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Training does not make the best teachers

2 August 2012

10:52 AM

2 August 2012

10:52 AM

None of us would accept being treated by a doctor or by a nurse who hadn’t had extensive training, nor would we want legal advice from someone who hadn’t been through law school. Nor would we be comfortable with our company accounts being managed or audited by anyone not trained to a high level in accountancy. So why should we accept teachers coming into our schools who haven’t been properly professionally taught how to teach in a college or university? Schooling is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and poor teachers, as research shows, destroy life chances. How can we play dice with our children’s lives?

Well, as someone who has been head of a school for over 15 years, I can comfortably say I am not remotely troubled by employing someone who doesn’t have a teaching qualification. I was equally happy to have untrained teachers educating my own children. I see no problem whatsoever with the government allowing academies to employ teachers who lack a formal teaching qualification.

At Wellington College, which has just received an ‘outstanding’ rating for all aspects of its teaching and learning, I pay absolutely no heed to whether someone has a teaching qualification or not. What I do look at is whether someone has the human qualities to make a great teacher. They need energy, passion for their subjects and for teaching, a readiness to learn, an altruistic nature, integrity and intelligence. Some eccentricity definitely helps, though is not a necessity.

Lack these qualities and you will never be a great teacher, regardless of how many years you have spent in training. Those who do have them may be raw and naïve. They may have a difficult first year in the classroom – the best teachers I know often had a difficult start, because they are sensitive and vulnerable, and they had the courage to be themselves in front of the children, as opposed to retreating into a safe and manicured persona. They learn how to retain their own characters and vulnerability, while not letting themselves be squashed, and the children love them for it.

The best training of teachers is done on the job, which is why I applaud the government’s shift of teacher training into schools, with their ambitious Teaching Schools programme – my own school, Wellington College, hopes to become a Teaching School next year. The very worst aspect of teacher training in universities was the notion that learning finished when you went into a school. The very best teachers, in stark contrast, are the ones who are learning all their careers. The greatest teachers are the ones who were as committed to learning, as vulnerable and as absorbed by their students, in their final year of teaching as in their first. A lack of willingness to learn is the enemy of great teaching. A teacher who is not growing and learning, above all from interactions from other students as well as teachers, is a teacher who is dead.

Dispensing with the need for a one year post-graduate training qualification is also encouraging new entrants to join the profession, who have undertaken other careers, and who can bring to students and schools a vast range of experience and enrichment. I am positively biased in favour of such ‘teach second’ candidates, and one of their great qualities is their humility and willingness to learn.

Teaching unions, unsurprisingly, have created a great fuss about ‘untrained’ teachers coming into the classroom in academies. This, sadly, is typical of the worst kind of teaching unions, whose concern is not with the students, but with teaching as a profession. Unions need to revolutionise their ways of thinking, and embracing new modes of teacher training is a good start.

Teaching is different thus to medicine, as well as to law and accountancy. It is more akin to parenting. The good teacher will reflect on their own experience of good and bad teaching, and model themselves on the former while avoiding the latter. A new generation of teachers is about to be born.

Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington College, which also sponsors the Wellington Academy.

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