Kids need good teachers, not role models

Schools have taken to sacking staff for quite minor errors of judgement. That's bad news for education.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

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Topics Politics

In recent years, there have been many high-profile cases of adults being struck off teaching registers, dismissed or suspended for not being the right sort of professional role model. The implication is that this automatically made them bad teachers, and therefore they needed to be weeded out as quickly as possible lest pupils’ life chances were irrevocably damaged. What did they do to merit such punishment?

In 2010, Lindsay Brown was suspended from the teaching register for having talked too much about sex and her own personal life and making two pupils feel uncomfortable when she said she’d probably burn in hell because she didn’t believe in the Bible. In my mind, that makes her a bit of an idiot, and not my idea of a good teacher. But so-called modernisers of education have for ages been urging teachers to be less like teachers, and to make what goes on in the classroom more like the everyday life of a teenager. On that basis, Brown could be the ideal ‘role model’.

In 2011, Robert Cox told a lippy Year 11 boy to sit down. The boy threw his drink over Cox and threatened to throw a chair at him. Cox then forced the boy down into a chair several times and held his arms down. He intervened because the boy was in a group that was causing trouble for another teacher. The headteacher, Jo Ward, explaining the school’s decision to ditch Cox: ‘Mr Cox had every right to feel aggrieved by having milkshake thrown at him but, instead of putting [his] training into action, defusing the situation and reporting the incident, CCTV footage shows he adopted a confrontational approach prior to the incident and allowed his anger to govern his actions.’

Clearly it is not a good idea to lose your temper as a teacher, but it happens; in the past, schools would have been responded to such incidents of teacher anger very differently. And while confrontational approaches can be problematic in education, it could be said that making a ‘confrontational approach’ a dismissible offence is even more problematic. Neither the boy nor his parents had complained, but Cox’s actions were seen on CCTV and Ward and the board of governors decided he had to go.

In 2012, two drama teachers were dismissed for ‘gross misconduct’, having allowed a group of 15- to 16-year-old pupils to perform scenes of rape and child abuse as part of their GCSE drama assessment. Yet many voices – from the government to child-protection groups like the NSPCC – have been advocating for schools to address more issues of a private nature in the name of enabling teenagers to have ‘healthy, non-abusive sexual relationships’. The drama piece sounds educationally dodgy, but did it really merit sacking?

In 2009, in America, Tanya Dixon-Neely was suspended for telling students they could not disrespect the president (the lesson had been recorded and posted on the internet) and that people had been arrested for slandering President Bush. She was talking politics with her college-age class and voiced her own opinion. If you watch the footage on YouTube, the worst you could say was that it was a bit of a rowdy session all round. It was clearly a conversation between teacher and college-age pupils in which opinions had a role to play.

Recently, a US elementary-school teacher was put under investigation after parents complained that she had been critical of President Obama and his wife Michelle’s school food campaign. Parents complained that opinions should be left out of class and the school officials appeared to agree. What is there to investigate? If the headteacher thinks these personal opinions were inappropriate for this particular class, she or he should simply have had a quiet word with the teacher concerned.

In 2011, also in America, teacher Ashley Payne was judged to be guilty of unacceptable online activities and given the choice of resigning or being dismissed. Her crime? She posted photos of herself holding glasses of alcohol on Facebook (the photos were taken on holiday, not on school premises). So teachers, it seems, are not allowed to drink or have a private life.

These examples reveal some worrying trends. Firstly, particularly in Payne’s case, there is the suggestion that a teacher must always be a teacher and be held to abnormally high standards of conduct even when he or she is not in work. That seems like an unnecessary and dangerous imposition on an employee’s private life.

Secondly, these cases show there is a lack of consensus over what constitutes a good teacher. In the Lindsay Brown case, the returning officer of Britain’s General Teaching Council (GTC) was disingenuous in condemning Brown for her lack of judgement – because the problem is not confined to relatively junior teachers. Those in authority in education are also frequently unwilling or unable to exert their own individual judgement without reference to some code or training. Often, so-called leaders make judgements only to ‘refer’ to other appointed personnel/officers. Perversely, while managers are apparently able to exert authority summarily in order to dismiss a member of staff, these leaders seem incapable of facing the accused teachers directly or standing up for teachers when spurious complaints are made against them.

In the kind of case discussed above, it is important to have a sense of where to draw the line. There is nothing wrong with teachers bringing aspects of their own personality to the classroom. Indeed, good teaching often demands it. But this is not the same as bringing your personal life directly into the classroom. In the past, teaching meant that you stood as representing your subject in the classroom. Your authority was limited and contingent upon the degree to which you both knew your subject and were able to introduce it to pupils so they would be familiar with its main ideas, vocabulary and practices, hopefully laying some seeds of curiosity along the way. But this did not mean a teacher necessarily had to leave their personality at the classroom door; it just meant that having a particular type of personality was not the main prerequisite to be a teacher.

As the educational sociologist Basil Bernstein warned in the 1970s, the less the teacher is required to be a figure of pedagogic authority, the more the teacher is required to bring in ideas from his/her everyday, non-professional lives; and today, this seems to include teachers’ private lives. This encourages the idea that to be a good teacher you have to be a certain type of person. To some extent this has always been the case; people who went into teaching tended to have some kind of vocational commitment as well as pragmatic reasons for becoming a teacher. But today, the idea that teachers should be role models is more about requiring teachers to act as self-consciously styled, policy-approved ‘role models’ rather than to be figures of pedagogic authority. And if the teacher must fit some picture of an ideal person with prescribed ways of behaving, then there is less room to exercise personal judgement about how to teach. The teacher is simultaneously deprofessionalised and depersonalised.

Pupils are also regarded as in need of role models for living or ‘life-skills’ rather than needing teachers who know their subject well and will encourage them to think. This is a counterproductive outlook. Pupils will have time enough as they become adults to figure out for themselves how to think and behave in the world; they don’t need teachers playing up to some state-approved idea of the ideal citizen.

The obsession with role models is not good for teachers or pupils. The measures taken in these examples have little to do with upholding professional standards or getting rid of bad teachers so the good ones can get on with educating. Rather, they indicate the extent to which education is already failing to educate and the degree to which those in positions of leadership would rather find scapegoats than face up to this failure.

This does not mean I approve of all the actions of all these teachers, and criticism may be merited in some instances. But I do think the actions of headteachers, governors and others in positions of responsibility are likely to increase a stultifying culture of conformity. That is a bigger problem for all of us than the individual actions and words of teachers who have made mistakes.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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Topics Politics

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