Professor Brigid Daniel: Teachers are in a class of their own

Who'd want to be a ­teacher? Far from being seen as ­valued professionals, teachers are portrayed as overworked, under-appreciated and working in a context of out-of-control children and angry parents.

Professor Brigid Daniel, Dean of School of Arts, Social Sciences and Management, Queen Margaret University
Professor Brigid Daniel, Dean of School of Arts, Social Sciences and Management, Queen Margaret University

Charged with fixing all the social problems the rest of us have been unable to fix; wrestling with the gap between a visionary curriculum and the realities of bureaucratic ­educational structures; being expected to promote the wellbeing of all children in their classes whilst protecting those at risk; and battling the pernicious and sexualising influence of social media – are all major tasks.

Yet judging by the overwhelmingly positive response to the recent announcement that Queen Margaret University will be providing education for primary teachers and secondary teachers in Home Economics, both from 2019, it seems that lots of people still want to teach.

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It is clear that many of those already teaching and leading our schools are not jaded and exhausted – they are passionate about what they do and enthusiastic about the difference they can make for individual children and society.

Many people involved in education have contacted us to offer help and support, which we welcome as we embark on developing two new degrees. We have already had enquiries from potential applicants. Given the negative coverage the ­profession receives, it might seem surprising that people still want to be teachers. But they do, and I believe it is because they know it is one of the most influential and potentially rewarding jobs out there.

Young people are motivated to study education at university because of their own positive ­experiences of teachers. Many people with established careers in other fields decide to turn to teaching because they want to give something back to society.

There are many teaching and ­classroom assistants who are inspired to become teachers themselves because they see, directly, how children and young people can be hooked into learning by good teaching.

As a social worker, many years ago, I worked with children for whom school and their teachers were vital lifelines – for some I would even say lifesavers.

My subsequent research on ­children’s resilience in the face of adversity confirmed the powerful force for good that teachers provide. We found that schools could be a haven for children, that the process of learning could help with developing a sense of competence and, most importantly, that teachers and ­other staff in schools offered a dependable adult presence.

Of course, the research also shows the damage that bad school experiences can have, especially for young people living with poverty and disadvantage and who lack other resources to support their development. So, whilst we do need to be careful about placing too many expectations on teachers to fix all of society’s structural problems of inequality, we should also not underestimate what they can achieve, especially if they are connected into the local community and see parents as partners in the process of learning. Our policies for children and young people in Scotland provide a good framework.

I have ­spoken at many international ­conferences where people have been very impressed with our frameworks such as Getting it Right for Every Child and the Curriculum for Excellence. Translation into practice is not always perfect, but their aims fit with the evidence that shows that we have to take account of children and young people’s wellbeing in the round.

There is a lot of emphasis on the importance of the early years in Scotland and rightly so; those vital years in nursery and primary school provide such an important foundation.

But we must not overlook the potential influential role for secondary teachers, especially of home ­economics, which today includes ­crucial life skills such as health and nutrition, practical food techniques, consumer studies and textile technology.

Louisa Stevenson and Christian Guthrie Wright were two remarkable women who essentially founded Queen Margaret University in 1875 when they created the Edinburgh School of Cookery, which played a key part in an effort to bring about an improvement in diets. Much has changed since Victorian times, but there is still more to be done.

That there is so much interest in teacher education today from people wanting to make a difference chimes with their vision for a fairer and healthier society, and provides evidence, I believe, that their contribution towards enhancing the lives of others has survived and flourished.

Professor Brigid Daniel, Dean of School of Arts, Social Sciences and Management, Queen Margaret University