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Restoring teacher authority

Guest Post by Alex Standish

Good teaching is essential to learning, yet interference by politicians, policymakers and business in schools has undermined the authority of teachers. We need to value the transfer of knowledge for its own sake and give teachers the freedom to educate.

Elizabeth Green's recent article the New York Times Magazine ("Building a better teacher") contains some great insights about what makes a good teacher and how teachers can be trained to be better at their profession.

The article explores the work of Doug Lemov, former principal, charter-school founder and now educational consultant. Lemov visits schools to help them improve the quality of their teaching and he has been researching what makes a good teacher. He has just written a book which includes 49 teaching techniques that can help teachers to improve their classroom practice and student learning.

Green's article makes some important points about why some teachers do not perform as well as they might: inadequate training (for example, not being taught how to teach reading), insufficient attention to classroom management, and inadequate content knowledge. Each of these can, and should, be addressed by institutions of teacher education or on an individual basis to improve the effectiveness of teachers, but this alone will not restore faith in teaching. As Frank Furedi notes in a new book Wasted: Why Education is Not Educating, “Authority is not an attribute of individual behavior: it is legitimized through shared ideals that provide a set of principles for the conduct of authoritative behavior.”

The authority of any activity resides in cultural affirmation of its distinctive purpose. The authority of teachers is premised upon their subject expertise. So what has undermined the cultural authority of teachers? Primarily interference in the work of schools by politicians, policy makers and the business community, combined with a lack of clarity about the meaning and purpose of education.

Over recent decades schools have become a repository for society’s problems: the lack of economic competitiveness, political disengagement, environmental problems, lack of cultural integration, anti-social behavior, drugs - the list goes on. Yet, as Furedi notes, “When education becomes everything, it ceases to become education.” While schools have always played a role in preparing youth for work and social integration, today their moral purpose has been re-written almost entirely terms that are external to education. The result is confusion about the meaning and purpose of education. Instead of knowledge acquisition, education is redefined as behavior modification (dispositions and values) or training in skills (see the Partnership for 21st Century Skills), both of which lack any attachment to knowledge. When people outside of schools dictate the terms of education, then the authority of teachers to teach is undermined.

Central to the loss of teacher authority is the collective lack of faith in knowledge and ideas. What makes teachers special is their role as gatekeepers of knowledge to be passed on to the next generation. Yet, with the academic, subject-based curriculum increasingly challenged as not “relevant” to the needs of a global society with rapidly changing information, teachers feel uncertain about which knowledge and values they should be teaching and seek sources of authority from outside of education. While some take refuge in transmitting trendy values like environmentalism and humanitarianism instead of knowledge, others find authority in psychology. Psychological theories are cited to explain why not all children can be education to the same high level: they have different learning styles, different intelligences, different emotional needs, and, therefore, need individual learning plans. Instead of challenging children to reach beyond their own expectations, the result is a culture of low expectations and a retreat from teaching to “facilitating learning”. Here, nurturing self-esteem and inclusion become valued over achievement. The story is not the same in all countries. Both Japan and China have a culture of hard work and pushing children collectively to reach a higher standard.

Finally, the authority of teachers is not helped by a government that blames teachers and schools for their current predicament. Firing teachers and passing the buck for school management through the creation of charters does nothing to restore faith in the teaching profession. Lemov was right here, there is an implementation gap. By themselves, incentives - whether performance-related pay or punitive measures - are not enough. Rather, we need to rebuild faith in schools and the authority of teachers.

To restore the authority of teachers it is essential to value education in its own right. This means making a clear case for education as an introduction to the best available subject knowledge: disciplines each of which are a tool for dissecting and understanding our world. The power of teaching is its capacity to expand the horizons of children, to pose questions and introduce them to worlds that have never even crossed their minds: the creativity and wisdom of Shakespeare, Aristotle, Marx, Keats, Tocqueville and learning about Mesopotamia, Han Dynasties, the French Revolutions, and the Enlightenment remain just as significant for today’s children as they were for those in the past. It is the ability to pass on such knowledge that instills authority in teachers and respect from children. The question remains, is society ready to give teachers back the freedom to educate?

Alex Standish is Assistant Professor of Geography and a Coordinator of Teacher Education at Western Connecticut State University.

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