Clarifying roles and responsibilities

I’ve been lucky in my teaching career that I have never had a complaint about the quality of my teaching.  This is not supposed to be false modesty: I know of some excellent teachers who have been the subject of complaints and some pretty lousy ones who seem to go beneath the parental radar.  I have been challenged over things I have said when discussing the academic progress of individual children (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly) and I have defended the teaching competence of colleagues, firstly as a Head of Department and latterly as Director of Studies (mostly because the accusations were baseless, occasionally because it was simply the professional thing to do, whilst all the time trying to solve the problem behind the scenes).  In the vast majority of cases, the expectations of parents are wholly reasonable; they understand their children, their interests and capabilities and will play the Wenger role to perfection, meaning that they will defend their offspring to all outsiders in public whilst giving them a proper going over in private when the situation demands.  I don’t respect those individuals who feel that paying a large sum of money for an education somehow guarantees enhanced grades and places at ‘top’ universities and I think that the triangle of child, parents and teacher should be close to equilateral at all times.  It certainly shouldn’t be the case that two sides of the triangle ever gang up on the other side.  I have experience of all three possibilities here, but the most common side to get a bashing used to be the child, and now seems to be the teacher.  When a parent looks to strengthen their relationship with their son or daughter by picking a fight with a teacher on their behalf with no evidence of need, it is unfortunate.

In terms of education, both parents and teachers (and many other people besides) have some responsibility.  Clearly the two mentioned above are the key people, but authors, journalists, TV presenters, documentary makers, musicians, sportsmen etc will end up playing some part in the education process, whether they like it or not.  I don’t think I have ever been explicit when it comes to defining my role as a teacher in the education of the pupils I teach.  No parent has ever asked me to define my responsibilities in their child’s educational development.  It’s as though there’s always been a tacit understanding of what was offered and expected.  I suppose that my role as a teacher of chemistry would have involved (in no particular order):

1.  Teaching the contents of the exam syllabus so that it was understood
2.  Preparing for examinations to ensure a pupil’s grade represented the best of their ability
3.  Exploring areas of interest and relevance within the subject
4.  Preparing pupils for challenges beyond School, which has usually meant university
5.  ‘Sowing seeds’

There isn’t much crossover between what I would do as a teacher of chemistry and how a parent would be involved in the education of their child and I have deliberately left out the pastoral care aspect of boarding education (where I have spent 13 of my 16 years as a teacher).  The area of commonality across all Schools is the academic side of education.  The point where I think that teachers and parents cross-over is number 5: when it comes to sowing seeds.  This is also maybe the point at which parental responsibility trumps that of a teacher.

Why do I have deep interests in Art, science, cricket, music, food, wine, travel and literature as a 37-year old man?  It is because I was exposed to them as a child, and not in a manner where they were rammed down my throat.  I was taken to Lord’s (when the day was sunny), the Science Museum (when it rained) and many places far from these shores.  I was read to and it was expected that I would read.  I used to devour books on holiday but when I wanted to watch TV at home I was never forced to pick up a book instead.  I was taken to concerts and I asked to be taken to more – I remember one time my father asking if I really wanted to come.  I didn’t think parents asked questions like this.  When I considered it, I wasn’t sure what the answer was, but I thought it was my choice and this was important to me.  I was taken to art galleries, but not dragged round art galleries, and there would usually be a nice lunch or a picnic to make the memory of the day a good one.  I was encouraged to be adventurous with food (even though I was naturally very cautious) and I was given wine which made me feel grown-up.  Each and every Welsh castle had an interesting and different story associated with it, even though they all tended to look the same.  And again, there would always be a picnic to have somewhere in the grounds.  Put simply, whereas I think that all the interests I have now are ones that I have come to myself, the reality is that the seeds were sown years ago, mostly by what happened in the holidays rather than by what happened at School.

That’s the role of parents when it comes to educating children.  Leave the syllabus, exams and subject extras to the teachers.  Don’t complain if the teacher is boring (children can still learn a lot from boring people, and they’ll have plenty of boring lecturers at university and boring bosses later in life).  If the teacher is incompetent, that’s the time to complain.  Children need exposure to books, films, walks, music, art, theatre, food and conversation.  Sow the seeds and then stand back and watch your child reap the benefit.  Some seeds will germinate immediately, some will take years and others will never see the light of day, which is inevitable.  

As a final point, it is worth remembering that financial richness does not necessarily equal cultural richness and it’s a modern fallacy that art is elitist and football is the game of the people.  Last time I looked, it never cost £60 to visit an art gallery.  Some seeds take to ground that may appear stony and lacking depth; fling enough quantity and type of seed and something will come of it, be sure of that. 

False dilemma

I am no expert on critical thinking, but the title of this blog post refers to a standard argument fallacy, that of the false dilemma.  It’s a technique beloved of low-grade arguers, where in order to promote their line of thought, it is presented as one of only two possible alternatives, with the other option usually picked for the reason that it’s totally inappropriate.

Here’s a good example, about global climate change:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zORv8wwiadQ in which the presenter limits our options for dealing with climate change as ‘do something’ or ‘do nothing’.  Whereas I understand that ‘do nothing’ is a stand-alone option, a myriad of possibilities lie within the ‘do something’ heading.  If I were to donate £1 to climate change research, we would still be doing something, just nothing very significant and I’m not sure that many climate change advocates would consider this to be doing enough to allow them to rest easy.

Twitter is a good forum for educational debate, though as @oldandrewuk and @toryeducation proved yesterday, it’s tricky to win an argument on Twitter.  It’s also good for providing links to education blogs that are worth reading.  The problem with many of the blog posts, though probably not the bloggers themselves, is that the majority can be placed firmly on one side of the argument or the other.

The argument goes something like this:

Blog A: teachers are meant to teach.  There’s nothing wrong with tried and tested didactic methods.  Pupils aren’t in the class to have fun, they are there to learn.  Learning is characterised by good teacher subject knowledge and hard work from pupils.

Blog B: teachers are facilitators.  Pupils should work in groups as much as possible in order that peer teaching can take place.  Education is more about skills and problem solving than merely acquiring dry facts; all information can be found on google anyway.

This will generally be followed by all those who agree with Blog A re-blogging it to their own blog, re-tweeting its existence and complimenting the writer for telling the truth about education.  All those who agree with Blog B will do something similar with Blog B and will challenge (usually on Twitter) those who agree with Blog A (with the reverse also being true).

But this argument isn’t black and white.  Blog A is no more true than Blog B and vice versa.  To see the debate as one with only two answers is a false dilemma and if the answer needs defining at all it’s more of a continuum than a right/wrong.  Every teacher should feel happy placing themselves at one end of the continuum or the other, depending on the subject, topic, year group, ability of the class, time of day or just for the need to experiment.  

Sometimes I teach lessons which are characterised by an awful lot of teacher talking and other lessons involve pupils finding out things for themselves with very little input from me.  Sometimes the pupils walk out and I know they possess far more knowledge than when they entered the room and other times we’ve just had some fun (though I feel sure to be corrected on this one if any of the pupils I teach ever read this).  There isn’t a right way and a wrong way to teach – I’ve seen superb lessons that bore virtually no resemblance to other superb lessons I’ve observed.  I’ve also seen dire lessons dominated by the teacher and dire lessons where it was difficult to know if a teacher was in the room.  One of the greatest things about teaching is the flexibility it affords and yet some people are keen to be hamstrung by their own certainty that their method is the one that ‘works’.

Much as I like Twitter, some people spend so long defending their own method and attacking others that it seems as though that’s all they do – defend and attack.  There are other alternatives; it’s what one might call a false dilemma.


Downtime

If you ever ask a teacher what they love about their job, and the first answer they give is ‘long holidays’, I’d argue that they’re not really cut out for the profession. Taking those parts of the year that do not involve teaching and holding them up as the absolute highlight does not say much for one’s enjoyement of, and commitment to the important role they have.

In fact, long holidays can become something of a chore, and this is something that I have often tried (and always failed) to explain to friends who are not teachers. I realise it’s a tricky sell, and that trying to convince people that a 2 month summer holiday, or a month off at Easter and Christmas can be a hardship is not the easiest thing to do. But it’s true. People think back to their School holidays, and recall them as a fantastically happy time, involving famous five-style activities such as long bike rides, nature rambles, cricket matches, ginger beer in the sunshine, apple-scrumping and other such pass-the-time fun that would not feel out of place on the pages of ‘swallows and amazons’ or ‘the wind in the willows’.

Now think again, because you know that all of this is total bollocks. Most of my School summer holidays were spent watching TV and reading books (the latter is not a negative thing at all, but it was unlikely to turn me into the final member of the famous six). At a young age, my capacity for doing nothing was far higher than it is now, and by the time I’d reached university, I was an absolute master of my art. I had more time off then ever before, and considered it something of a triumph if I had managed to get anything at all done prior to watching ‘Lovejoy’, which was on BBC1 at 3pm. Have a shower, eat some pizza and potato waffles and stagger out for the Hogshead pub quiz was as near as I got to activity.

But that’s all changed now. I find it very difficult to do nothing. In fact, I find it very difficult to do just one thing. I can’t watch TV these days without spilling my thoughts on the programme on to twitter. For this reason, the School holidays represent quite a tricky time to fill, especially during the day, when Victoria is out at work. I’ll finish off this entry, and then I’m off to climb the Monument (because it’s there), to peruse some Victorian photos in the Museum of London and to have dinner and drinks with a Kiwi friend. All good fun, but it’s actually pretty exhausting trying to fill the time. This is a real problem with teaching; it’s the ultimate ‘all or nothing’ profession, especially at a Boarding School. During termtime it’s a 7-day deal, and your time is all pretty much mapped out for you. Suddenly these great long holidays hove into view, and you whose time has been structured for you throughout term suddenly have a great swathe of time to fill.

One final point: why do you think so many teachers marry other teachers? There’s only two obvious reasons. Firstly, you get to share the same time off. Secondly, another teacher is the only person that’ll have you. The second reason is clearly the more likely, but I wouldn’t rule out the first.