Training does not make the best teachers – a response

Since the announcement last week about academies employing unqualified teachers I’ve read with interest the range of opinions and perspectives on this important issue – most recently the views expressed by Anthony Seldon who is the master of Wellington College. 

Up front, I agree with many of the points he makes. I do think that it’s absolutely critical that those privileged to be working with our young people have ‘the human qualities [needed] to make a great teacher’. I also think that teachers need ‘energy, passion for their subject, a readiness to learn, an altruistic nature, integrity and intelligence’ – I’d also add resilience and humility to his list.

However what I find hard to understand is why there appears to be an either/or approach to becoming a great teacher. Do we want these fantastic, dynamic, creative individuals from a range of backgrounds and professions or do we want those who have the academic rigour and training? Surely we want both – no, surely we must have both.

The arguments for the necessary competencies or attributes outlined above seem simple but the arguments for academic rigour to support the development of our teachers and in turn the impact that has on our young people are a little less clear. There are two reasons why I think it’s crucial that all teachers go through a rigorous and challenging process to qualify them into our profession.

Firstly I am wholeheartedly convinced that teaching stands alongside the other professions and I’ve worked hard for the past six years to raise its status so that others feel the same. To me, being part of this profession means that I’m joining the ranks of those amazing people who took me through my school years, ranks of people to whom I owe everything. It’s about saying ‘I’m taking on a position of responsibility within our society and I have the demonstrated the values and professional attributes that are necessary for someone within that role’.  A professional qualification validates this for all to see, it gives confidence to parents and it raises the status of teaching as the number one choice for our best and brightest. Teaching as that fantastic profession is currently ranked 4th amongst our top graduates with only accountancy rated as a more prestigious career path. To think that we’ll get to 3rd, 2nd or even 1st in those rankings and get more talented people into our profession by saying that anyone can rock up and have a go is absurd. By employing instructors (because that is what they are) rather than teachers schools like Wellington are, in my view, freeriding on the hard work of all those gone before and will in the long term see that this is not sustainable.

Secondly, without this professional qualification there is a risk that we train an army of ‘technicians’. Technicians that have all of the competencies needed to be great teachers, who can replicate what they see  in classrooms and can, to some extent have a positive impact on the young people that they are working with, at least for a short time. However, these technicians don’t often have the critical ability necessary to review, interpret, understand and use the wealth of expertise that educational academics can provide. They don’t often have access to the very latest research and if they have they probably haven’t had the time to reflect on it so that they can blend this theory and practice in a meaningful way. It’s this insight, gained through a professional qualification that sets trainees up as fantastic classroom leaders, ready to inspire, motivate and support our young people in whatever school they join.   

To those who say that our career changes don’t want to do this I’d invite to come and see my group of 100 teachers who are all learning to be leaders in their classrooms across schools in the North East. We’ve got international journalists, naval officers, engineers, HR managers, translators to name a few. If they had skipped the training we’ve provided for them would they have thanked us for it, thanked us for the easy ride? No, not for a second. Why? Because they want, and will always want to be the very best teachers they can be – not for them, but for the young people that they teach and to do this they need the support of the strong partnerships between schools and universities that their on the job professional qualification provides. They also want to join me and countless others in the ranks of a high status profession and hold their heads high that in 2012 that means something.