Whenever a teacher is asked what they do for a living, the response to their answer tends to be the same “Oh that sounds like hard work, but must be very rewarding” (closely followed by a remark about holidays, but that’s for another post!), the assumption being that teaching is a vocation, a calling, similar to medical professions or religious orders, for which one will tolerate the difficulties of the job to feel that glow of wellbeing. Teaching still has its rewards, of course, but in these times of data-driven enhanced accountability, the room for individual creativity in the classroom seems to be getting squeezed out, and with it, many of those rewards.
The attraction of teaching as a vocation may have driven recruitment in the past, but these days the reasons one gives for being in the profession are just as likely to be job security, career progression and receiving a decent wage. The disorganised and dishevelled, courdoroy-wearing but inspirational English or History teachers we remember from the Eighties and before, seem now to be a relic from the past.
We all know those famous teachers of film and literature who had the power to transform lives. Mr Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society, or Hector in The History Boys (for all his flaws) were inspirational and that’s what their pupils remembered. Perhaps that’s what Michael Gove was aiming for with his Free Schools – harking back to a different time when the all-powerful teacher had the freedom to use their own methods (although with measurable, evidenced progress and accountability still top priority, it remains to be seen whether Free Schools really offer what their name implies). Currently, there seems little room for the inspirational speeches which characterised those fictional teachers. Instead, if you were to pop into any mainstream school tomorrow morning, you would see all-singing all-dancing lessons packed with mini learning episodes linked to assessment objectives – the only accepted way of achieving the elusive “outstanding” grade. Fantastic for those learners, who no doubt will make good progress, but will it be memorable, or inspirational?
Many of us have been taught by uncompromising characters such as the ultra-strict but brilliant ballet teacher, gymnastics coach or musician. These stereotypes prevail in sport and the arts, with much success. But the didactic, personality-driven approach is frowned upon in schools nowadays. Maverick teachers are few and far between, largely due to the standardisation of the profession, and its high levels of accountability (I imagine Hector would have given short shrift to any inspector wishing to see written evidence of progress in every lesson!). In addition, shared pedagogy and practice, regular lesson observations and the ever-changing curriculum leave precious little time to go off-piste.
Many teachers have left the profession as they find their creative opportunities replaced by data entry requirements and obsessive box checking to prove progress has occurred. Yes, a standardised pedagogy achieves a level of consistency across the profession which was most certainly lacking in the pre-Millenium, pre-National Curriculum age (with some truly appalling characters putting us off certain subjects for life!) but the question remains – have we lost something in the quest for consistency?
So where do the non-conformist teachers go when the classroom is too restrictive? That personality who wishes for greater freedom, autonomy and creativity that used to be the hallmark of excellence? Some teachers seek a different environment – moving to the private sector, to special schools, or to alternative provision (where the national curriculum is not a requirement). Alternatively, there is tuition.
Successful tuition is all about personality and rapport. If a successful working partnership is formed between teacher and learner, the results will speak for themselves. There is no standardised code of practice, in fact, a tutor’s unique methods can be precisely what makes their lessons desirable. Consider how Ivan Lendl helped Andy Murray to Wimbledon success. Murray chose him for his unique qualities, not for his standard practice.
Tuition, coaching, instructing, call it what you will. It is the one place guaranteed to provides the freedom to be creative, to be experimental; inspiring and educating through personality.