Tuesday, 13 September 2016

What’s the job of a teacher?

One of the sessions I attended at researchED last Saturday was a debate on whether there really is a mental health crisis amongst young people. There were lots of interesting points made and the debate was slightly less polarised than you might expect, but it still turned out fairly predictably with one side saying the crisis is one we’ve created by pathologising normal feelings and behaviour and the other saying that young people are increasingly vulnerable and that the modern world is an increasingly scary place to live in.

The bit I found particularly interesting was when one speaker made the point that teachers should be expected to act as social workers and should instead ‘just teach’. This provoked the response that if all teachers were going to do was teach, children might as well be sent home to read a book. Instead, the role of a teacher was described as being – and I’m paraphrasing – ‘producing healthy, well-rounded young people’.

Needless to say, this got my goat. Let’s gloss over the fact that while reading books is, of course, admirable and valuable, it’s really quite different to having a subject you didn’t know you didn’t know about brought to life by a knowledgable teacher. We’ll also not dwell on the fact that ‘just teaching’ should include not only great explanations but also effective modelling, scaffolding and lots of directed practice. What really irritated me was the idea that it’s a teachers’ responsibility to determine how to go about making my daughters healthy and well-rounded. How dare they? That’s my job!

This is part of wider narrative in which we’ve decided that parents – especially working class parents – are unable to bring up their own children. In this view of the world children are fragile rather than robust and need protecting from the media, their parents and themselves. Teachers therefore must step in to make up for parents’ deficits and address children’s vulnerability. When I made this point during the debate I was told that my children are lucky. Others are not so lucky and really need teachers to focus on making them mentally healthy rather than teaching them an academic curriculum. Further, inflicting an academic curriculum on ‘kids like these’ is itself almost abusive and likely to do them damage.

Well. If teachers are going to make ham-fisted attempts to be social workers then it really might be better to send children home to read books! Teachers are teachers because they have studied a subject to the point where they know something worth teaching and have had some degree of training in how best to impart this knowledge.

Social workers and mental health professionals have their own specialised expertise. No one wants social workers teaching mathematics or psychiatrists teaching music, PE or English literature. So, why do we want teachers to take on these highly specialised roles? The possibility that a well-intentioned amateur will do more harm than good is pretty high.

Now, of course – certainly compared to many others – my children are lucky. There are those children who the state has decided need to be taken away from their parents and others for whom contact with social services is a regular feature of their lives. These children might be considered unlucky. Outside of these extremes, some parents might need help – some might even ask for it – but who are we to decide that a parent is not up to the job and that we – in our middle class wisdom – know best?

None of this is to say that schools don’t have a duty of care and that it seems reasonable that there are dedicated members of staff employed to ensure children are safe, happy and healthy. But not teachers. Teachers’ expertise is – or should be – teaching. I really don’t want well-intentioned teachers deciding they know better than me what my children need, I want them to be leading my children through a challenging, academic curriculum and opening their eyes to a world of wonder about which I’m insufficiently knowledgeable to do a thorough job.

If you don’t think teachers should be doing this for everyone else’s children as well, what’s the alternative? It’s precisely because so many teachers are confused about what their job should be that grammar schools are back on the agenda!

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