Friday, January 20, 2012

On Sacking Bad Teachers

I see that the idea of sacking bad teachers has come up again. It won’t happen, it never does. The unions won’t have it and the government isn’t going to pick a fight when they’ll get the blame for the resulting trouble. So I confidently predict, anyway. I would love to be proved wrong.

The fact that it is controversial to suggest not placing our children’s education in the hands of proven incompetents is quite astonishing in itself. There are many jobs that require little more than punctuality, responsibility, personal hygiene and the ability to interact socially (not that it’s necessarily easy to find that combination of skills), and there are invented public sector jobs that could be done by a performing monkey, but teaching is not one of them. In the private sector the lazy, incompetent or unnecessary are very quickly removed, and even in the public sector there is some kind of attempt to make sure that doctors, nurses, policemen and judges (for example) are capable of doing what they’re paid for, but apparently anyone can be put in a classroom and told to get on with it, and no one cares what happens.

The ability to teach schoolchildren is not really a matter of having an extensive knowledge of a subject. It helps to be familiar with and understand it to some extent, and it’s more important at the higher levels, but the real skill of teaching lies in a combination of closely related communication skills, self-confidence, preparation, knowledge of the people you have in front of you and the ability to recognise and respond to their reactions instantly. It’s a complicated process of communication, and part of that process is respect, including making it clear why you are trespassing so heavily on their time and patience. They need to understand the process they are part of.

No, it’s not rocket science, but it’s beyond the scope of quite a lot of people, and unfortunately many of them seem to be teachers.

In Spain, about whose situation I can speak with much greater knowledge, the state education system is full of incompetent teachers. There are two reasons for this, both of which would be utterly indefensible, indeed, inconceivable, if the system were actually designed for the benefit of children. The first is that state teachers are civil servants, and as such have jobs for life. It is almost impossible to remove a teacher who is not buggering boys in the bike shed. There is almost never enough will among the people who could, in theory, move to have a teacher sacked, to follow through the tedious, dense and lengthy administrative and legal rituals to get it done. No will and no interest. They would become extremely unpopular among their colleagues, not to mention in the Union.

The second reason is that the process by which they are chosen to be given that job and pension for life is not intended to assess the candidate’s competence as a teacher. For some years I ran the English department of an Academy that prepared people for the public exams that distributed these lifelong positions; not a diploma which entitled you to apply for a job, but the job itself. I got to know the system very well. I even wrote books about it. It's a terrible mess.

There are two parts to this exam- in the first a subject title, vaguely related to the study of English, is drawn from a list of 75 such subjects and you have to write about it. This is then read to a jury of more experienced teachers who mark it accordingly to a series of criteria which were not even made public until a few years ago (I would have to use my contacts to get some ideas of what they were actually looking for). The second part is to produce and explain a year plan for a specific group, including a detailed description of at least one set of lesson plans. This is also performed in front of the jury.

Guess who wrote the lesson programmes for them? And the first part is divided into sections on grammar, history, literature, didactics, socio-linguistics, and so on, with a number of subject titles in each one. If you got a subject you happened to be able to write well about you could do a good exam, otherwise you’d have to wait another couple of years. Once you’ve passed that exam and got a post there is a notional period of practice/probation, but it’s almost impossible to fail it even if you spend most of it off sick with stress.

In short, the system is not designed to find good teachers and keep them good. It doesn’t care whether teachers can teach or not. The point of the system is to be able to tick boxes in such a way that no one can be blamed when something goes wrong. I know there are lot of incompetent teachers in state schools, not only because in another existence I get paid to do what they are unable to do, but also because I put quite a few of them there.

Any country that lets its government employ bad teachers will get the youth it deserves. And that youth will grow up and let the same thing happen.

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