Teacher, Know Thy Responsibility

In my first blog on this subject (What’s a Teacher; Teacher, know thyself), two brief statements of possible characteristics required of effective teachers were presented:

1. The teacher must know what they are talking about, and the students must know that the teacher knows.

2. The teacher must really want the students to know what they, the teacher, know, and the students must know that, too.

No-one criticised these (but there is still time), so I will move on from these. I want to explore ‘Authority’ a bit, in the context of what a teacher is. Through responding to the comments of that last blog I became convinced that there is an ‘irreducible core’ to being a teacher, and I have previously had an interesting discussion with Tim (@imagineinquiry) on the subject of ‘Authority’ as it applies to teachers (see Obedience blogs… http://www.imaginative-inquiry.co.uk/). Authority is linked to responsibility, and hence, to professionalism. I think that the ‘irreducible core of teacher’ is bound up in teaching as a profession, and I think that profession is bound up in responsibility. Regardless of a chosen pedagogy, the responsibility of a teacher (primarily to their students) is part of the irreducible core of ‘teacher’. This cannot be abdicated; a ‘teacher’ has a teaching responsibility. How that responsibility is discharged is a bigger debate, but the responsibility is core.

At this point I think it is worthwhile to step sideways and think a bit about the differences between educating students of different ages. I had a brief twitter conversation recently with Michael Fordham (@mfordhamhistory) on whether a teacher was a teacher first, then (say) an historian, or an historian and then a teacher. I think this is an important distinction. My view is that a teacher is a professional teacher, and only secondly a (for instance) history teacher (regardless of the level of expertise they have in history, per se). I think that the ‘teaching’ is the primary professional responsibility here….subject knowledge is important, but not the primary responsibility (although, age -related…the older the students, the more specific is the teacher’s responsibility, and the more important is subject knowledge). I also think this is very important with respect to professional standing. I suggest that teachers should see themselves as primarily professional teachers (and taking this view has profound consequences for how teachers see themselves, how they project themselves and their profession, and on how they will be perceived).

There is, though, a difference between teachers of primary aged students, secondary aged students, and tertiary aged students. Students in these three age related groups require different things from their teachers. Therefore, the responsibilities of the teachers are also different. There has been a clear divide (and perceived differences of opinion) between primary tweachers and secondary tweachers. I think that this probably arises from the differences in responsibilities for the two groups. When children first enter the education system they require a lot of socialisation. They need to adapt to ‘school’ and all that goes with it. In a very real sense, primary teachers are substitute parents and children of that age require a lot of parental support to help them make sense of the world. In many ways this is the most important part of being a primary school teacher (but the system in the UK seems to have forgotten it). However, as the child matures, their requirements change…they need less parental input, and need to develop their own independence. Secondary education is largely about developing that independence in the context of preparation for the wider world, and this is largely delivered in a subject specific manner. Secondary teachers need to know their subjects in greater depth, and delivering that to their students is probably their most important responsibility…..but this isn’t a primary teacher’s most important responsibility. Secondary teachers are still ‘parents’, but to a lesser (and rapidly decreasing as the students get older) extent. Tertiary teachers are not ‘parents’ at all, in my opinion. Their responsibilities are even more specific, and very much less tailored to the individual students…I think.


So, how far does this get us? (let me know)


[To be continued……probably]


18 thoughts on “Teacher, Know Thy Responsibility

  1. Pingback: Teacher, Know Thy Responsibility | Chemistrypoet | This Marvelous Site with regard to stuff

    1. chemistrypoet Post author

      I think that the coherency in primary education would be lost. Children need a strong anchor when they are starting out. Specialisation could bring faster progress, but it isn’t clear how much, nor if that would out-way the negative effects (I guess not).

  2. Tim Taylor

    I would add a further layer of responsibility on both primary & secondary – developing children as learners. For me this is the core purpose of ‘schooling’. Socialisation, although difficult for some, is a subsidiary aim, possibly, as Egan has argued, even a diversion from what should be the real focus of education, developing young people’s minds to become effective learners.

    This is, of course, a complex process and not a simple matter of knowing more, although that is a vital part. Being a learner requires: understanding the how and why of learning; being intrinsically motivated; having large reservoirs of knowledge; being highly competent in the skills of acquiring, using, applying, and developing knowledge; having an inquiring, inquisitive, mind; the confidence to express opinions; the facility to think reasonably; an appreciation that others have different points of view; the imagination to see within and beyond a subject; the resilience to keep going when things are difficult; and the understanding that education is about becoming, not about performing. I think Dweck calls this set of aspirations the development of a Growth Mindset. I’m happy with that terminology.

    While I appreciate teachers have many responsibilities (and some of these change at different stages in the system), for me this responsibility to develop children as learners is at the very core of our work.

      1. chemistrypoet Post author

        There is…but I don’t think it is true. Agreed, though, that my (and anyone else’s) underpinning philosophy, in these regards, will inevitably have significant consequences on how teaching/concepts of ‘teacher’ will develop…..

      2. Tim Taylor

        I believe there is, but I don’t agree with it. There are some aspects of learning that can be acquired ‘naturally’ (children are predisposed, through a long evolution) and others that require instruction and development through a number of forms – possible three 🙂

    1. chemistrypoet Post author

      Tim, yes I know that this is a ‘core’ for you….I haven’t had a chance to think about this much yet, and have started at a more basic level….and need to build on the layer…….(thanks for your comments)……

  3. teachingbattleground

    I’m reluctant to make too much of the supposed difference between primary and secondary teachers on Twitter. The profile of teacher blogging has changed drastically over the last few years. Teacher blogging used be dominated by consultants, enthusiastic/ambitious SMT, gimmick promoters and techno-evangelists at both primary and secondary level. That’s changed among secondary bloggers; it is yet to change at primary, but I see no reason to assume it won’t.

    1. SurrealAnarchy

      Are bloggers (in general) undermining professional writers and journalists? We are living in a golden age of education writing and opinion and those organisations that engage best will maybe come out of it best, currently Civitas etc… It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out… And how management structures in schools and government learn how to engage & control…

      1. chemistrypoet Post author

        I don’t see why bloggers should undermine professional writers…I think they add a different perspective…also, some make the transition from blogger to writer….I agree that government hasn’t worked out how to respond, and I wouldn’t want them to arrive at ‘control’…….

    2. chemistrypoet Post author

      Agreed. But there does appear to be a tension, at the moment. I’m just wondering if it is due (at root) to this difference of emphasis between the two sectors. I also wonder if much of the angst in the primary sector is due to Government importing the secondary oeuvre into primary, in an attempt to improve outcomes in secondary?

  4. bt0558

    A great topic and an interesting post, thank you.

    For me, I think you attack the problem from the wrong end. For me the issue should be addressed from the other end which is the purpose(s) of education in 2014. Important parts of the mix are that education is a legal requirement of the state, that parents have less time/inclunation/opportunity to educate their own children in 2014 and the world is a big place. Also important for me is the fact that although I don’t go along with some of the nonsense statement’s contained in the “shift happens” videos, some of the ideas contained therein are key. However people see to want to move to extremes and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Societies are changing and changing quickly, and whilst it was once acceptable to threaten violence in the home and in school to achieve obedience this is no longer the case.

    Although I agree with traditionalist types who speak of a teacher’s responsibility being to transmit knowledge, I feel that the teacher’s responsibility goes beyond this.

    I think that the very idea of primary and secondary education is a false one. Human beings develop individually but it seems the variation among the population is no so great that it cannot be managed. Education moves from birth to death, the legal bit in the middle is merely an imposition by the state intended to produce an effective workforce for the economy, and when life was simpler, education was simpler perhaps.

    In order to develop people to the point at which they can contribute to the modern world to the point at which they can support themselves it would seem some degree of education is required an in many cases it is quite possible that this level education cannot be provided other than formally.

    I believe therefore that we should design a system that does what people want it to do. We need to focus on the needs of the human beings who are to be the educators and wealth creators of tomorrow. We should stop dressing education up as something other than it is. If “society” wants education to perform these roles then “society” should pay.

    Education should be designed to take kids from whenever the state takes responsibility, to when the state gives up formal responsibility. There should be no primary, secondary and tertiary.but maybe there should be different foci as people develop. Education should be more flexible. If kids are learning to count, teachers should be experts in learning to count. If kids are learning to read, teachers should be experts in learning to read.

    When learning intergral calculus or literary critique they should be taught by experts in integral calculus or literary critique.Teachers should be experts in subject content but also experts in people. As kids have a wider and deeper knowledge/understanding the foci would change.

    However, just as it is cheaper and easier to grow chickens in little casge and snip off their beaks, it is cheaper and easier to educate kids in little classess of similar ages with pre determined subject content and traditional methods in coercive environment. It is cheaper and easier to divide schooling into phases so that we can specialise and become ultra efficient.

    As a society in a global context perhaps we cannot afford to design an education system which will train the poorest to earn their way. Richer people will always be able to pay for child centred education.

    For me the “do we teach more discrete subjects in primary” is simply a very small part of a very large issue, one which needs to be sorted from the other end. Maybe there will be no primary and secondary to worry about. I think until someone has some sort of vision and transforms the education sector, we will continue to have silly squabbles such as “traditional” vs “progressive” and “primary” vs “secondary”.

    People born in 2014 will likely live for for at least 100 years and perhaps a lot longer. Maybe we should accept failure and allow people to take responsible in a big way, a sort of growth mindset writ large. There is no such thing as a “primary student”, except for the one we have contructed.

    Maybe we should contruct things differently and then maybe we wouldn’t have many of the tensions we have. Maybe.

    Sorry to go on so long but I think it time we reengineerd the process.

  5. chemistrypoet Post author

    Thank you for your comments. Given the scope of them my response will be inadequate, I think. But, let me say that I agree that we need to know what we are attempting to do in education, and that this will have an effect on how teachers behave. However, I also think that ‘teacher’ has an irreducible core, and that’s what I am looking at, at the moment. My view (at the moment) is that ‘teacher’ is independent of what we want to achieve in education at the state level….that the role has certain characteristics independent of that, and that this will put boundaries on what can be done at the state/society level.

    I am not convinced that the current model of primary, secondary etc is flawed. I agree that different children will move forward through the system at different speeds, but also think that the system can/should be flexible enough to cope with this. I do not see this system as being, a priori, designed to oppress. I also think that statutory education has a set of key functions which can be carried out with the current system, which I don’t think is designed primarily for efficiency. Finally, I am also not at all convinced that this system cannot educate children effectively for the times we live in, or the times they will live in. However, I could be wrong on all these points and expect to explore them in future thinking/blogs. Once again, thank you for your comments. Let the journey begin……

  6. Pingback: Proclaiming the Irreducible-Teacher-Core | chemistrypoet

  7. Pingback: What’s a Teacher- summary so far | chemistrypoet

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