This Guest Blog is from Parveen Nawab, a Teach First participant who teaches in a secondary school in West London. Parveen is on a Summer placement with the RSA education team.
No news yet. In about twelve hours my Year 11 mixed-ability class’ English GCSE results will be published online, and in twenty-four I’ll be amidst a (probably small) pool of girls jumping joyously, delicately balancing my reaction to cater for the weeping majority in a corner of the school café.
I last met my students at the Year 11 Prom, wishing them well for their future endeavours. I remember several girls asking me, “Madame,” (yes, that’s how they address female teachers in my school) “will you be around on results’ day?”
Secretly wondering how they suddenly cared about my presence, I responded “Errr… I might be on holiday but you’ll be fine.” Two weeks lingered before the summer break began and, if I’m brutally honest, my motivation to teach all-singing, all-dancing lessons to my remaining classes had almost completely been sapped. Also, as much as I’d grown to adore my class and was genuinely committed to raising their attainment, 23rd August 2012 was the least important date in my heavily -scheduled diary.
That’s because, after a year of teaching an 18-hour weekly timetable, only four hours less than what a fully qualified teacher is required to deliver, I hadn’t yet qualified to teach English in a secondary school. Perhaps more embarrassingly, I do not hold a degree in English either. I’m a historian.
There are two glaring questions that emerge for me: first, should an unqualified “teacher” with little or no prior training be teaching such an intensive timetable and, more specifically, a Year 11 exam class? And must a teacher hold a degree in the subject they teach?
In answer to the first of these I would adamantly say “no”. My concern comes amid Michael Gove’s recent announcement that all academies now have the right to hire unqualified teachers. Gove believes that any expert in their field does not need Qualified Teacher Status to independently teach a class of thirty (or more) children. There is an argument for this. After all, I do believe that everyone is intrinsically creative and we all have the raw capacity to practise the “artistic” element of teaching – that is, the day-to-day delivery of lessons. Great teacher training unleashes and moulds these core characteristics.
But how many of the “expert” doctors, engineers and lawyers Gove refers to actually quit their professions to teach in state schools? And how many of those experts have expertise across their whole domain? I may be a historian, but most of my knowledge is focussed on the 19th and 20th centuries. Also, in implying that specialist knowledge alone is sufficient in helping students progress, Gove neglects the equally fundamental pastoral and psychological aspects of teaching.
It is my view that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Michael Gove’s sweeping statement The idea that “teachers are born, not made” is a poor justification for experts considered by academies to be qualified to enter the profession, and could become a passport for academies to relinquish support for trainee teachers amid tightening financial budgets. In the context of increasing performance targets, trainee teachers’ wellbeing in these highly pressurised environments is also at risk of being neglected. In other words, teaching is a highly complex profession and if teachers are not looked after and trained properly, students, the most important stakeholders, lose out. Successful classroom teachers are by no means a homogeneous group; every teacher has a different way of doing things, a different style, which must be appreciated. But, in saying essentially that “a person either has it or they don’t”, one-size-fits-all approach is implied.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve had a rollercoaster of a year – riding hills of happiness and valleys of death. Contrary to my students, I have also developed enormously professionally and personally. But should my success as a “Good” or “Outstanding” teacher be defined by self-improvement – that is, highly reflective practice and achieving personal targets – or through the performance, or rather value added to the attainment, of students? In other words, yes, I’ve made rapid progress in the last year as a trainee practitioner but only at the expense of my students (I mean, guinea-pigs) who have had to endure poorly-planned lessons, a lack of sufficient subject-specific knowledge and an inconsistent style of teaching.
Whilst I’m all in favour of the thrown-in-the-deep-end routes offered by organisations such as Teach First, and am what we call in pedagogy (a word I ironically had never encountered up until last year) an “experiential learner”, I feel that it’s the risk to students in a crucial year that is most disconcerting. Either way, (without belittling the importance of other year groups’ attainment) let’s keep Year 11s out of this - it’s their GCSEs, after all,and they only get one shot.
I might, of course, change my mind in a few hours’ time.