Teaching – surely more than a matter of subject knowledge.

Well qualified teachers have the ability to sort out challenges

Well qualified teachers have the ability to sort out challenges

I recently read an interesting and well researched paper written by a historian who I have known for a number of years. The paper examines the development of comprehensive schooling in England in the 1970s during a period when many grammar schools were closed or amalgamated with secondary schools in which students had followed a less academic curriculum. This was a controversial national policy decision and the debates surrounding this period are very well documented and discussed in this paper.

The historian concerned is held in high regard amongst his peers and his expertise has been sought by a number of august organisations and institutions. As an eminent historian his credentials are unquestionable. But would he be able to communicate his knowledge effectively to others? How would students who may be less interested in his subject expertise than he is, respond to him as a teacher?

I ask these questions because currently here in England a debate rages about whether it is necessary for teachers working in our state schools to have qualifications that accredit their skills, understanding, and expertise as teachers. There is a school of thought (though how much thought has actually been applied isn’t specified), that so long as an individual has sufficient subject expertise, they should be able to teach. In other words, my friend the historian, who has a PhD in his subject and is acknowledged as an authority in his discipline, should be allowed to enter the classroom as a teacher without any further qualification.

I am quite sure that there are individuals who in many respect are naturally gifted teachers. I am however, aware that my friend would be horrified at the thought that he might be confronted with a class of thirty children of varying aptitudes and needs, and asked to teach them about the Tudor kings of England, the English civil war (which incidentally wasn’t very civil), or the signing of Magna Carta. When I recently discussed this possibility with him, he expressed the view that such a situation would give him nightmares, not so much about his own lack of expertise, but more about the likelihood that the children before him might get a less than satisfactory learning experience. Furthermore, he stated that whilst he hopes that the teachers who are currently working with his sons have good subject knowledge, he also expects that they should have good classroom management skills, an understanding of pedagogy, and an appreciation of those factors that promote or inhibit learning.

I suspect that those politicians who are proposing changes which would increase the numbers of unqualified teachers in schools, have reduced the idea of education to a simple list of subjects, rather than recognising that teaching requires much more than advanced knowledge in a specific area. I recall that as a newly qualified teacher I was grateful for those approaches to classroom management, forming effective relationships with children and families, understanding processes of assessment and learning and differentiated teaching that had been instilled in me by my tutors. I also quickly came to realise that continuing to study how children acquire language, understanding aspects of mental health and self-esteem, and those influences that lead to children being labelled as having special educational needs, enabled me to become a more effective teacher, and to better serve my students. Whilst I have always believed that subject knowledge is critical for effective teaching, I also regard the ability to communicate this knowledge effectively and to understand alternative approaches that should be considered when children are struggling to learn as crucial parts of the armoury of a professional teacher.

Children in our schools deserve to be taught by the best available teachers. Teachers themselves need to have their pedagogical skills recognised and endorsed. I know that I have always appreciated the professionalism of teachers who taught me in the past, just as I have immense regard for those who enthused my sons in their school days. A failure to recognise those aspects of teaching that enable classrooms to operate effectively, and all students to access learning at a level commensurate to their needs, is an insult to those committed teachers who continue to seek to ensure that all children receive a first class education.

Fortunately my friend the historian recognises the nonsense that is being spoken by those politicians who have failed to see the necessity to provide a well-qualified teaching profession. He recalls a time from history when few teachers were qualified, and many children denied their right to formal education. He suggests that those who do not see the necessity to have a well trained teaching profession return to their history books, and if possible read these with the guidance of an enthusiastic teacher.

4 thoughts on “Teaching – surely more than a matter of subject knowledge.

  1. Whilst an access student, my tutor asked me about the quality of teaching at my private sector Preparatory and Public Schools (Public Schools in England are actually private and charge high fees). I replied that it had been mixed and had great variance as some teachers were superb whilst others were utterly useless. He thanked me and explained that he had often wondered about teaching quality in the private sector since when he got his teaching qualification, those of his peers who had failed immediately rang private schools in search of employment and some were successful, because at that time teachers in state schools had to be qualified, but teachers in private schools did not. He was interested because he regarded those who failed as being ‘the useless ones’ yet knew parents paid high fees for their children to be taught by them.

    I expanded my answer to him, by saying that some ex-military teachers had been very good, and perhaps that had been due to them having had training about how to train people. So, in a way I was endorsing the view that teacher training is valuable.

    There is another aspect to the argument for teacher training though. Teacher training as a requirement allows entry to the profession by qualification rather than by social standing. This has many benefits, but also a few draw backs. One benefit is that teachers can come from social backgrounds that have more in common with those of students in the state sector which can allow greater shared understanding and respect. Qualification can reduce the ‘gate-keeping’ by the middle-classes that can otherwise restrict entry to the profession to other middle-class people. Without qualification, the entry process can be reduced to ‘cronyism’ in which having the right accent, knowing the local vicar, or better still knowing a judge or high ranking police officer well enough to get a good word from them can lead to acceptance.

    There might be a possible draw-back to qualification in that language skills might be reduced due to teaching being carried out in a more restricted rather than the elaborate codes of the middle classes.

    Internationally, I am aware that in some countries teachers need two Bachelor level degrees as well as a Masters level teaching qualification (e.g. Australia), which seems at odds with a policy here of reducing the level to which teachers must be qualified.

    Ideologically, it might be argued that conservatives fear the exposure trainee teachers might get to other ideologies, especially libertarianism and socialism in universities during their training, and that might be their rationale for allowing unqualified people to teach in state schools.

    • Hi Neil,
      You make some interesting observations here. Of course there are teachers in private schools in England who are very well qualified and have good teaching qualifications as well as subject knowledge. so, we should be careful not to generalise.
      I am all for teachers entering the profession on merit, rather than through connections. Ensuring that all teachers have to obtain a qualification would certainly go some way to achieving this.
      The need for two first degrees and a master’s does seem somewhat excessive – unless of course the state is willing to fund this. But your point about providing opportunities for teachers to enter the profession from poorer backgrounds is important. I am sure that many of us who come from “working class” homes are grateful for the training routes into teaching that we took.

  2. Teaching …. or facilitating learning for me is beyond degrees … while I am all for a person to have the necessary qualifications.

    I feel teaching is all about getting to “know” the student …getting to understand his/her strengths, interests, and needs and matching that as best as possible with appropriate techniques. For this the facilitator also needs a have an “invisible bag of techniques” that he/she can use as and when required.

    This means that the facilitator needs to be a good observer, have great empathy, and be able to think through on his/her feet, be creative, have a vast enough repertoire of skills that he/she can use with ease with different students.

    Education should be able to liberate the masses … it should not be just for the rich and privilaged!! It is education that has helped people to fight for their rights

    I wonder if a mere PhD will help this…

    • Hi Suchitra,
      I agree with your sentiments. My objection is the notion that someone who is in possession of knowledge will automatically be able to pass this on to others in a meaningful manner. A balance needs to be achieved between professional training and creativity.

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