I started my teacher training in 1997, fresh from a year working as a teaching assistant. I was ready to explore how I could develop myself professionally and to be challenged intellectually. To some extent I found that through being introduced to writers and thinkers on education I hadn’t heard of, let alone read.
However the one thing that sticks with me most is my experience of being taught how to deliver the National Literacy Strategy. I was disappointed to see my future career mapped out for me ad infinitum. It seemed that the thinking was being removed from the process of being a teacher. A sense of no longer being required to engage intellectually with teaching in the way that I thought the role needed. Instead it felt like I was being redefined as a technician delivering a curriculum fit for a narrow band of pupils. The worst of procrustean systems.
It was one of the single most important factors in my decision to work in a special school. I wanted to be somewhere that I felt required an intellectual relationship with the job in the way that the mainstream I was being presented with would not.
Looking back on it now it also reflects the limited intellectual relationship I had with my training – a relationship further weakened by my point of reference being a rather singular empiricism that I enthusiastically used to make simplistic comparisons.
However, despite what was then a rather caricatured view, it does seem to me that over the years the space available within the profession for thinking has been squeezed. Time for the development of self appears to be sacrificed in order to meet the ever increasing operational requirements of working in the modern school. The expectation that those entering the profession should build an intellectual relationship with teaching risks being compromised. We want them to be good and we know what good looks like.
And yet the desire for intellectualism continues to exist. I find the debates taking place online and the strength of feeling that they generate heartening. The willingness of teachers to give up their weekends attending grass roots professional development is extraordinary, as is the commitment shown by those who organise them.
Yet this is still a relative minority, albeit a vocal one, and it concerns me that teachers feel compelled to give up their time in this way in order to access the development opportunities that they seek. Bettering yourself in order to do better by your pupils should not be relegated to weekends and holidays – it should be integral to the role.
The demands of the day-to-day create barriers to thinking about how better to do the job. The time isn’t uniformly available for teachers to invest in thinking about what they do and how it can be improved. We have allowed a system to evolve that risks restricting teacher development rather than seeing it as central to broader school improvement.
We have acknowledged that we need to understand what works in the classroom but we are not always giving ourselves the time to explore this further, to contextualise it effectively. We risk outsourcing our intellect to those paid to think on our behalf, and we then apply their wisdom in the hope of some universal transferability. Have we indeed lost sight of the value of the intellectual process in the singular pursuit of the operational outcome?
Maybe it is time that we started planning for the ‘intellectualisation’ of teaching. We need to challenge those leading the profession, both at an institutional level and a political level, to recognise the value of providing time to think. To provide the opportunity to be perplexed. To celebrate innovation and the intellect of those within the classroom. To recognise that becoming a truly great teacher takes time and the desire to succeed needs to be supported, not stifled by a simplistic interpretation of accountability.
Today we have accountability which doesn’t appear to foster innovation, but instead encourages the aversion of risk. We need to rediscover ourselves as a profession in which everyone is encouraged to wrestle with the great questions of pedagogy and educational philosophy, and is given the time to do so. We must become a profession no longer fearful of whether we should have used the red pen rather than the green.
Simon Knight is Deputy of Frank Wise School, Oxfordshire and an Associate Director of the National Education Trust, currently seconded part-time to NET.