Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Is a Third Good Enough to Teach?

On my way to work with some medical students today, I heard a discussion on the radio about teaching. Apparently David Cameron, leader of the Conservative party, has said that he doesn't think anyone with a degree of lower than a 2:2 should be allowed to be a teacher in a school.

For anyone who doesn't know how British degrees work - - the top one is a first, then a 2:1, then a 2:2, then a third, then a pass degree and then a fail.

So the Conservatives think that it will raise both the standard and the status of teachers if they have to have higher than a third before they're let loose on the nation's little darlings.

Well, as always with sweeping political statements, it's a far too simplified view of things.

Sometimes, and on some courses, getting a third means that you just weren't good enough to do better, or that you just didn't put the work in.

And sometimes, of course, that might mean that you were too stupid or too lazy to learn all the things that you needed to know in order to get a better grade.

Now then, this could matter if you were - for example - planning to teach French, and really you hadn't managed to learn it terribly well yourself.

On the other hand, not everyone - I would guess not many - of people who get a third get this grade because of laziness or lack of ability. Perhaps you had incredibly difficult personal circumstances at the time, such as ill-health or bereavement. Perhaps you were just on the wrong course for you, and didn't realise this until too late. Perhaps you were one of those people who tend to panic in exams.

So does the grade of your degree affect your possible future ability as a teacher? Well, in some circumstances, it might, yes, depending upon the reasons for your low grade. If you're teaching A-level English Literature, for example, then I think it would most certainly help to have done the broader and more in-depth reading and study required at degree level, and to have done it well.

But I'd argue that in many other circumstances, it wouldn't help at all. What matters, as well as a certain level of knowledge, is a genuine enthusiasm for the subject, and - even more importantly - an enthusiasm for imparting it to others, plus an ability to control the class whilst doing so.

When I taught in schools, most of the work I did in English was at a much more basic level. What I was good at - - I think, and hindsight is a wonderful thing - was getting teenagers who were hovering around just below a useful level of knowledge of English, and dragging them kicking and screaming over the threshold to a point where they could get a useful grade at GCSE which would help to make them employable.

If, along the way, I managed to introduce a few of them to the joys of reading for pleasure, or even for information, I think that was extremely important too.

And then, because I was trying to have a baby and didn't want to commit to a permanent job, I did a lot of supply teaching, often teaching subjects that I knew very little about. But I hated it when supply teachers didn't make any effort with the lesson and just handed out dull worksheets. So I'd be going "I don't know anything about woodwork. Could you tell me everything you know, please, starting with what all the tools are for?" And thus they would revise everything they knew by explaining it to this very ignorant teacher and actually, it would be a jolly good lesson.

In some subjects I think being too good at it can actually make for poor teaching. I have come across maths teachers with such an instinct for, and love of, maths, that they cannot begin to understand how anyone could not love it and instantly understand it after just one explanation. So they don't so much explain it as introduce it - - and after that, they can't help you any further. "But you must understand it, it's easy!" is their cry.

Actually, I've had to work hard not to be like that about spelling. If I see a word once I will always be able to spell it. It's just a trick of my mind. When I first started teaching I simply couldn't understand why people find spelling difficult and I don't think I was always as understanding as I could have been.

I'm all for raising the status of teachers - I think good teachers are absolutely crucial and anyone who thinks it's an easy job with long holidays should try standing in front of a class of thirty teenagers for half an hour and see how that goes. But I think that a blanket ban on anyone with a lower degree than a 2:2 is not the way to do it.

It would lose us many potentially excellent teachers. Granted, we don't want teachers from the - I suspect few - people who haven't worked hard at their degree and who drift into teaching because they can't think of what else to do. But interviews, firstly, and watching people in front of a class, secondly, should weed out those.

In case you think that this is a personal gripe, it's not. I got a B.A. (Hons) in English Literature, grade 2:2 and have always been rather bitter about the fact that I'd been told it was a 2:1 and they put all the grades down at the last moment. I was certainly not clever enough or hard-working enough to get a First and another fact was that I simply wasn't interested enough in the course.

I'm loving the work that I do with medical students these days and actually I am arrogant enough to think - and to say - that I'm a good teacher. But I think that doesn't have much to do with the grade of my degree.


Anonymous S2Hewitt said...

Completely agree. I did an Honours course and got a 2.1. You don't need to be an 'expert' in your subject to be a good teacher - far from it! I've learned more about my subjects (English, Media and, latterly ICT) from preparing lessons and listening to the feedback from my students than I ever learned myself. And, of course, behaviour management is absolutely essential. You can only learn that on the job!

So much of teaching is also about building relationships with students, something I've only really got to grips with in the last couple of years. I've been teaching for six years now.

And what about creativity - planning interesting and varied lessons, group activities, selecting engaging texts?

A 'good' degree is no indication of fitness for teaching!

10:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. A good degree is no guarantee of a good teacher. I have a first in Physics and always knew I would be hopeless at imparting knowledge to others.
On the other hand, there are institutions handing out degrees that aren't worth the paper they're written on. So turning away a third class student from a Russell group university in favour of a first class student from a lesser institution just wouldn't make sense. Mr Cameron and Mr Gove have some more thinking to do yet.

11:11 pm  
Blogger Dumdad said...

Great post. We make too much of degrees and grades etc and it is little indication of a good teacher.

One example: Philip Pullman, he of His Dark Materials, was a teacher before writing fame and I imagine was an inpsiring one too. He went to Exeter College, Oxford, got a Third class BA and later said, "I did not really enjoy the English course" and that "I thought I was doing quite well until I came out with my third class degree and then I realised that I wasn’t — it was the year they stopped giving fourth class degrees otherwise I’d have got one of those".

I rest my case. Now I must go and polish my double First Class Oxford (Christ Church) degree.....

10:01 am  
Blogger WendyCarole said...

I hated maths at school mainly because I find numbers hard to understand. However when I teach the lowest maths set in primary school they make great improvements because I understand why they "don't get it."

In English now (Literarcy) I find children I being expected to write at year 6 on a level I wrote at in year 2 secondary (present year 8).

I put my all into being a good suppply teacher and spend many unpaid hours trying to find things to stimulate children.

Did you know that a lot of this work is now being done by minimal trained SAs.
They are increasing the amount of qualifications that teachers need but will let any old bod teach if a teacher is absent

10:26 am  
Blogger Yorkshire Pudding said...

Your reflections on qualifications for teaching are most apposite. I earned a first but I would gladly admit that there were far less well-qualified colleagues who were better teachers than I was. What Cameron ought to be looking at is qualifications to be an MP.They would include no paid directorships, high moral standards in relation to expenses claims, no frolicking with whores or rent boys and - in Cameron's case - no background in illegal recreational drugs.

7:17 pm  
Blogger Daphne said...

S2Hewitt - absolutely and I totally take your point about creativity too.
Anonymous - great point about the differing values of degrees from different universities - thank you!
Dumdad - and I think your Phillip Pullman comment is a great illustration of the above, too! I think he's fantastic.
WendyCarole - I agree with all your points and I did know about the minimal training - - so a trained teacher with a third isn't good enough - - - right until the moment when they're stuck for someone and then almost anyone will do.
YP - I'm going to bring in qualifications to be an MP when I'm in charge, do please remind me.
Thank you all for your great comments!

8:14 pm  

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