Don’t judge teachers by their degrees

18 January 2010
The Guardian
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I’ve seen too many graduates with first-class degrees die in the classroom. David Cameron’s ‘elitist’ policies would be destructive

So what makes a good teacher? Suddenly, answering this question properly seems to be of crucial importance. Today, with much fanfare, David Cameron, trumpeted plans to stop graduates with poor degrees from so-called “poor” universities from entering the teaching profession. Furthermore, he said that only students who achieved a 2:1 in maths or a “rigorous science subject from a good university” could apply to have their student loans written off. Clearly, Cameron feels that it is only high-achieving graduates who make good teachers.

Having been a teacher in various comprehensives for 20 years now, I know better than to judge teachers by the quality of their degree. I have seen too many graduates with first-class degrees die in the classroom: they’ve been chewed up by the demands of the job, enraged that their pearls of wisdom have been so rudely dismissed in a deluge of chatter and misbehaviour. Take David (not his real name): he had a first-class degree from Oxford and a penchant for oatmeal jackets and cravats. As his mentor, I observed him teach what I felt was a relatively well-behaved class of 12-year-olds; 15 minutes into the lesson, it was clear that none of the children had the slightest idea about what he was talking about. His academic language was way above their heads: the class began talking and then chucking his elaborate worksheets around the class. Ironically, it was his support teacher, who didn’t have a degree at all, who had to rescue the lesson by explaining in clear English what was required of them.

Indeed, sometimes it is the non-specialist teachers who make the best teachers during the earlier years. The best maths teachers I’ve seen at key stage 3 did not have degrees in the subject: because they had struggled with mathematical concepts, they were able to explain the key issues very clearly.

However, they had been extremely well trained by a subject specialist. The importance of proper training for teachers cannot be overestimated. At the moment, I feel the training provision for teachers is very poor. Too many schools and institutions take the attitude of David Cameron: they feel that once you’ve got your degree and your Qualified Teacher status, all you need is a few training days to top you up over the years and, bingo, you’ll be a great teacher. This is patently rubbish. Personally, I think I was too big-headed about my good degree from a so-called good university in the early stages of my teaching career: I felt that my pupils were empty vessels that I poured my precious knowledge into. This is an entirely false notion of how children learn: they only learn when they are actively engaged in solving “problems” – as all the great educational theorists from Montessori to Dewey have shown.

I feel I’ve become a much better teacher in recent years because finally I’ve received some excellent training. Above all, it’s a teacher’s ability to motivate their students which makes them effective. Here, even the most passionate and enthusiastic teacher can fall down if they haven’t been properly trained. My reading of theorists like Paulo Friere, the great Brazilian educational philosopher who motivated people in the slums of Brazil to become literate, has helped me considerably. Friere, like the best theorists, emphasises the importance of making sure that learning is firstly rooted in a pupil’s life: involving parents, asking questions about a pupil’s life experience is vital in order to motivate.

Furthermore, there’s now a great deal of research evidence to suggest that it is not your subject knowledge which is the determining factor of how well your pupils achieve but how well you use your assessment of their achievements to plan and shape your succeeding lessons. However, I am well aware that I still need further training in this area. At the moment, I am paying for that training myself by doing a doctorate in education; there isn’t any hope that I will receive funding from the government (believe me, I’ve tried!). Luckily, my partner works so we can afford it, but most teachers struggling with families and high living costs simply cannot.

Instead of demoralising teachers with his ill-informed comments about what makes a good teacher, David Cameron should commit himself to putting proper money and time into training the existing teachers in the system. Instead of unfairly paying for the training of his “brazen elite” of graduates, he should improve the wages of all teachers so that we are all treated like an “elite”, not just a few of us. His policies, if implemented, will be extremely destructive: they won’t improve the standards of teaching and they will dishearten a deflated profession even further.

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