Damian, Atilla, Desmond and Richard: What’s in a name?

In a recent article published on TES, Oliver Beech  claims that a 2:1 should be the minimum qualification for teacher training. I have no intention of criticising Beech as a person, on the T.V series ‘Tough Young Teachers’ he had some dark moments, but who didn’t during their training year. The fact, that he expressed them in the way that he did simply makes him, him. He has come through that and I assume is still in teaching in some format or other.

However, I do have issues with his views. “The result of being educated at a top university is that teachers work with others who are driven intellectually and who approach pedagogy and curriculum decisions with a discerning eye. Their purpose isn’t just to teach a child to pass an exam but to inspire a culture of learning and intellectual curiosity: and the students can tell the difference.” I assume that Oliver meets his own criteria, and I think that it is great to have people in the education system who meet these aims. I just don’t think you have to have a 2:1, or higher, to fit this bill.

The reason I have a ‘Desmond’ is dead simple. I had to work three jobs to be able to afford rent, food and fees. My socio-economic background was certainly a limiting factor, but I do think these experiences taught me valuable lessons. People who grew up on the same estate as me, who failed at school became thieves and drug dealers. They would offer to steal food for me so that I could focus on my studies. They would at times arrive with stolen books from the library. I would refuse and tell them that a future teacher couldn’t handle stolen goods. I knew that to achieve what I wanted I had to get it all right, I’m not sure I would share all elements of y story with the children I teach but I feel proud of what I achieved despite my limitations.

The support of those in my area gave me a  sense of the community supporting me in my endeavour, and made me work harder. I used to read set texts underneath the counter of the off license I worked at. I worked at a bar where a Literature professor drank, and quizzed him on the topics I studied. I made the most of any, and all, opportunities. If that doesn’t ‘inspire’ children of the same background to pursue “learning and intellectual curiosity” all the way to University, at any costs and despite rocketing tuiton fees  and government interference, then I don’t know what will/would.

For the most part the I felt disconnected from the teachers who taught me. They were not therefore inspirational. In my eyes they were  ‘posh’; I didn’t think I could be like them, and I didn’t want to be. They had funny accents and said things that would get me beat up on the estate. I did, however, definitely want to be like my G.C.S.E English teacher, and she inspired me to take a degree and become a teacher. She was Liverpool swagger personified and once butchered me for calling her a Scouser. She could be terrifying, brilliant and mythical all in the same moment. She seemed like the sort of person who I could aspire to be, she reminded me of the women at my Mum’s local and yet beyond them too. It was unlikely that I would go to University at that time, I was unremarkable and poorly behaved. She changed that story. We need a variety of backgrounds, cultures and characters in schools – not out of some principal of equality but because connections are the start of a cycle of inspiring young people.

To my mind, we don’t need narrower parameters in selecting teachers, we need broader ones. It is vital students see their teachers as role models and experience people from all sorts of backgrounds. Stick me in a room full of old Etonians and I guarantee I will more than hold my own, and probably hold court. Not because I had one inspirational teacher from a similar background to my own, but because I experienced all sorts of different backgrounds through my teachers. But if were talking about inspiration, then there needs to be a hook into that person!

Also, the idea that a teacher with a 2:2 would lack  a ‘discerning eye’ puts an awful lot of weight on your degree as a measure of intelligence. Because I felt inspired by my teachers, I continued to study English Language/Linguistics long after I realised I would get a first if I dropped it and focused on Literature. I think it’s called the love of learning or ‘intellectual curiosity’ or somet….you’d have to ask one of those boffins what they’ve got nowadays! The reality is loving learning was more important to me than success. I knew that knowing more about linguistics would help me as a teacher, so I carried on.That being said, if I’d got a First in both elements I would undoubtedly be a better teacher.

However, that isn’t to say anybody who gets a First in Literature and Linguistics would necessarily be a good English teacher. In fact, I believe the opposite. The people on my course who got Firsts were near impossible to have a conversation with. They were odd. Really odd.  I’m not sure how important it is to be able to relate to your teacher, but I would not expect the students I teach to be able to relate to those people. I would say great teachers who have Firsts are the exception….and what an exception! Because don’t be mistaken here I completely buy into the importance of subject knowledge. COMPLETELY.

The one thing I’ve improved most since my training, is my subject knowledge and the reason is that it gets the best results in the classroom. Of all the things we can improve, better subject knowledge is the one which will help the most. I just don’t think a degree is a guarantee of subject knowledge. For a start our subject knowledge is often about the ‘how’ and understanding the process – not just knowing stuff.

Regardless the bottom line is that all of this is in wonderland unless more people want to become teachers. The profession doesn’t look an attractive prospect at the moment and so as Professor Smithers has stated, selecting the ‘best’ teachers  “depends on attracting sufficient applicants to be able to choose those who can make subjects come alive for children.” Whoever that may be.