School's out

School's out

The seven excuses teachers give for not being able to teach

It’s Govephobia. Teacher with head in hands - Jelena Aloskina/Shutterstock

As another teachers’ strike looms on July 10 it is worth setting out the reasons that teachers are unhappy with their profession. It’s not just because of conditions of service, pay, and pensions. Teaching has become a demoralised profession because teachers, teacher trainers, unions, policy wonks and politicians have forgotten what teaching is about. It is about the teaching of clearly defined subjects such as maths, English and chemistry, and the professional autonomy and the proper pay and conditions that follow from this.

If teachers are going to regain this autonomy they have to return to the teaching of their subjects, and not get distracted by passing fads and policy preoccupations. Often, these are used as ammunition by those who want to explain why teachers just can’t get on with their jobs. I’ve set out seven excuses below that are often used by teachers and those in the education sector for the reasons why teachers can’t do their jobs properly. Teachers need to reject them.

1. We can’t teach because of parents

This is the idea that it’s no use trying to teach because parents aren’t capable of supporting teachers. The new low in contempt for parents is most clearly expressed by the head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw who suggested that “bad parents” who don’t support their children by reading to them or not coming to open days should be fined. Good teachers can teach irrespective of the parental, social or cultural background of their pupils.

2. There is no evidence base about what works

The teaching of subjects requires professional judgement and not academic research into what works or networks of teachers looking for “evidence”. If you know your subject you have all you need to know about the logical process of teaching. All the talk about making teaching an “evidence-based profession” undermines teachers, sending them the message: “You don’t know what you are doing.”

3. Neuroscience determines what children learn

Millions are being spent on research into the supposed classroom implications of neuroscience and a major teaching union has asked for more information about the applications of neuroscience to teaching. But it would be wiser to save money and time: we are not reducible to our brains and teaching is a social and cultural activity.

Neuroscience, or rather ignorance about neuroscience, provides three excuses not to teach. One is that because of our brains we cannot expect some children to achieve. A second is that we must wait for evidence from the research to show us what and how to teach. A third is that neuroscience might give us a shortcut to educational success by plugging the pupils into some device. Forget these excuses. Excellent teaching has gone on for thousands of years without neuroscience and teachers should continue in their professional tradition.

4. Because of the bad behaviour of pupils

This is the whine of every fearful new teacher; many never lose their fears and turn them into a two-stage theory of teaching. Pupils are so badly behaved that we have to “control” or “motivate” them before they can learn. The result is that other activities take a chronological priority over teaching subjects.

The result is never a swift movement forward but a well-intentioned but mistaken stranding of pupils at the “motivational” level. “Motivated” pupils want more and more “motivation” or edutainment. If teachers want to motivate pupils they should simply teach them. The obsession with “motivation” puts the educational cart before the horse.

5. We can’t teach because of the children’s diet

Whether it’s hyperactive kids who have drunk too many sugary cans of cola or obese children who are too sluggish and sleepy to learn, poor diet is a lame excuse for not teaching. Becoming over-involved in saving children from chips and pop wastes time and gives teachers an opportunity to blame the greedy pupils, the parents who feed junk food to kids, the retailers and the capitalist manufacturers who are making teaching impossible. When did it become the teachers’ job to police lunch boxes?

6. Because new technology is making our role redundant

The fear is that children can now get all the knowledge they need by using their iPhone. All we can do is assist them. This belief, promoted by the self-styled gurus of the new technologies who celebrate everything from simple apps to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), is a result of intellectual laziness that confuses information with knowledge and understanding. Only teachers can give their pupils or their students the knowledge and understanding of subjects and there are no technological replacements or shortcuts to teaching.

7. We can’t teach because of … Michael Gove

If you can’t teach because of the above or any other reason – blame the secretary of state for education. Govephobia seems to have infected the teaching profession. There are reasons to dislike many of his policies, but not all. Gove is right about one thing at least: education should be subject-based. This belief is not based on his own “elite” education experience. It is based on his understanding of what education means. Govephobia can be explained because of it. Gove’s very presence as education secretary is a constant reminder to teachers of their duty to teach.

It is not surprising that among the reasons the unions have set out for why they are striking on July 10, two of the calls to action are about Gove: “Labour, the Liberal Democrats and former advisers are all turning against Gove” and “Michael Gove is increasingly unpopular with parents and teachers”, say the National Union of Teachers.

These seven reasons not to teach are presented in a variety of forms – sometimes in a positive way. They can be used to encourage parents to be partners in learning, base teaching on “evidence”, learn from neuroscience, create “motivational teachers”, save children from future illness and enhance learning through new technologies. Govephobia is the one and most telling exception.

But even if these positive presentations makes them palatable, used as excuses for not teaching, they ultimately leave teachers without a role. That is the danger. Because the role of the teacher today is what it always was: to teach.

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