Both of my parents were teachers. I swore blind that I would never become a teacher, and yet here I am.
I swore blind that I wouldn’t become a teacher because I didn’t like school when I was a kid. The main reason why I didn’t enjoy it was because I was quite bored. Under-stimulated by the matters to which I was required to turn my attention. I say to students now that there is no such thing as a boring topic, only boring people. It’s a poverty of the imagination that leads one to conclude that something is “boring”. I say that, but I don’t really expect that many, if any, of my students will take me seriously. Because I know that when you’re at school, under normal school conditions, loads of things are boring. Even exciting things.
One of the hardest things a teacher is asked to do is make being at school an interesting occupation. It’s easier for me now that I’m a music teacher, because my students want to come to my lessons. I had the gratifying experience of a Year 8 girl tell me that my lessons were one of only two that she actually really enjoys at school. The other one was Woodwork. When I was a History teacher, and my students were required to attend compulsorily, it was a much more difficult task to engage students in the topic at hand. As an adult, it isn’t hard to see the value in learning about and discussing the important events from history. As a child, however, it isn’t about the value of the study of History, it’s about the topic at hand. It simply isn’t possible to have such amazingly good fortune that your entire class of diverse young individuals just happen to think that the lives of Australian pioneers is really interesting. That would be like expecting everyone you know to read the same newspaper you do, or watch exactly the same television programs. The best you can hope for is maybe 50% interest, with a possible 15% level of feigned interest included. The other 50% are probably not enjoying themselves very much and would rather be doing something else. Anywhere up to 5% of them may actively seek to sabotage lessons for their own amusement. The rest are asleep inside.
The mark of a good teacher, we’re told, is one that can make any topic interesting to the majority of students in their class. Very often, in order to achieve this, many hours of additional work are required, and very few of them will be acknowledged by anyone else. The first rule in making any topic interesting is to know the subject matter very well. Students are adept at sniffing out the teacher’s weaknesses, and they will know if you’re relying too heavily on a textbook or Googling on the fly. Obviously it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to know everything about everything (although many people do have this expectation) and a good teacher, when faced with an unfamiliar topic, will make the experience of learning about it something they include their students in. I’ve had to do it before, and the only thing that kept me from losing my sanity was an openness to possibility. My students and I shared the burden of learning something new. I would like to say it was an unmitigated success, but it wasn’t. It was a success, but mitigated by the inevitable few students who didn’t come along for the ride, for whatever reason.
The New South Wales government announced this week that they were raising expectations for teachers in that state. They want to raise the standard of tecahing – and hence learning, they believe – by making it easier to sack teachers that “under-perform” and by requiring teachers to pass literacy and numeracy tests before earning registration to teach. They really want the most intelligent people to become teachers. Seems fair enough, I suppose, except that one of the things we learn in teacher-school is that intelligence is a multifarious thing. Being a proper wizard at Maths won’t make you a great teacher. Being any kind of expert doesn’t necessarily equate with success in teaching. People who aren’t teachers don’t understand that. Those of us whose experience of education is only as a student seldom have any real insight into what it is that teachers actually do. This is one of the reasons why teachers get cranky when politicians in election years start up with lots of hoo-hah about education reforms.
I won’t bother getting into the political aspects of the Education debate because I find politics is never a satisfying topic to investigate in detail. I will make one observation, which is that all of the argument about teachers’ pay and entitlements being centred around “performance” is ridiculous. There are no universal standards against which to make comparisons between teachers, and far too many uncontrolled variables to make sense of any statistical information the government/s like to bandy about when teachers arc up about money and conditions. It is interesting to see a government suggest minimum standards of erudition for teachers, though. Especially when they can get by on popularity alone.