There is a debate in education about behaviour that cannot easily be resolved by research evidence because it is about personal values. It is epitomised by the response to Amanda Spielman’s remarks when she said, “I think it’s entirely appropriate to use sanctions, such as writing lines, community service in the school grounds – such as picking up litter – and school detentions.” Spielman is the chief inspector of education in England and so her views are important.
Many teachers would agree with Spielman, seeing her statement as common sense. Others would take exception, arguing that it is humiliating to write lines, that this has no educational value and that it may even instill an aversion to writing. The latter group come from within the progressive tradition of education, the tradition we can thank for the removal of physical punishment from most British and Australian schools. This move is almost universally accepted and it is a clear moral and practical victory for progressivism. In my 20-year career, I have never met a teacher in favour of physical punishment, although I accept they may exist. However, this does not mean that teachers reject all sanctions. There are plenty that still see a role for the kinds of deterrents mentioned by Spielman.
It is tempting to be drawn in to this argument and pick a side. Are you for or against students writing lines? It is tempting to discuss all of this from the point of view of the students and how they may respond in the presence or absence of these kinds of sanctions. Indeed, it is an important and ongoing debate.
However, whereas I have not met any teachers who argue in favour of physical punishment, I have heard one line, over and over again. It is the plea to ‘just be able to teach my subject’. Admittedly, my sample is biased towards the secondary school teachers who I have the most contact with on a daily basis. These teachers often strongly identify with a subject area, perhaps even more than they did when studying it at university.
What do teachers mean when they say they just want to be able to teach their subject? I think it is a more socially acceptable way of saying that they are tired of dealing with what they see as extraneous aspects of the job such as excessive bureaucracy or poor behaviour. Some teachers love managing relationships but, for many, it is an incidental part of the job. They entered teaching to teach English or physics or music.
You can tell these teachers that they are wrong. You can tell them that they should be interested in relationships, that teaching is all about relationships and that teachers don’t teach in a vacuum. You can try and lecture them into displaying these virtues.
But as the recruitment and retention crisis shows, teachers have options. They can leave teaching. They can choose not to enter into the profession in the first place. Is it a loss to teaching – is it ultimately a loss to students – if a passionate historian with a gift for communicating ideas decides to walk away from the profession because she just wanted to be able to teach her subject?
I think it is.