Teachers: what exactly do you teach? Do you teach ‘subjects’, or do you teach children? What made you become a teacher? Was it because you’re interested in maths, science, English, geography, whatever . . . or because you’re interested in children developing their full potential as human beings?
I sometimes wonder whether we should be very open and honest about our motivations as teachers, to the point where we can say to our children and young people, either
1) I’m here basically because I loved doing [science/maths/English] when I was at school, I liked my teachers, and I wanted to do what they did for a living, or
2) I’m on a mission to get the students in my classes to achieve the highest possible grades in their tests and exams, or
3) I feel I’m in my element when I’m helping every individual in my classes to develop their full potential as a human being through the development of all their intelligences – intellectual, personal, social, emotional, spiritual, etc – and to become self-confident, self-directed, creative lifelong learners, regardless of what marks they achieve in tests and exams at a given age.
There are millions of young people who have passed at least 5 GCSEs with A to C grades. There are not millions of young people who have found their element and are independent, well-balanced, self-confident, self-directed, creative lifelong learners who enjoy life and are well on the road to achieving their full potential as human beings.
Businesses want to employ positive, creative and well-motivated young people – which is the reason the Confederation of British Industry has put out statements urging the government to abandon public examinations at the age of 16 in order to make schools more motivational places where teachers can teach creatively and more especially help children to learn the skills and attitudes that are necessary to live and to work successfully. These are also the skills and attitudes that can enable young people to become self-employed and set up their own businesses.
The reason for this train of thought today was an interview I heard on the radio this week with a young person who was taking part in a scheme that has been set up to help those who are “Not in Education, Employment or Training” – the so-called NEETs. In other words, those who are neither working nor learning, and are just drifting from day to day, often feeling a sense of futility and hopelessness, if not actual depression. Some of them also feel considerable anger that the world had somehow let them down, that they’ve wasted years getting nowhere at school, leaving them with very few marketable skills, and often no useful qualifications whatsoever.
The radio programme focused on the role of mentors in helping these NEETs. A mentor is basically a successful older person who agrees to meet regularly with a young person in order to draw out of them what they consider to be their strengths and weaknesses, and any ambitions they may have in life. They will also discuss their future needs, and how to achieve their goals and ambitions. The sole focus for the meetings is the situation and the feelings of the mentee. However, the mentor can also talk about their own life and career, and how they became a self-supporting, successful individual.
What struck me very strongly were the words of one of the NEETs, who simply said how good it was to have someone to talk to who was interested in you as a person and could help you identify possible future directions and how to make progress in life. [The interviewer asked whether those were the sorts of things we might expect teachers to do.] As to the failure of teachers to do such things, she simply said, “In a classroom I don’t think they have time to do those things.”
So there was have it. The majority of young people don’t blame teachers for not knowing them as individuals and not helping them to assess themselves and their needs. They don’t even expect teachers to offer them personal mentoring or coaching in essential life skills. They simply accept that teachers just teach the curriculum they’re supposed to teach, and do nothing else. This is in spite of the fact that positive personal relationships underpin all successful teaching and learning.
It’s true that the last government made extra money available for schools to employ mentors, but I’ve no idea to what extent that funding has continued. It’s also true that many teachers do take time to meet one-to-one with students to discuss “personal intelligence” issues such as motivation, attitudes and behaviour. More often, though, this sort of ‘pastoral’ work is delegated to form tutors, heads of year and possibly teaching assistants – on the basis that subject teachers “don’t have the time”.
We’re not arguing here for reducing the time spent on maths, science, literacy and all the rest – many would argue there’s not enough teaching time available as it is. What we would suggest is that prior to the age of 16 the focus should be on the processes of learning that enable pupils to learn independently and also collaboratively rather than individually and competitively. The focus should be on learning study skills. There should be more enjoyment of learning as the basis for higher levels of motivation and perseverance.
And where teachers can see individuals who are not motivated, not involved in their own learning and clearly resentful of having to be in school at all – then those teachers should figure out within their team what needs to be done to improve the situation for those pupils. Suppression of the issues of poor behaviour and lack of progress through tougher ‘discipline’ is not the answer. We’re talking here about special educational needs, and the need for the turned-off and the ‘non-academic’ to have their needs recognised and catered for.
The fundamental need for potential future NEETs is to be given opportunities to find their personal creative ‘element’ as soon as possible in life and in learning. There’s not a young person on this planet, in our opinion, who doesn’t enjoy engaging with their own creativity and charting their own learning pathways.
The thing to keep in mind, if you’re a parent or a teacher, is that this argument for radical changes to our education system applies just as much to the ‘academic’ students as it does to those who have difficulty in passing tests and exams. Every child matters, and every child deserves a form of learning that’s personalised and appropriate for their individual needs and interests.
The time for seeing schools as factories full of educational production lines has long passed. It wasn’t even appropriate in the 19th century – as was pointed out by Charles Dickens in Hard Times – let alone the 21st. And the countries with the highest-achieving education systems have long since recognised this and acted on it through a radical re-appraisal of how their schools work, so that ‘no child left behind’ is a reality rather than just a slogan.
As they now say in Singapore – “Teach Less, Learn More“.
- Respect, Equal Opportunities, Diversity and Achievement (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- Looking Beyond Grades (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- The Purpose of Examinations (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- Wake up calls help Neet generation (standard.co.uk)