Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Wednesday, February 09, 2005
A common fallacy about the nature of teaching. Every so often a certain claim is made by a teacher, usually in a Letter to the Editor denouncing the impudence of the non-teaching laity, which has long annoyed me. A version of it came up again in yesterday's Guardian. This article by Peter Hyman describes how he, a former speechwriter for Tony Blair, fares in an inner city classroom. Interesting stuff. I'm sure he is, or is becoming, a good teacher. But here it is again, right at the end of the article.
One day it all works: the students are focused; I think they are understanding the point, thinking for themselves. The next time - perhaps because I have done less preparation, perhaps because the students have had a bad day - the lesson is lacklustre, the students less sparky.

"Teaching is a craft, you know. No one would think of being a surgeon for the day, yet everyone thinks they can teach a bit. To do it properly takes real practice and experience," says one teacher to me ruefully.

I added the italics. The usual version of the complaint refers to airline pilots rather than surgeons. I mentioned both in an article I did for Right Now magazine. I said,
Every year or so this comic [the magazine of the National Union of Teachers] features an outraged letter on these lines: "Would you have your appendix removed by an unqualified surgeon? Would you cross the Atlantic in a plane with an unqualified pilot? Why, then, would you permit an unqualified teacher to instruct your child?" To which I answer (1) No, (2) No and (3) Why ever not? Anyone trying to extract an appendix by instinct alone will be up for manslaughter the following morning. Anyone trying to fly a 747 guided only by his Inner Light will soon be one of several hundred corpses bobbing along with the waves. Both these skills are failure-critical and arbitrary, in the sense that one cannot deduce from first principles which blood vessels to snip or buttons to press. Teaching is neither.
It is obvious why teachers want to be placed in the same bracket as surgeons or pilots: it's to keep out competition from classroom assistants, home educators and other riff-raff. The irony is that there is a profession that resembles classroom teaching much more closely than either that of surgeon or airline pilot, and in which good performers are often much better paid than either.

That profession is sales. A teacher must get a sceptical audience to share his view of the desirability of what he is offering, as must a salesman. A good teacher must know his subject as a good salesman must know his product. For both there is more to success than product knowledge; enthusiasm and empathy are also involved. Both are born not made, although experience and training can help. For both the constant human interaction can be exhausting. Both will be rejected and insulted every day. The best love their jobs anyway.

Yet this comparison is put forward a lot more often by salesmen than by teachers. Teachers don't like it at all. For one thing, salesmen are not seen as virtuous. This is not mere anti-capitalism, although there is plenty of that, but is more that teachers still cling to their traditional Automatic Professional Virtue Rating, not perceiving how much of that rating came from their low pay.

For another thing, any fool can be an unsuccessful salesman. Those wretches who mumble through a prepared script about double glazing - who would like to be compared to them? But compare I will: I pitied the worst teachers I knew even more than those individuals desperate enough to sign up for a job cold-calling.

The very best salesmen, however, can earn a fortune. A star performer can be the salvation of a failing company and, boy, do they know it when applying for a raise. Wouldn't it be strange if teachers played by the same rules? I don't necessarily put this forward as desirable for all: as Charles Murray pointed out in his book In Pursuit of Happiness, many teachers understandably value the feeling of collegiate harmony that comes from the worst-paid staff member at a school being paid an amount not too much less than the best-paid, and from the pay scales being fixed and known.

My analogy between sales and teaching is only analogy. It has its limitations. However Mr Hyman's colleague should accept that everybody can teach a bit, just as everybody can sell a bit. Not everybody can teach or sell well.