RELOADED: The Cast of Culprits Part 2. The Teachers

March 27, 2008

This is a rewritten version of an entry that has appeared previously but is no longer available. Apologies if you have read it before and also for the fact that some of it covers the same ground as one of my more recent posts.

Until the mid 1970s, the acceptable degrees for secondary mathematics teachers were “mathematics” or “mathematics with physics”. Combined degrees in two or three subjects, including mathematics, then became acceptable. Today the range of acceptable degrees has broadened further still. In our own institution we look …. in cases where degree content is borderline, for good mathematics A-level results or a higher degree in a numerate discipline.

Tikly et al (2000)

However, even if it is unclear whether teachers with better personal academic records or qualifications are necessarily better teachers, there is concern about the difficulties experienced in recruiting teachers from the top end of the ability distribution. There is some evidence in the UK (Chevalier et al 2001; Nickell and Quintini 2002)….that current teachers are being drawn from further down the educational achievement or ability distribution than they were in the past.

Chevalier et al (2005)

In some ways teachers are probably better than ever. I am not accepting the often heard claims that using an interactive whiteboard and knowing how to plan a three part lesson represent major improvements, but I do believe that the climate of secondary education at the moment is such that teachers have to be exceptionally committed not to move to a profession where they will not be treated with contempt and anger for the entire working day just for doing their job. (For instance they could become traffic wardens.)

However, there are a few ways that teachers are part of the problems we are facing:

The trend over a number the decades has been for teachers to have ever lower qualifications each year. Accordingly many teachers can’t spell, have poor subject knowledge and aren’t familiar with developments in education. More critically we are no longer trained in anything much beyond the day to day business of teaching. This change was a reaction to an excess of theory with teachers being taught the sociology of education rather than how to control a class. This has now reached the extreme point where those training to teach no longer have any opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a teacher. Academic, ethical and theoretical knowledge are no longer the norm. A quick way to demonstrate this is to look on any teacher’s forum on the internet for discussions of what “professionalism” means. You will find that most correspondents have no idea of what is pretty much a fundamental of the philosophy of education. You will also find that roughly half of those discussing it can’t spell it either.

Secondly, more and more teachers now see the current state of education as normal. Poor behaviour, mixed ability classes including students who won’t access any work, and classes that cannot be directly taught are part of their experience of every year of their teaching career, their training course, and increasingly their own education as well. Every year more and more teachers enter the profession believing that their job is to entertain children in an educational way in a chaotic environment, rather than to actually teach. In fact it’s debatable how many of us even know the dictionary definition of the word “teach”. It means “to give systematic information about (a subject or skill)” – nothing there about colouring in. I don’t think the “culture war” within teaching is lost yet, but there is a strong need for teachers to stand up for the belief that students should be expected to behave and teachers should be expected to teach in the literal sense of the word.

Finally, there is the behaviour of some the survivors of the current system. Many teachers have managed to carve out their own enclaves of civilisation in their classroom where the traditional assumptions still hold. However, many of the most ambitious teachers, including many school managers, have adopted other survival strategies. The key strategy is appeasement. The key aspects of this strategy are:

  • Lavish attention on the worst behaved students. Give them attention and praise, not just for their work but for anything that might win them over to you.
  • Make friends with the students. If they like you, then it won’t matter that they aren’t learning. This is easier to do in subjects where there is no formal assessment.
  • Don’t push the students too far with difficult work. In subjects which aren’t often assessed the students can believe they are doing well continually if thy never have to do difficult work.
  • Don’t follow the school procedures for discipline, particularly those that will involve other members of staff. It will antagonise the students and lead to management thinking you can’t handle your classes. Instead “swallow your smoke”.

Now imagine the effects this strategy has when employed across the school. Badly behaved pupils will always want attention, there will be low expectations of work, and teachers who set difficult work or maintain professional distance will be drawn into conflict with pupils. Moreover any teacher expecting outside support with behaviour will be seen as part of the problem.

These trends have created a significant “enemy within” for the teaching profession. There are strong signs, however, that within the normal teaching ranks they remain a minority. The dangers are that this is not the case within school management, and that the situation will get worse as more and more teachers with a solid professional ethos either leave the profession or eschew seeking promotion.


Chevalier, Arnold; Dolton, Peter and McIntosh, S., Recruiting and Retaining Teachers in the UK: An analysis of graduate occupation choice from the 1960s to the 1990s, London School Of Economics, 2001
Chevalier, Arnold and Dolton, Peter, The Labour Market for Teachers, in Machin et all (2005)
Machin, Stephen and Vignoles, Anna, What’s the Good of Education, Princeton University Press 2005
Nickell, S. and Quintini, G., The consequences of the decline in public sector pay in Britain: A little bit of evidence, The Economic Journal 112, 2002
Tikly, Clare and Wolf, Alison, The Maths We Need Now: Demands, Deficits and Remedies. Institute of Education, 2000

Details of teacher qualifications can be found here  Discussion of this entry and/or teacher qualifications can be found on TES


  1. Lavish attention on the worst behaved students. Give them attention and praise, not just for their work but for anything that might win them over to you.

    If you take your (and the dictionary’s) definition of ‘to teach’, then – as a teacher it is your role to teach everyone. That does involve breaking down boundaries. Of course, if you use terms like ‘lavish attention’ that sounds like an awful thing no sane person could support. But if we assume that pupils are badly behaved for a variety of reasons (not just because they are ‘the enemy’ or evil) then I assume we would agree that, in order to teach them, we need to correct their behaviour. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but making a pupil want to be constructive and helpful, making them feel like they aren’t the enemy can be effective.

    Make friends with the students. If they like you, then it won’t matter that they aren’t learning. This is easier to do in subjects where there is no formal assessment.

    Again – ‘make friends with’ sounds very negative, especially when put together with ‘it won’t matter that they aren’t learning’. But have you evidence to show that students don’t learn when they have a good relationship with their teacher? I have anecdotal evidence of the opposite being the case, but if you have some hard figures, that would obviously trump my anecdotes!

    Don’t follow the school procedures for discipline, particularly those that will involve other members of staff. It will antagonise the students and lead to management thinking you can’t handle your classes. Instead “swallow your smoke”.

    Obviously procedures are there for a reason and they should be followed. My concerns are more where teachers over-ride procedures and take the law into their own hands (independenly calling in the police, etc.) If you choose not to go down official routes because of the two fears you mention that is, of course, a bad thing. There might be other reasons why you would choose to ‘swallow your smoke’.

    It all comes down to this language of a battleground, of appeasement, etc, etc. I appreciate that it can feel like that sometimes. You may well have had worse classroom incidents than me, but I’ve had pupils square up to me (sometimes once considerably bigger than me!), spark up a fag in the nextdoor classroom after I’ve sent them out; be under the influence of illegal substances in the classroom, etc. You have to deal with such things. But you and I, from our political perspectives, do not take a straight-forward ‘hang ’em and flog ’em’ approach to deviant behaviour in society at large; to coin a phrase, we consider ‘the causes of crime’. Well being tough on the causes of bad behaviour can sometimes mean engaging in those behaviours that you label ‘appeasement’, but the reason for it, the end point, is not appeasement, it is an attempt to get rid of the behaviour, rather than get rid of the pupil.

    I think I should have a rant about the mixed ability teaching point elsewhere!!!

  2. My point is that the main cause of bad behaviour is appeasement and the belief that poor little Jordan cannot be expected to behave in a civilised fashion.

    And when you attempt to get bad people to stop being bad by rewarding them, it most certainly is appeasement. Only the spread of the insane belief that a child can never be bad has obscured this point among the enlightened.

  3. Of course a child can be bad. But there is an equally insane belief that a ‘bad’ child can never be good. Whether the best way to get them to be good (and therefore get them to learn stuff and stop disrupting the behaviour of others) is through strict discipline or through trying to build a relationship with them is a reasonable debate. But if one side of that debate is emotively castigated as ‘appeasement’, as unenlightened and, critically, as being something other than it is, then it is a debate that won’t happen.

  4. It’s not an either/or situation. The question is whether rules are to be enforced as part of the relationship that’s to be built, or whether it’s the unhealthy kind of relationship based on turning a blind eye to the wider interests of the community.

  5. Well I agree that it’s not either/or. But laying down the law isn’t always appropriate or effective. Making that call doesn’t make you unprofessional.

  6. I’m sorry but letting a class think that there is no law is never appropriate or effective.

  7. No, but impression management is a little easier than classroom management. It’s easy enough to give them the impression that things are going on behind the scenes, or there’s stuff they don’t know, and shouldn’t. After all, there generally is. Obviously we operate in different environments, and part of my daily struggle is not to lose students. Obviously yours are stuck with you however much you discipline them! But I’m sure there would still be moments when carrot would work better than stick, etc. To always characterise that as appeasement is to damn hundreds of years of experience and damn an essential tool in every teacher’s armoury. You can generally tell when a pupil is in need of a tough line and when they’re in need of a biscuit. Managing the impression the other pupils get is another thing entirely.

  8. Are you now suggesting that after rewarding bad behaviour you should then lie to the rest of the class about it?

    Oh, and hundreds of years experience tells us that appeasement doesn’t work.

  9. No, because I never suggested rewarding bad behaviour. I never suggested lying to the class – there normally is something they don’t know.

    And hundreds of years of teaching experience tells us to play the situation. Some pupils respond better to some approaches than others. As only you call it appeasement, the history of appeasement is completely irrelevent.

  10. You appeared to be suggesting rewarding bad behaviour. That’s what I mean by appeasement. If that’s not what you are talking about then I don’t understand what your disagreement is.

  11. I’m suggesting that teacher discretion on the full implementation of rules can be right. I’ve inferred that you would disagree.

  12. How is failing to implement the rules anything other than a reward for badly behaved kids?

  13. By not being one.

  14. So this duncan character’s job is only secure if he doesn’t loose his students? The situations are not comparable, as it is in his interests to keep them to get paid then surely he’ll behave unprofessionally and appease other wise he wouldn’t get paid. Are you a teacher? Or do you take them on those peculiar fieldtrips to the woods where loosing them would definately be a bad thing…. make the papers that would.


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