Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The changing roles of teachers

When I was at school back in the 1970s, a school was regarded as a good one if it prepared students well for university or for work.  I remember along one corridor at school there were wooden boards with the names of previous students who had gone on to Oxford or Cambridge, who had got a Bachelor's degree or who had trained as SRNs (state registered nurses).  We also had a secretarial college at school where girls in the final 2 years of school could learn shorthand, typing, economics and commerce.  Back in the 1970s not many school leavers went to university, so schools did their best to prepare them for the world of work - and most of my friends who left school at 16 were successful in that world.

Today, however, with 50% of school leavers going to university in the UK, the focus of schools has changed.  And yet many argue that schools are not doing a good job - university lecturers I've spoken to in the past year have mentioned that students are not as prepared as they used to be for the academic rigors of university, and employers are constantly complaining that school leavers don't have the right skills or attitudes for work.  Where are we going wrong?

When I was 17, I couldn't wait to leave home.  There wasn't anything wrong with my home but I longed for independence.  Nowadays, friends of mine with children in their early and mid 20s are complaining that they "can't get them out of the house".  Young people today, for many reasons, don't seem as independent as they did in my day.  I wonder why?

When I was home at Christmas visiting my family I took a good look around at what exactly young people were doing.  Many more are in education until the age of 18 or 21 (in my day you could leave at 15 and get a job), but many of these are not preparing themselves for job they eventually want to do.  Not everyone wants to go to university and become a doctor or a lawyer.  What opportunities are there for those who want to become a mechanic or a plumber?  I remember as a young teacher in the UK buying my own old and not very reliable car and taking it into school for the students to work on in their car mechanics lessons.  They did things like change the spark plugs, check the oil, stuff I didn't have a clue how to do.  When in my first year of teaching I skidded on some ice and bashed the car into a wall, the students hammered out the dent for me and repainted the car.  I'm not sure I'd let a 14 year old loose on my car today, yet the work these students did was good: I still have a fruit bowl and 2 lamp stands made for me by students in their woodwork lessons over 30 years ago, and one of my 16 year old students designed and made me a beautiful dress that I wore to a posh ball.  But who is training these dressmakers, carpenters and car mechanics of the future these days?  Who is giving them the opportunities to see whether or not these are skills they want to develop?

The brains of teenagers these days are not so very different from the brains of teenagers in my day.  They are developing the abilities to set long-term goals, analyze problems and think about ethical and moral issues.  Only a few years out of school or university, many young adult are marrying and having families and they are settling into career paths that many will follow for years.  Probably these are some of the most important decisions they will make in their lives, yet nothing that schools do seems to be preparing them for their future.  Instead student are still subject to what has been described as a "shopping mall" type of education - short snippets of different subjects, none of which relate to each other.

At the end of Thomas Armstrong's book The Best Schools, he refers to the changing roles of both students and teachers:
  • In early childhood students need to be players and teachers need to be facilitators
  • In elementary schools students need to be workers an teachers need to be coaches
  • In middle schools students need to be explorers and teachers need to be guides
  • In high schools students need to be apprentices and teachers need to be mentors
There are schools that are taking a different approach, and I'm very thankful that for the past 24 years I've been working in schools that are not constrained by a national or state curriculum, where the schools are freer to focus more on developing the whole child, on inquiry, on becoming independent and empowered learners.  At the moment at school we are considering an internship programme for our high school students to give them the opportunity to learn about a potential career, develop marketable skills, and establish a network of contacts that can lead to a job offer later. 

I've contacted a number of former colleagues who worked in schools where there was a work experience programme in the past - it seems these have been phased out now.  However I'm sure that somewhere out there, there are schools that are doing this.  Do you work at one of these schools?  If so I'd really like to pick your brains about how to go about creating an internship programme.  If you think you can help me, please get in touch either by leaving me a comment or by emailing me or sending me a message on Twitter.  Thanks!

Photo Credit: Lil Larkie via Compfight cc

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