Driving to work one morning I found myself in that awkward position between not having enough on my mind to tolerate silence and not wanting to dull my thoughts with music. I scrolled through the various podcasts and audiobooks I have and settled for one I’d listened to countless times before – “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I sank into the soothing, weathered voice of Michael Kramer as he retold Robert M. Pirsig’s story when a short passage from Disk 5 part 5 jumped out at me.
“The school was what could euphemistically be called a ‘teaching college.’ At a teaching college you teach and you teach and you teach with no time for research, no time for contemplation, no time for participation in outside affairs. Just teach and teach and teach until your mind grows dull and your creativity vanishes and you become an automaton saying the same dull things over and over to endless waves of innocent students who cannot understand why you are so dull, lose respect and fan this disrespect out into the community. The reason you teach and you teach and you teach is that this is a very clever way of running a college on the cheap while giving a false appearance of genuine education.”
The words hung right there in the car and refused to move. Even as Michael Kramer continued to read, all I could hear were those words. They perfectly wrapped up the frustrations that I’ve had with education since getting into the sector and allowed me to see something that had been on my mind all along.
When I decided to get into teaching I had a romanticized view of education as this enlightened cluster of academics who enjoyed a life of learning and sharing their passions. I actually had images of teachers in the staff room in deep discussions over their subjects. A physics teacher constructing an ICT unit where basic programming is used to model some physical process. Or the math’s teacher and the art teacher explaining Escher to one another. Of course, you can imagine my surprise when I first stepped into a real staff room.
With the perspective of hindsight, I know how unrealistic my expectations were. I’m a self confessed geek, and not everybody counts studying amongst their hobbies. I do however, feel that schools are making the crushing mistake of treating teachers as *just* teachers and expecting them to only need to do just that.
How many teachers have you encountered that encompass the teacher automatons that are described in the passage? Particularly those that have been in the job for a substantial amount of time. “They’ve just turned bitter” I hear people say. Once I was even told that teachers become either ‘Sinks’ or ‘Radiators’. Well, I don’t believe that for a second.
These are people who chose to study a subject and loved it so much that they decided to share that passion with younger generations. But then we took away the source of that passion. We took away their time to study. To learn. To postulate, theorize, create and most of all to appreciate their subject. We gave them back to back lessons and treated them like an infinite vessel without ever seeing the requirement for filling that vessel. Just teach it, mark it, repeat it. Teach it. Mark it. Repeat it…
Interestingly enough, teacher subject matter knowledge has been shown to make little difference by John Hattie‘s big data crunch (Despite how others might feel). This also seemed to be the case in Sugata Mitra’s methods where a subject specialist was not even present. And you might be surprised to hear at this point that I agree with the research – I don’t think that you need to have subject specialists in the room for children to learn. I do however, believe that you need teachers to model academic learners and to maintain the upkeep of educational structures and of course, to provide expert formative evaluations of student work (Take another look at John Hattie’s report). And for a teacher to be great at this job, you need to maintain a teachers passion and love for what they are mean’t to be promoting all along – learning.