Primary teaching-are the expectations realistic? Is there such a thing as a natural teacher? prompted by @Sue_Cowley and @HeyMissSmith

I’m in between cohorts of student teachers and I am catching up with blogs that raise important questions about the profession. This brief blog is prompted by thoughts about the scope of the role in primary schools and whether there is such a person as a natural teacher.

Primary teachers are expected to teach up to ten subjects. At a time when knowledge as a key element of teaching is being emphasised, the question as to whether it’s possible to do the job needs asking. 

However much of a renaissance person you are, it is unlikely that you are an acknowledged expert in 10 different subjects. Having said that, it is certainly possible to have good general knowledge, expertise in one subject, an understanding of child development, good interpersonal skills, an open mind, a range of teaching strategies and a passion for learning.  Those elements, for me, make up the skillset of a primary teacher. It is a rare combination but I work closely with people who have the lot. I also know many people with other skillsets who acknowledge that they would be frustrated and ineffective in a primary classroom just as primary teachers may struggle in their jobs.  

Whilst subject knowledge is crucial, it is also important that a teacher can articulate the unique contribution of each subject to the child. If I cannot be bothered to teach art because it’s too messy, I need to know the understanding, skills and knowledge I am denying children. 

Jane Manzone wrote a very good post this week in reponse to Sue Cowley http://storify.comsuecowley/natural-teacher Their posts prompted the following thought:

Some of the elements listed in the skillset above can come (or appear to come) naturally to people. The interpersonal skills, understanding of the child, open mindedness and passion for learning are often present in people at a relatively young age. Sometimes it those whose curiosity has not been educated out of them by poor teaching that appear natural teachers.  As they have these elements, good teachers develop by not relying on a narrow range of strategies applied repetitively irrespective of the results. Secure subject knowledge across the curriculum develops through their passion for learning and the application of understanding and skills in different, challenging contexts often. The elements are all connected. 

That the above debate about natural teachers mirrors arguments about whether leaders are born or made is no coincidence.  Teachers have to lead in the classroom. They take provide vision, take decisions and delegate in just the same as any other leader. A primary teacher meets the needs of thirty children with insufficient resource in a room that is too small by being determined, imaginative and intelligent.

A further, recent question has been debated around whether teachers need to be extroverts.  Others have answered more articulately than I can that introverts often make excellent teachers. I’ve worked with inspirational colleagues who could be labelled introverts. People whose lives and opinions remain within their private realm have taught brilliantly and changed life opportunities for vulnerable children. I’ve also worked with outgoing, witty and charismatic colleagues who could be labelled extrovert.  At times an extrovert can engage children very effectively through projection of personality and talent but s/he has to work hard not to dominate the classroom to the detriment of learning. Primary teachers need to know when to be dramatic and when to withdraw from the children’s space. 

Inevitably, in my job, I would argue the case for attaching importance to effective teacher training that: identifies people with potential for the skillset; enables students to learn and understand a range of subject specific pedagogy; gives students confidence to use their passions to enrich teaching and sends out champions of children, subjects and learning. 

One aspect that should not be ignored is experience. Many of the elements mentioned above emerge or are brought together over time. It is through experience that teachers learn the full breadth of skills that enable an increasing range of needs to be met. It is a tragedy for many children that for economic reasons, education policy now values the inexperienced, unqualified, non-pensioned person over the experienced professional who has developed, what originally may have appeared to occur naturally to them, through hard work and commitment into the teacher who transforms future opportunities for young people. 


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