Do you just want to be able to teach your subject?

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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.

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6 thoughts on “Do you just want to be able to teach your subject?

  1. I’d go so far as to say that anyone who honestly believes that teaching is “all about relationships” should find another job. No one has the time and mental energy to form up to 200 new ‘relationships’ every year, any more than they have time to differentiate lessons for 200 pupils every day in every class. This is not to say that teachers should be cold and impersonal, but rather that the notion of forming individual relationships necessarily implies inequality–and almost certainly, favouritism. Of course we have something of a ‘relationship’ with our pupils as a class–we do have to differentiate between year groups and sets–and there may well be some that we like better than others. We may very well have to differentiate for pupils who need additional help, but otherwise we should never forget that teachers are public servants and as such have a duty to provide equal provision for all of our pupils.

    1. “This is not to say that teachers should be cold and impersonal, but rather that the notion of forming individual relationships necessarily implies inequality–and almost certainly, favouritism.”

      I had never thought of it in quite this way, and your observation makes perfect sense.

  2. As a matter of fact I have met teachers who are/were in favour of corporal punishment. But this is probably because I spent a bit of time working in the Catholic system…

    Relationships of a certain sort are fine, but I prefer the relationships to be centred around the content. I’m not interested in what the kids got up to on the weekend, who they’re going out with at the moment, what music they’re currently into, etc., and in fact I think it’s very risky for teachers to become too interested in there sorts of things (even if many teachers seem to think it’s their role to do so), for a variety of reasons.

    1. I’ve worked in the Catholic system since 1995 and never met any teachers in favour of corporal punishment, but did in fact receive a few whacks from those who were in favour of it when i was at school in the early 80s. To today’s kids early 80s is ancient history.
      The second part of your comment is spot on. I’ve always found the “all teaching is relationships” crowd often have very poor relationships with their students – the king of the kids syndrome that students tire of easily.

  3. Greg can you provide some better evidence of the link between progressivism and removal of corporal punishment? I can agree thy occurred at similar times but to suggest they are linked is a long bow to draw.

    It feels like as dangerous a conclusion as, if you are a constructivist you believe in corporal punishment.

    Can I also ask are you saying that teachers complain about a lack of time because
    1. Bureaucracy has gone crazy in schools
    2. Teachers are spending to much time creating relationships with students
    3. Both and they are somehow linked?

    It seems to me if you are talking to teacher that believe all they do is teach their subject and nothing else matters, they are in the wrong job. They can make some pretty videos or textbooks but an element of teaching is the management of students, be it establishing routines or having some understanding of why the students are engaging in behaviour. Isn’t understanding the needs of the learner and then responding effectively with good practice the cornerstone of direct instruction?

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