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Non-Teachers Telling Teachers What to Think

September 19, 2020

I wrote this at the start of term for an education publication that then didn’t use it. Apologies that it’s slightly out of date.

Like a lot of teachers, I found the prospect of returning to school after lockdown to be daunting. I’d be teaching in unfamiliar parts of my school; the make-up of many classes would be different; break and lunchtime routines would be transformed. In the last few days of the holiday it was announced that face masks might be required in schools. Regardless of whether it is the right policy, it was an extra complication for teachers and, for many, an unwelcome one. A particular concern was how it would affect behaviour if children’s faces were partially covered. As teachers took to the media (and social media) to express their apprehension, I was surprised to see a number of ex-teachers explaining how there would be no behaviour difficulties of note and dismissing concerns. I hoped they were right, and I’m sure some teachers agreed with them. Nevertheless, how could anyone who wasn’t currently experiencing the changes in classroom routines, and the general stress of being about to return to the classroom on a regular basis after months of working from home, possibly judge the impact of last minute changes? Who are they to tell us our concerns are not reasonable?

Of course, an ad hominem argument is fallacious. Whether somebody is right or wrong does not depend on who they are, but on what they say. Ex-teachers and even people who have never been teachers, have frequently told me things about teaching and learning that I have found useful and wise. So why do I sometimes lose patience with those opinions expressed from outside of the profession? I think that some people show insufficient respect for the insights of those who still teach.

Firstly, there are those who claim that teachers are wrong about what they experience at work, particularly the problems of the job. They suggest that workload can’t be all that bad with those long leisurely holidays, or that children’s bad behaviour can’t be that serious. I’ve lost count of the number of times people who, having never taught in a challenging school, or having traded the classroom for the office at the first opportunity, have told me their hot takes about behaviour I see every day, or how well they understand the children they no longer encounter.

Secondly, there are those who know how to do the job of teaching better than those who do it. Behaviour worries would melt away if you just shook hands with students at the door. Shakespeare would entrance every student if you just explained how it was like rap music. Simultaneous equations would be grasped in a second if you used graphs that showed how phone companies charge. Indeed, listening to some ex-teachers you’d have to wonder how so many of those apparently infallible and endlessly caring practitioners would ever have come to abandon the classroom.

Thirdly, there are those who claim to speak for teachers. Over the years I’ve read newspaper headlines about what teachers are saying, or even petitions supposedly signed by thousands of teachers, that actually just represented the opinions of educationalists, consultants, or full time trade union activists. Too often, teachers are seen not as individuals, but as a single interest group, supposedly signed up to some simple political idea that actually doesn’t reflect the priorities of anyone in the classroom.

Finally, there are those who wish to take power from teachers. There are influential organisations that have been set up to represent teachers which ended up dominated by those who no longer teach. I’ve known some educationalists to be outraged when politicians and policymakers show signs of listening to those still in the classroom rather than non-teaching “experts” in teaching.

I’ll calm down now, because I have learnt loads from governors, advisors, academics and MAT CEOs. I don’t believe for a second that only teachers are worth listening to. But there are definitely times, like now, when the only people who can really know what it’s like to be teaching, are teachers.

One comment

  1. […] Teaching in British schools « Non-Teachers Telling Teachers What to Think […]



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