No boasting please, we’re Scottish
Peter Peacock’s description of “the staffroom cynics, the refuseniks, those not taking responsibility” sums up the small-minded minority who have cat-called Susan Ward’s UK Teacher of the Year award.
We know them. Most staffrooms have a few. They belittle others’
achievements. They repeat the truism that most teachers are doing good jobs (even if they themselves are not) and ignore the fact that, among most of us, there remains room for improvement. The saddest aspect is that many were once excellent teachers. Their cynicism is a function of burn-out.
A profession under pressure should seize every opportunity to celebrate success and innovation. Overwhelmingly, that has been the reaction to Susan’s achievement. Yet it would be best for those of us who wish to engender a culture of success among Scottish teachers and in Scottish schools to ask why her achievement has caused such a negative reaction.
There may be a plethora of reasons. The first is the Scottish trait of not drawing attention to yourself. Many will see her failure as a failure in self-deprecation. It reminds me of when, as a child, I won prizes at school and my mother’s reaction was invariably: “Very good, but don’t tell folk – they’ll think you’re boasting.”
There are, however, reasons specific to education. Teachers are sceptical about complex, but ultimately mechanistic, quality assurance devices to measure success. You can tick the boxes without improving the quality of teaching. They know that conformity is an increasingly valued characteristic, but they know instinctively that conformity is the death of quality in teaching.
Every school has its cohort of very good teachers and a smaller one of brilliant teachers, but the brilliant teachers are frequently the rebels, the idiosyncratic characters, the challengers. They win few prizes. There is, therefore, a suspicion (usually unfounded) that those who win the prizes are the conformists and the sycophants.
Teachers are wary of the market principles underlying the new competitive norms. As part of our citizenship agenda, we urge co-operation. As a profession, within any department or school, teachers succeed to the extent that they co-operate and support each other.
Perhaps most seriously of all, teachers know that, since Thatcher’s days, schools have been placed in competition with each other to maximise the number of students. They can be gained only at the expense of neighbouring schools. Behind every nomination of a school for this award, or the next, lies the harsh necessity of boosting numbers. The school which can boast the probationer of the year or the SQA candidate of the year or the arts against racism award has another weapon in the marketing strategy.
If we want to silence the bitter, the tired and the cynical when we celebrate success, we have to separate competition among schools from the celebration of success. Indeed, we have to remove competition among schools.
The above article was first published in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland on 1 December 2006: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=2316425