The Expert Nature of Teaching

I’m fortunate enough to be in quite a privileged position regarding my career. Having finished a career as a teacher, where I worked as a school leader in independent, Catholic and public schools, in Australia and overseas, I’m now working with a teaching union to organise and support teachers every day. My day to day role means that I speak to teachers about the issues that are important to them every single day: whether those issues are professional, industrial, or, as is more likely, a combination of the two. It’s a job I enjoy as much as I find it confronting and challenging. In addition to that, I currently work at a university in Sydney, where I am fortunate enough to talk to pre-service teachers about their developing teaching practice, as well as pursue my own interests in relation to civics and citizenship education and learning design.

 My straddling of these various roles is an asset to all the organisations in which I work; there are synergies to be leveraged and networks that can be established and mobilized through this, and I find myself doing that quite effectively (I hope) but also mindful of the ethical niceties that are present in such a situation.  

The purpose of this rather lengthy introduction is to establish my credentials, so to speak, for what I am going to say next. I’m conscious that it’s going to ruffle some feathers. I also want to state from the outset that my comments do not apply to all academics, either.

I’ve spent a bit of time involved in the recent conversations about teacher status. As I’ve done that, I’ve quickly come to realise that many initial teacher education providers seem to hold currnet, practicing teachers in some level of contempt. I know that contempt is a strong word - and its use is even more ironic considering the fact that we’re supposed to be talking about improving the stuats of teachers - but I would suggest that it’s appropriate. The tone that I’ve picked up - and more than the tone - is that teachers aren’t doing a very good job. They arguments are many: teachers are dumb, because ATARs are too low. Teachers are disorganised because they’re constantly stressed about how much work they’re doing. Teachers are failures at everything else because they ended up in teaching. Teachers don’t know what they’re doing, because they don’t engage in research. 

It’s confronting stuff, right? I guess there might be a point to be made here, if the people holding teachers in such contempt actually understood what teachers do: but from what I’ve seen, that’s the real knowledge that’s missing. It’s too easy to criticise from outside, and that’s very often what seems to happen. I’m not suggesting that teachers should be excluded from any such criticism, but for the criticism to have any value at all, it should be based on experience and knowldege about what teachers actually do: and that’s exactly what’s missing. At a recent event, a very well-known professor of education spoke about her amazement when a teacher explained all that she does during a school day. The amount - as well as the nature and level of complexity - staggered this professor. It didn’t surprise me at all. I hardly think the professor would be alone in her suprise, though. Certainly, there seems to be a lot of interest whenever another survey comes out that points out all the extra work that teachers do in excess of the 38 hours per week. 

So how has this come to be? A possible reason is that education has changed so significantly in the space of two or more decades. It’s hard for me to say - I’ve never known anything else - but I have seen it change quite significantly over the course of my time of education - which is about a decade and a half. Perhaps initiatl teacher education providers are simply out of touch? And this distance from pracitce essentially means that they don’t recognise the nature of the profession at the moment. Perhaps they remember - through nostalgai-tinged glasses - a time when there were less demands placed on teachers, and they compare what teachers say now with what teachers had to deal with then - and they figure, I could do it then, so why can’t teachers do it now? Perhaps that engenders a level of contempt. Equally possibly, there are probably some initial teacher education providers who might have struggled in the classroom - and the contempt that they express for teachers comes from misplaced jealousy. 

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