpty Dumpty” whereby her class are encouraged to think about issues of bullying and enabled through team work to enact a scene that teaches them about morality and justice. The teacher tells him about the many school performances that she has produced in the past, some featuring more than 100 pupils. Ambitious productions such as Guys and Dolls and the Wizard of Oz built upon the enthusiasm of not only the pupils, but also the 30 or so staff who supported her in this venture. Sadly, she reports, such activities have become a thing of the past. In a relentless drive to establish a curriculum aimed at hitting targets and achieving high marks in examinations drama has become marginalised as a subject. Teachers who would in the past have so willingly given time to support dramatic productions are under such pressure to manage their paperwork and achieve targets that they no longer have the energy to do so. This committed drama teacher has had enough, she is leaving and all of her experience and expertise is going with her. Harris is clearly perplexed as he reports her words:-
“Teaching’s been my life.” She wells up. “I’ve loved it and got so much from it. But I don’t want to be here any more.”
The saddest aspect of this article is that this teacher is just one of many interviewed by John Harris. All report that they are disenchanted with a profession to which they have always felt committed. They describe their working lives as being driven by targets and paperwork, much of which appears designed simply to satisfy an oppressive inspection regime, that devalues their professionalism and instils fear into their colleagues. Those subjects that at one time were regarded as both enriching and essential in providing a balanced education are now described by politicians as “soft options” and seen almost as an irrelevance in the educational process. This message of “irrelevance” is passed on to the teachers who have previously demonstrated a passion for these subjects.
When I was working as a head teacher it was always apparent to me that teachers who enjoyed their work and felt confident that they were appreciated, were effective at teaching children. Teachers have always worked hard, but in the past they did so because they believed in what they were being asked to do and recognised that their endeavours had positive benefits for children. Furthermore, they were praised for their efforts and respected for their dedication. I am convinced that the professionalism demonstrated by teachers in the past was no less evident than that expected of those in schools today. However I do not believe that high levels of dedication can be enforced by legislation or political interference.
John Harris’ article is appropriately titled “Inside the A* Factory.” The implication being that the purpose of schools has been reduced to one focused upon the production of A star students within a narrow range of subjects. Factory workers have always made an important contribution to the economy of our country. In the past their labours were clearly distinguishable from those of teachers. Both factory workers and teachers play an vital role, but until recently the borders between the two have seldom been blurred.
Are we witnessing the destruction of an education system through the systematic demoralisation of teachers? There are many who believe that this could be the end product of the current dominant doctrinaire approach.