In praise of teaching

Most of us remember our teachers, particularly those who taught us in primary school. They remain imprinted on our memories, their foibles forever illuminated by that limited but merciless clarity that all children possess.

The teachers I remember were characters, in a way that is probably less common now, when any form of eccentricity seems to be frowned upon. There was Mrs Westwood, a feisty lady almost as wide as she was high, who kept a bucket of water on the classroom verandah and, like Betsy Trotwood in David Copperfield (although I seem to remember Betsy was on the lookout for donkeys, rather than canines), would rush outside every time an errant dog padded past the classroom, to douse the offending mongrel with water.

Because I grew up in the 1960s, before teaching as an occupation became almost completely feminised, I remember, too, a number of male primary school teachers, including Mr Rogers, an Englishman, formidable in his grey dustcoat, who taught us our multiplication tables and kept the boys in line with a natural authority that I suspect remains as mysterious now as it was then.

My memories of high school tend to be greyer and more detached. At my state girls’ school, I recall a succession of competent women teachers, although then as now, there was neither the time nor the inclination to give individual attention to students, whether they were conspicuously bright or not. You either swam or you sank, and many sank. It remains the dubious gift of the public school—a kind of prophylactic neglect that proofs those who survive it against the vicissitudes of university life.

I did not think then that I would become a teacher—I fancied I would be a journalist, or possibly an electronics engineer—but when I became an academic, I found that I had to learn how to teach. That meant, in turn, that I had to relearn just about everything I thought I knew about my subjects: policy analysis and public administration. Until then, my knowledge had been implicit, the result of steeping myself in these subjects over a number of years. Now I had to externalise my knowledge, to present a generally accepted picture that could be justified and rationalised. I reviewed textbooks, I created stepping stones and building blocks.

Then came the hard part. Having decided what I thought I knew, I then had to try to impart it to my students—or at least that is what I thought I had to do. But it’s much more complicated than that, because few people, even by the time they come to university, know how to learn. And so the job becomes one of constantly seeking balance—between teaching content and teaching skills, between ‘teaching the test’ and really exploring the subject, between going too fast for some and too slow for others, between assuming too much, and assuming too little.

Despite the current concern with pedagogical technique, no teacher can succeed for long without a sound grounding in the subject he or she is teaching. The basic knowledge is crucial, because students will quickly ‘suss’ a teacher who does not know his or her stuff. ‘Knowing your subject is really the beginning of discipline,’ an experienced teacher told me. ‘Kids are like dogs; they know if you are uncertain.’

But there is something else about teaching; I call it the Mr Chips syndrome. The kids move on, but we are left behind, growing older, a bit more frayed around the edges, a little more set in our ways. We develop a kind of defensive bravado, a clannishness that binds us to our colleagues, but also distances us from them. In some sense, no matter how jolly the community, we are alone; the teaching room is our domain, but if we have a bad day, the situation is difficult to retrieve tomorrow. Somehow our world, whether school or uni or college, is not the same as the one our students will inhabit. The real business, the making of money, the forging of reputations, takes place elsewhere.
Over time, we gradually lose touch with the world outside, and settle into the cyclical routines of the community that is our school or university. The year has a certain rhythm, as changeless in some ways as the seasons it still follows. The productivity-boosters would have us all work through the summer, but only the most zealous students, and the most cash-strapped academics, can keep it up on a regular basis.

Like all partly closed communities, educational institutions breed a strange infantilism—gossip rockets around at the speed of light, rumours are not so much spread as diffused through a kind of miasma that floats everywhere, through the school corridors smelling of old lunches and pubescent armpits, or, where the inmates are older and the buildings newer, the cooler ambience of carpet tile and concrete block.

Chameleon-like, we take on the culture—and the reputation—of our institutions. In general, the status of educational institutions is determined by the status of the people who go to them. I do not know of any other profession where this is true. Hospitals with the sickest patients are not considered low-grade, nor law firms with the guiltiest clients. But schools with the toughest kids, and least-interested parents, are the ones that everyone steers away from.

After a while, status (or the lack of it) begins to eat into the confidence of the staff as well. (‘If you were any good, you would not be here.’) This is particularly a problem for tertiary institutions, where the best staff are believed to congregate in the best institutions. In reality, there is probably more variation in teaching quality within universities than between them.

Collectively, schoolteachers have little status. Teaching is ‘the downstairs maid of professions’, as Frank McCourt puts it, and in Australia at least, academics probably rank even less highly. Whether you see this as a healthy manifestation of a robust, no-nonsense culture, or a commentary on our lack of maturity as a nation, probably depends upon the sort of experience you had at uni.

Some academics may emerge, blinking, into the sunlight, as talking heads on news or current affairs programs, but there are no Australian superstars like Simon Schama, presenting or explaining the world to us by hosting shows on TV. Indeed, teaching someone who later becomes famous is one of the few ways of establishing credentials in the real world. ‘So, did you really have Wil Anderson in your class?’ I remember my young son asking one day.

Bashfully, I confessed that this was so. His look of delighted incredulity said it all.

Education remains the public-policy panacea, but there is not much sensible public policy about the management of teaching as a profession. While many excellent teachers stay the course, others, equally good, leave relatively early in the piece. Why? Many leave, not because they dislike teaching, but because they cannot face the thought of doing the same thing for the next 30 years. They fear becoming trapped.

All teachers need a break from teaching, ideally working in the workplaces where they hope their students will end up, but secondments are difficult to organise. There is little rotation, little movement. You cannot swap jobs with anyone else, because no one would work for your salary. And if you try to leave, you find that the skills that you have honed over the years mean nothing in the wider world.

Why this should be so, I do not know, because the skills of good teaching are many: organisation, persistence, selflessness … the list goes on. Teachers need a highly developed sense of fairness, an ability to spot and to nurture talent, and a good deal of resilience. It takes a certain amount of courage, certainly at tertiary level, to hold the line on assessment, especially where fee-paying students are concerned.

There are other problems too. Whereas once students with special needs were given short shrift, now the pendulum, as it usually does, has swung too far the other way. As the semester progresses, the requests for special consideration roll in, each one requiring careful consideration, and raising the further question—am I being fair to the others?

Political correctness makes confident judgment even more difficult. I have invariably found Aboriginal students who look Aboriginal very straightforward people to deal with, and one or two have made memorable students. But those with fair skin who identify as Aboriginal seem to carry extra burdens. I remember one such student threatening to report me because I had given him a pass in a particular subject, where others had routinely given him distinctions. ‘Your mark,’ I told him, ‘is your mark.’ And that was that.

Looking back, I can understand his confusion. Thinking they were being helpful, or perhaps fearing they would be thought prejudiced if they applied the normal standard, others had led him to believe he was performing much better than was actually the case.

After 15 years, the act of learning is as mysterious to me now as when I started. And there are as many shapes and forms of minds as there are people. I remember the doggedness of many of my male students, and the sheer insouciance of others so laid back it was a miracle they could stand up—but they got by. And then the women students, often more talented, who gave up because they lost babies, or mothers, or husbands, or because they thought they were not good enough, and nothing I could say to them would make any difference.

What is the future of teaching as a career, considered from an institutional perspective? I am more pessimistic about the fate of university teaching than I am about school teaching. At least schoolteachers work in financially stable schools or systems, and, having done the hard yards in one place, they can look forward to a more rewarding posting next time around. Just as students can choose between public and private schools, so can teachers.

The fate of university teachers is more variable, and more dependent upon the fortunes of the particular institution they find themselves in. Unlike schools, universities have sufficient autonomy to get themselves into trouble, and few defences against the terrifying phenomenon of the modern entrepreneurial academic. But more bureaucracy is not the answer. Those who advocate tighter control of schools by the federal government should look at the mess that has been created by 30 years of centralised policymaking. To create a single university system, and then neglect to fund it properly, was a wanton act of fiscal vandalism. It has short-changed students, and also a whole generation of would-be academics.

As universities have scoured the globe for fee-paying students in order to meet their payrolls, some of the most heart-breaking fates are reserved for people teaching traditional university subjects in down-market factories, churning out degrees for international students.

At the other end of the scale, it is possible to study, from Australia, at some of the world’s best universities. Am I in danger of being superseded? I would still rather have someone real out the front than the best lecturer in the world on the internet. Teaching is about energy, about relationships. It is the worst of jobs, the best of jobs. I just wish the rest of you would take it more seriously. And please, if you feel like saying ‘thank you’ to one of your teachers, take the trouble to do it. I can’t guarantee that they will remember you, but that is not really the point. It is the circle, started so many years before, joining up with itself, that is the point. 

Jenny Stewart is a Canberra-based writer and academic.



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