Teaching: A Doctoral Profession?

A few years ago, Don Ledingham wrote about the prospects of achieving a ‘doctoral profession’ in Scottish teaching. Whether his enthusiasm for a doctoral teaching profession in Scotland is well founded or not, I’m not sure. What I am sure about, though, is that we need to find a way to move decisively away from the notion of teaching simply as as a craft (with absolutely no disrespect intended for craftspeople – my father was a time-served toolmaker who carried his craft with pride throughout his life). There is, undoubtedly, a craft element in teaching (if we accept the definition of craft as something such as: the skilled application of a practical occupation), but the teacher who makes do with developing the craft components of teaching to the exclusion or deprecation of its other aspects will never come close to being a complete teacher in any sense.

Of course, the cry from many in the profession will be that a doctoral profession will be one that moves to the opposite end of the continuum and forgets the craft element entirely. That risk is there, no doubt.

Some might point to the notion, so beloved of schools inspectors and quality-assurance types over recent years, of the ‘reflective professional’. This is a positive concept, to a point, but still lacks something important because, as I always understood the definition encouraged by those who pushed the idea, it tended to involve reflection within a set of parameters established by practice and policy.

The truly reflective teacher would, first of all, see their practice in the classroom, and beyond, as something greater than simply a craft, would secondly seek to analyse continually the fundamental rationale for teaching and learning in the context of today’s world (and the context of tomorrow’s adults, those they are teaching), and thirdly would constantly and persistently question (actively, not passively) the common assumptions upon which their role in the education of our young poeople is founded. And if those questions raised doubts about prevailing policy or practice, then their voice ought to be raised in order to shake the complacency of those around them (or more often, ‘above’ them).

As things stand, I have always had the uncomfortable feeling that many of our worst teachers somehow manage to give the impression of being our best teachers. By this, I mean that those teachers who accept unquestioningly the parameters set for them by successive generations of educational bureaucrats, bean-counters and those who would push the latest arbitrary piece of nonsense as the cure for all educational ills, are often raised on a pedestal by those with vested interests in seeing those very assumptions proved, that very practice encouraged, or those very nonsenses promoted farther afield.

Too often in my own teaching career, I came across ‘excellent’ teachers who were given that accolade despite (or because of) the fact that they were those least likely to question the fundamental nature of what they did on a day-to-day basis, were least likely to understand the need for genuine compassion and humanity in their dealings with children (or parents), and were most readily able to accept unquestioningly the latest fad (brain gym? critical skills? whole schools running around the school boundaries en-masse before the day begins? the necessity of a tail on the ‘y’? synthetic phonics? literacy rather than literature? drinking water to help the brain?). The problem is not with the fads/solutions themselves – some of them might even work to some degree in limited circumstances – but with the lack of critical faculty in so many teachers who might place such nostrums at the core of what they do in the classroom without asking some fundamental questions about their broader role as educators.

So, yes, nothing wrong with the notion of a doctoral profession – and perhaps Scotland would be a good place to promote such an idea, given that the well-meaning Chartered Teacher scheme has been derailed by poor execution. However, more important than having schools full of PhDs would be having schools full of people willing to question, and capable of acting on their questions, willing to wrest control of their own destinies (and therefore the destinies of those they teach) from those who have eroded the collective autonomy of teachers over the past three decades or so, and brave enough to accept their role as leaders of learning, as action-researchers in the laboratory that is the classroom, and as bold and trusted advocates for the very best interests of young learners everywhere.

Those who, for so long, have kept their heads down and simply got on with their teaching despite their discomfort with the restrictions placed on them, should now raise their heads and start to ask profound and pointed questions of the uncritical colleagues around them, and more importantly, start asking hard questions of those who set the pointless parameters within which schools have to operate today.