Tuesday, July 06, 2010

today : bad teacher

The BBC were trailing a Panorama this last weekend. The headline was that 15,000 incompetent teachers were circulating the education system and that only a small handful of teachers have ever been struck off for incompetence in the last 40 years.

Now I haven't yet seen the show but I wondered where they got the figure. It was one of those statistics with a rather fuzzy source. And like lots of statistics the more you delve into it the more complex it becomes.

The main question is 'what is incompetence?' How do you measure it? Who defines the measure?

I myself have been in the position where accusations of incompetence have been thrown. I would accept that, whilst in the midst of a stress and overwork induced nervous breakdown I was pretty bad at my job. It lasted for a few months and eventually my doctor had the good sense to stop me from working as he feared I might die. But does this make me an incompetent teacher? Well, temporarily I would say yes. At the time I was so addled that could no more keep on top of all my teaching responsibilities than swim butterfly across La Manche. But whether I deserve the label of incompetence is a wholly different matter.

What concerns about the news reports is that educational establishments are accused of recycling so-called incompetent teachers into other schools and colleges. This somehow implies that the incompetence is a permanent fixture. The equivalent would be branding 'incompetent' a footballer who breaks his leg, or a rock musician who makes one duff album. Nobody brands Prince incompetent for making the Batman Soundtrack.

Now there clearly are a percentage of teachers who are genuinely useless for whatever reason. I have certainly worked alongside some people who just didn't get it and singularly failed to discharge their duties on almost every level. Often they will do just enough to not stand out as worse than other underperformers. The problem here is that you are dealing with people - human lives. Anything less than your full on best effort isn't really good enough.

I even worked with one or two teachers who were actively incompetent. Anyone who knows me will know who I am talking about.

How or why they got away with it, I can't begin to say. Talk in the schools was of misplaced loyalty from the top brass, or even blackmail, as these teachers seemed to revel in deliberately doing a bad job. One person gloated about it. He is still, as far as I know, in situ. Still getting little promotions here and there. More responsibility for things to do badly or not at all.

But I have also worked alongside, and know many more, who have suffered periods where they underperformed. In pretty much every case this was due to stress, overwork, lack of support from their school management and in several cases bullying from other staff.

Most have gone on to achieve proper long-term success in new schools that offer them a healthier working environment.

Teachers who genuinely cannot cut it often leave early in their careers. In fact quite a few leave as soon as their training puts them into a classroom.

I am not saying that poor performance shouldn't be addressed, just that it needs to be looked for in the right places. Simplistic branding of professionals, scare stories and the reduction of complex problems to banner headlines helps nobody.

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