In early years and primary, teachers help children to negotiate difficult early childhood learning in a structured, nurturing and demanding way. Children become socialised, learning how to get along with other children and adults outside their immediate family. They learn how to learn within the school system through trial and often frustrating error. Teachers guide, direct, manage and structure children’s experience of school, and the system simply would not work without trained, skilled adults leading the way. Early Years and Primary teachers are awesome.
By the time children get to secondary school, and those who have succeeded in mastering the basic socialisation of primary begin to take greater control of their learning, teachers work with hormonal teens whose learning goes into overdrive as the journey to adulthood heads off into the hills. It takes a great deal of knowledge, skills and understanding to focus adolescents on academic development as the raging storms of the teenage years kick in, and teachers in secondary are awesome.
And teachers are awesome, because they do a stupidly demanding job, which too many people simply don’t understand. When I became a teacher, and friends asked what it was like, I would say that it was like having five one hour meetings, back to back, every day - for which you had to plan, prepare, deliver and write minutes. And each day has lots of little additional meetings thrown in, as the day to day essentials of school are negotiated, from spellings to times tables, from mysterious Illnesses to friendship problems, and on, and on. And on.
Teaching is a six, often seven, day a week job during term time. Those who teach children give up many of the things other professionals take for granted. In term time, the working day for most teachers doesn’t end until late into the evening. The relentless demands of planning, preparation and assessment mean that any let up in term time results in backlogs which mount up at an alarming rate. Any activity away from school – seeing friends, family, keeping healthy, having a life and so on - has to be carefully planned and negotiated in advance.
School holidays are, as every teacher knows, not teacher holidays. They are simply times when children are not in school. Teachers’ work doesn’t stop simply because children are on holiday. Every half term is time off in lieu, as are half of the breaks children have at Easter, Christmas and in the summer. As a result, Teachers get around five weeks holiday a year – around the same as other professionals - and there is only a short period in the summer when teachers’ every waking thought isn’t dominated by the demands of the job.
But those who teach absorb all this pressure and stress and - on the whole - shield children from it as they provide support, guidance and nurture for children in their care. Some teachers crack, of course, and you don’t need a workload survey to see the effect of all this on the profession. 4,000 teachers leave teaching every month, and there has been an alarming increase in the number of people who simply don’t want to play the game anymore. They aren’t leaving willingly, but when the lunatics take over the asylum, it’s often the only way to stay sane.
This is a huge problem, because all the evidence suggests that children need skilled teachers to enable them to learn. Whilst I argue that children’s desire and capability to learn are what really matter in education, teachers clearly have a vital role to play in both. Effective teachers develop and channel children’s desire to learn. They also maximise children’s capacity to learn, focusing minds on the task in hand.
Because, whilst children do the learning, they can’t learn if they don’t know what they don’t know. And to get to where they need to go, they need skilled guides who know the terrain. And that’s why teachers are awesome, because being a teacher requires such a wide skill set, such deep knowledge, such dedication and such energy, it’s amazing we have so many people prepared to do it, and so many who do it well.
I have little time for those who seek to quantify teachers, insisting that there must be ‘better’ teachers and, by extension, those who are ‘worse’. It says something that many of those driving this ‘better teachers’ paradigm work for organisations which benefit from this very seductive narrative. It’s a short step from saying that all teachers can get better at what they do, to believing the Great Teacher fallacy, and you only have to look at what is happening in the USA to see where the delusion leads.
But back to the main point. Children do the learning. They can’t do it on their own, though. They need teachers. And teachers are awesome.