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.



  1. Thought this a very fine piece of work. Do you think if/when the professionalism ideal is established, other purposes could then be developed? More say in policy, assessment, curriculum design, maybe, in the long term?
    Spoke to our HT today. He hasn’t heard of CoT. Not much interest either.

    • There.are things that, if taken on, would distort CoT from it’s principle mission. Particularly roles that involve accepting government funding. Go this way and you get the result OA is fearful of: a CoT that works for everyone but teachers.

      On things like curriculum, CoT must first figure out what the professional teacher perspective is. Then they can have a part in the design with the specific remit of ensuring it works for teachers.

  2. Cracking read. Really interesting how the wrong kind of leadership in schools corrupts teacher professionalism, examples such suggesting maxi classes of 70+ and LSA support as low cost option or narrowing of curriculum to promote league table success. Atul Gwande’s checklist manifesto highlights the huge gap between surgical professional standards across the world – just try reading Doug Lemov’s Teach like a Champion and recognise the gap is even bigger in education.

  3. I find this very persuasive. However, even when those who are distant from the experience of ordinary teachers no longer dominate I worry the problem would not be solved. I remember our university NUS was highly unrepresentative of the students at large but its leadership was drawn from the student body. Could something similar happen with a CoT?

  4. In Alberta we have the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), which serves as both a union and as a professional association. They haven’t really moved past the former designation, though – at least not in the eyes of the public and of the government. A clear purpose must be defined for such an entity. It’s difficult to walk the line between union and professional association and ultimately, one role takes precedence. In upholding its mandate as a union, teachers have benefitted from the ATA, but we’re still pretty much viewed as lowly civil servants.

  5. Re letting people who teach as opposed to teachers join the College. Would those who are for this idea let someone who is a surgeon and a visiting lecturer in a medical school join in as well?

  6. We have a problem here–how do we define professionalism in edcuation? If ITT and CPD are counterproductive, what’s left? How does one become a good teacher, other than by mastering the subject to be taught?

    Let’s face it, the instinct to instruct the young is so powerful that there has never been a shortage of people–even educated people– willing to stand in front a group of truculent kids for minimal recompense. Until the middle of the 19th century, it was assumed that anyone with the requisite knowledge could teach; the first teacher training courses were built on the nascent ‘science’ of child psychology, and defined education in terms of child development rather than teaching knowledge.

    I got my first tast of teaching at the age of 22 conducting informal revision classes at the US Navy Submarine School. It was extremely easy–I had highly motivated pupils who attended voluntarily, and the training was pretty much rote learning. Everyone passed, and it was highly gratifying. Obviously, I had no training whatever for this.

    Twenty years later I got my first (and only) formal training in teaching: a weekend course in the British Army’s Methods of Instruction. It was all good stuff–Dan Willingham would have approved thoroughly. After teaching map-reading (I was already an experienced navigator) for a couple of TA weekends, I was given total responsibility for designing and delivering map-reading instruction for two-week training camps. I enjoyed it immensely.

    At the same time, I found that my son was completely illiterate after a year and a half of full-time school. We found a retired teacher who helped us teach him to read, and I studied reading pedagogy in the UEA library. Then I started a charity to teach other children to read. After a few years I was offered a job by the local comp, where teachers were fed up teaching the illiterate kids coming from the local feeder schools. We were already teaching half of their SEN pupils privately, so they figured that I might as well teach the rest.

    The first day I ever taught in this school was really no different than any other. I’d already served my apprenticeship, and the outside input (however valuable it was) amounted to a single week-end course. The point of all this is that I don’t really think that teaching is a profession in the sense that medicine or law are, and that attempts to make it one are the bedrock upon which the current dysfunctional edifice has been built. Every organisation which has ever been formed to represent teachers has quickly been captured by people who don’t believe in teaching. The poor bloody infantry on the front line are too busy trying to survive the idiocies rained down upon them by their superiors to attend all the damned meetings. I don’t think there is any way that this pattern could be reversed.

    • The pattern can be reversed, by excluding non – teachers, as you correctly identified the paradigm (the best summary I’ve seen in print :-)) as “the first teacher training courses were built on the nascent ‘science’ of child psychology, and defined education in terms of child development rather than teaching knowledge.”

      Teachers in the classroom ignore the child development due to the falseness of that approach, [as it has so little scientific merit] as it does not work.

      It’s only the educationalists influencing management teams through the LEA and Ofsted that have managed to damage the life chances of generations.

      Left to their own devices teachers naturally follow traditional methods that are well supported by cognitive science studies, simply because they work.

      They emphasise discipline and memory, you can’t think about something unless you have something to think about and that means long term memory achieved at through memorisation.

      There is no scientific evidence that rote learning exists , but plenty that memorisation is the at the essence of learning.

  7. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  8. College of Teachers should be for Primary, Secondary and 6th form teachers only, with associate membership open to others.

    If University lecturers want in they should be allowed and encouraged to set up a College of University Teachers, both organisations can be affiliated – linked to each other but maintain distinct separation.

    The legal environment that Uni lecturers and School teachers operate in is too different – fee paying and adult entry being the key.

    i.e as per Andrew’s comment above.

    “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. “

  9. I would agree that a CoT should be made up of currently practising teachers for the reasons to do with professionalism outlined in your earlier post. Those, like me, who have taught 11-18 for most of our careers but are currently employed by universities to work on ITT courses already have UCET (which doesn’t have individual members but operates in a vaguely similar way to a professional association) and significantly more ‘official’ networking opportunities than most teachers – I’ve really noticed that difference. I can see that the loss from a CoT of qualified teachers like Rob Coe, Dylan Wiliam, David Didau, David Weston, Michael Fordham or whoever else is not currently teaching children regularly [enormous apologies if any of you are still doing so] but is perhaps helping to move teaching forward, might be a shame, but equally I think you are absolutely right that any embryonic CoT needs to demonstrate the ability of teachers to promote and defend their own professionalism and you are right that there is still a lot of CPD done by people who aren’t currently teaching children – that’s different to most other professions where ‘experts’ are much more likely to still be practising – so the impression that teachers can’t do this themselves does exist (although ResearchEd, TLT, et al shows that this is changing). For me, another important reason is that it would distinguish between heads that don’t teach, and those that do, and although I’ve worked for some good people who hadn’t taught for a long time, I think this really affects their perspective. I agree with a comment elsewhere that the difficulty of deciding some marginal cases isn’t a reason for not making the distinction. There are ways round this problem Having said all that, if the CoT takes off, I will be mightily irritated to be excluded even though I think you are right that I should be. Many of my colleagues in ITT will feel the same way – many of us think of ourselves as teachers first, and whatever else we are, second. Best wishes.

  10. I can’t speak for all jurisdictions, and don’t know about yours, but here in Canada to a certain extent the thing that has de-professionalized teachers has been the teacher unions. For one, by the pretence of being precisely what you call for. Most refer to themselves as either “societies” or “associations”. Yet their behaviour is political and labour-issue oriented, and these stand above that of maintaining standards of the profession. Rather than keepers of integrity in the profession, they hold solidarity and the issues of union leadership above the concerns of members, circle the wagon on issues rather than facilitating open discourse and (by many accounts, at least) act as enforcers within the ranks, discouraging some points of view by subtle political or social pressures of the sort that unions are particularly good at.

    Whatever else a teacher’s professional association should, or should not be … it should not be a union, and it should not involve itself in political or social issues beyond those directly concerned with the profession itself. A professional association should never become a wedge for someone’s social, religious (or anti-religious) or political agenda.

    • Cannot find any evidence of your claims and plenty against them, please provide evidence.

      Thank you


      • There are no wedge issues, and your solution inevitably puts us on the road to serfdom.

        Either we fight for our rights or neoliberals will take them and sell them on the market. As they do with freedom of speech in the US for example.

        The business community however manages to involve itself with “political or social issues beyond those directly concerned with ” markets and everyone suffers


    • I think, here in the UK, that the landscape is different. We have unions that argue for pay and conditions. Whether you like or dislike unions, they mostly do what unions should do. Realistically, establishing/maintaining ‘professionalism’ of teachers is only an secondary objective (means to an end) for the unions. That is, they fight to promote professionalism because it’s in the interests of teachers but they are less concerned with what the professionalism actually entails.

      The CoT would have a primary purpose of professionalising teachers. It would be very likely to avoid union territory unless there was clear evidence of a policy being a significant barrier to professional practice. Having said this, nothing should be off the table – ultimately the organisation needs to represent teachers professionalism and it is likely that this will bring it into conflict with certain organisations. The last thing it needs is a restrictive definition of its remit that gives others an excuse to dismiss it.

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