What is the College of Teaching for?January 19, 2015
Having discussed the ideas around a College Of Teaching on Twitter, and at a consultation event last Saturday, I’m beginning to realise that at least some of the difficulties are around the question of purpose. I think I had assumed too much about what a College Of Teaching is for, the context in which it is being proposed, and how widely others who advocated it agreed.
As I said in my last post, I thought that it was intended as a professional body for teachers. This might seem to be answering the question of what the College is, rather than what it is for, but I think that it is actually answering both. In order to be a professional body, it will need to be concerned with making teachers into a profession. Its task will be the professionalisation of teachers (or re-professionalisation if you believe that our loss of identity as professionals is a recent development). It was for this reason that I have very little sympathy with ideas about the College that seem to suggest we can play fast and loose with who is a teacher. Distinguishing between teachers and those in other professions, or occupations, which involve teaching is a necessary part of establishing a professional identity, and no appeals to the expertise of ex-teachers, university lecturers, consultants or interested outsiders has given me any reason to compromise on this. I’m not trying to create a teacher ghetto, or declaring war on all other educators. A brief look at the work I’ve done on the Echo Chamber would show I am interested in the views and experiences of people involved in education in a wide variety of ways, and this debate has made me wonder whether a broader “Association of Educators” might also be a useful organisation. However, a professional body for teachers, needs to be made up of teachers.
Once we have accepted that the purpose of the College Of Teaching is to professionalise teachers, we have two key sets of questions to ask. One set of questions about what we are lacking compared with other professions. The other set of questions is about what it is, in our current set of circumstances, that has deprofessionalised us. We should consider both sets of questions when deciding in more detail what a College of Teaching should do, because there are cases where these two different types of consideration will lead us in two different directions.
One example of this conflict is around the role of outside experts in the College. Other professional bodies have given a high priority to gathering expertise which might seem to indicate we would want to involve as many researchers and academics in the College as possible or that we should be keen to bring in CPD providers. However, for teachers, being told what to do by outside “experts” who really don’t know what they are doing, is a large part of what has deprofessionalised us. A dialogue between teachers about teaching, without people who barely set foot in the classroom telling us the right answer, would do far more to advance our professionalism, than another chance to hear more pet theories from the ivory towers of academia, or the latest gimmicks from the consultant class. Given the recent history of teaching, the last thing the profession needs is any more lectures from outside. One of the strangest features of the debate around the College Of Teaching is the priority given to the idea that it would protect us from the demands of politicians. Politicians are an easy target, but they make their demands in public, whereas our professionalism has been repeatedly undermined by demands from inspectors, consultants, teacher trainers and our own managers without even a whiff of public debate or democratic scrutiny. We must not recreate those hierarchies within the College.
Another area where teachers might wish to depart from a model that has been effective in other professions is in having grades of members. This has been on the agenda since, at least, the blueprint from the PTI which suggested:
A tiered membership structure of Associate, Member and Fellow would encourage, recognise and celebrate the development of a teacher as a professional. The tiers would be constructed to allow all teachers to aspire to the highest level, but only the most exceptional and widely professional would achieve it.
Now this has much to commend it, but again, the recent history of teaching has given us every reason to resent being graded or ranked and every reason to see it as hostile to our professionalism. Whether it’s been lesson observations, performance management, or the explosion in promoted posts, teachers have in the last ten years been repeatedly put in their place in the pecking order. We have been judged again and again, and so often it has seemed arbitrary and unfair. We do not need more of it. By all means, find ways to recognise our skills, our specialities, our knowledge; but let’s have awards in different areas, not tiers of membership. We have been deprofessionalised by being told (usually incorrectly) that the average teacher is not as good at teaching as the “outstanding” teacher, the AST, or the senior manager. We won’t undo that damage by telling teachers they are not as good as the next tier of membership up.
So having torn into those two ideas, where do I think the College has the potential to make a difference? Well, anything that builds a profession would fit my criteria, but here are three projects which appeal to me.
Firstly, teaching is still an area where the knowledge teachers require is taken for granted. If it were possible to map subject knowledge and pedagogical knowledge in a useful way, instead of leaving new teachers to discover it for themselves, that could make a huge difference. It could also be possible to assess that knowledge, giving teachers qualifications in their areas of expertise, which will be meaningful to teachers, not just academics.
Secondly, there are professional ethics. I have argued before that this is one of the areas where teaching seems most deficient compared with other professions. Beyond our duty of care to our students, we are often led to believe that we have no responsibilities other than to follow orders and “play the game” and that professional behaviour involves little more than not expressing opinions. What are our duties to our students, to each other and to the public interest? When should we disobey orders? When should we blow the whistle? Guidance on professional dilemmas that went beyond platitudes could be incredibly useful, and also might improve trust in the profession.
Thirdly, the College should promote professional scepticism. Teachers have been told things that weren’t true so many times. Whether it’s about teaching methods, what inspectors want or in policy debates, it is hard to keep track of the untruths. It is time to start promoting the idea that it is okay to ask questions, and for the College itself to ask questions on behalf of its members. A College can scrutinise every development affecting teachers and make it clear what teachers will want to know. It can seek to open lines of communication, and to make sure its members know what is going on and do not rely on their superiors, or vested interests, for information about teaching.
As long as its mission is to build a profession, and as long as we realise that means keeping us informed, communicating, listening and thinking for ourselves, there is a lot a College Of Teachers can do. But we need to ensure that it is an institution which serves us, not something that is done to us. It needs to enable us to do more, not close down debate, judge us, or seek to hold authority over us.