Cameron Wyllie: If patients treated GPs like parents treat teachers...

Once upon a time, teachers, even ones as eccentric as the fictional Miss Jean Brodie, were treated with respect
Once upon a time, teachers, even ones as eccentric as the fictional Miss Jean Brodie, were treated with respect
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“No, the problem’s not with my knee, the problem’s with you.” Cameron Wyllie imagines an alternative world.

In the years since the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) became an independent body, it has made noble efforts to improve the status and reputation of teachers in Scotland. Teaching is, of course, a time-honoured and ‘respectable’ profession; time was the ‘dominie’, along with the minister, was the key source of wisdom and advice in the village. These days, maybe, not so much. Why is this?

Let’s imagine for a moment that the way in which the general population viewed teachers and the way in which it viewed doctors were reversed. On one side of town, a mother is at a Parents’ Night at school talking to the teacher (doctor):

Parent: “How is Jimmy getting on with his Maths, teacher?”

Teacher: “Well, his overall mark is a bit down on the last time I saw you, and to be honest, I think the symptoms are fairly typical of an attack of adolescent laziness.

“His exam pressure has gone down, which can be a good sign in some young people, but I’m afraid Jimmy’s has gone down to virtually zero, so sometimes in class it appears that he is unconscious. So, I’m going to give you a prescription for a set of past papers, and I want him to do one of these twice a week till May. He should try and do them before meals, because his mind will be a bit sharper.

“He also needs to get more rest, so please ensure that he’s asleep by ten every night and maybe get him to cut back a bit on his use of social media. Exercise would help.”

Parent: “Thank you, teacher. Sorry to take up so much of your time because I know how busy you are.”

Meanwhile on the other side of town, a man is having a medical examination with his doctor (teacher): Doctor: “So what’s the problem Mr McDonald? How can I help you?”

Patient: “Well, it’s my knee. It’s a bit painful in the mornings and sore when I walk.”

Doctor: “Let me just have a look (examines knee). Yes, I think it’s probably the beginnings of osteoarthritis so we need to look at ...”

Patient: “I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s the problem at all.

“What you forget is that it’s my knee, and I’ve known my knee all my life and I can stand back and look at my knee and I can tell you it’s a very good knee, very hard-working and well-behaved, not like ... other people’s knees.

“No, the problem’s not with my knee, the problem’s with you – I think there’s bad chemistry between my knee and you. My knee had Dr Smith last year and really liked her – I think she really understood my knee and now you’re saying my knee’s got osteoarthritis and you’re throwing away its dream of being an Olympic sprinter ...”

Okay, I know that there are plenty of consultations with real doctors which aren’t that polite and I also know that lots and lots of parents have very respectful views of teachers; my own experience of parental interviews (perhaps somewhere around 10,000 in my career) was mainly very, very positive.

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The general point, though, is that the respect shown to teachers by parents and pupils alike isn’t what it was. So what can be done to improve this?

Well, firstly, the GTCS has rightly insisted that every teacher in Scotland should be a qualified teacher. There have been a few issues with this, almost exclusively in private schools where a very few staff teach exotic subjects like say, Japanese or Arabic, and there’s no teacher training for these subjects in Scotland, so, in theory, you can’t become a qualified teacher in them. The GTCS has been admirably flexible about this, as well as about some older teachers who have been in wee prep schools for decades, done a great job, have become legends in their own time, but never bothered getting qualified. However, these are tiny numbers and it’s heartening to think that teachers are joining doctors and lawyers as a ‘qualified’ profession in Scotland (not so, south of the border).

The GTCS has also insisted that teachers reregister every five years, and they have to prove that a reasonable quantity of professional development has been done. This again is an attempt to bring teaching into line with other professions where such ‘CPD’ (continuing professional development) is necessary. There are bigger problems here, because it’s never been made entirely clear what the limitations are for teachers on what qualifies as ‘professional development’. If I am a GP, then it’s surely reasonable to expect me to know about new treatments and what is now considered out of date (‘I think a leech is what’s called for here, Mr Wyllie’) and if I’m a lawyer then I need to know about changes in the law (‘Well, I’m sorry to hear you have done that, because you are liable to be hanged’).

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What is the equivalent for teachers? If I’m an English teacher, can my CPD be to read a few new novels? Many teachers get very fed up being sent on courses and, generally, they are good at reflecting on and improving their own practice. So, what is the best way for them to spend their valuable time when they are educating themselves professionally – that’s the nut that the GTCS has to crack.

Part of the national education agenda needs to focus on gaining greater respect for teachers as a well-qualified and vitally important force for good in Scottish society. This requires greater realism about what teachers can and can’t reasonably achieve in the time they’ve got with their pupils.

It requires the government, Education Scotland and the SQA to stop changing policies, curricula, procedures and exams every 15 minutes. And yes, it probably requires more cash. Mainly, however, it requires us all to remember, as Roger McGough put it: “The hand that rules the classroom/Rocks the world.”

Cameron Wyllie’s blog is at www.ahouseinjoppa.wordpress.com