Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The complete package


Alistair Macnaughton has been teaching for 20 years and supervising PGCE students for many of those, yet would not be able to get a job in the state school sector. There are three attributes he looks for in new teachers and, he says, a qualification is not one of them.

Would you allow an untrained dentist to carry out your root canal surgery or an unqualified driving instructor to accompany you on that first faltering drive around the block? Or an untrained and unqualified teacher to take your children through the complexities of key stage progression and modular assessment?

My guess is that your stance is pretty firm and yet, as a teacher in the independent sector for the past two decades, I am both untrained and unqualified. The General Teaching Council will not automatically register me and, if I do try to teach in the state sector, I have as much chance of a getting a job as does Yosser Hughes in Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff.

All I can say is that in the 20 years that I've been teaching English and drama, which means I've taught just over 20,000 lessons, nobody has ever complained, which I suppose in our age of protest, calumny and litigation, must count for something.

However, for a large part of my career - and certainly since I became head of English in a very self-righteous Scottish school in 1996 - I have been responsible for supervising teachers in their first pre-PGCE and post-PGCE placements.

I have talked blithely to them about aims and objectives, learning outcomes, differentiation strategies, assessment evidence and all sorts of other useful concepts - learning a good deal in the process and coming to the emphatic conclusion that a PGCE is a proper qualification and that it is certainly better to have one than not.

However, it is a mistake to believe that the untrained and unqualified in the independent sector (and there are, in fact, many of us) have nothing to say or, rather, no right to say it.

And there are three things that are so close to my heart that if an applicant for a teaching post at my school exhibits them I am more than ready to give them the job, regardless of their qualifications.

Demonstrating passion

The first is simply a passion for the subject they deliver - for if children detect that passion (which is more than just enthusiasm) they will forgive their teacher a whole bundle of other foibles and faults.

The teacher who feverishly cuts an article out of the paper because it illuminates a key theme, who sits and writes a paragraph to order when the kids are doing the same or who (like my favourite teacher at school) is prepared to jump on a desk to play the part of an orator in the Roman Forum, count for something more.

Cynics who say that that kind of energy is unsustainable are missing the point; nothing is more infectious than passion and infecting even a handful of pupils with a white-hot desire to learn is much more important than fully topping up the knowledge tank so that they can motor through the next module or two.

The second attribute I look for in a teacher is instinct. A good lesson is not just one that ticks all those boxes on the planning sheet. A good lesson can be one constructed around an anecdote or one which suddenly links one subject to another. It is as much a product of creative and lateral thinking as logic and structure.

The best history teacher I have seen used to infuriate his head of department by turning many of his lessons into mini-lectures about politics, economics, art, current affairs and anything else.

He was a maverick who didn't always know what his next sentence would be, but he left his classes transfixed with wonder, queuing up to read history at university and in a few cases going on to be teachers.

Sincere praise

The third and final quality is to do with relationships. Everybody knows that good learning is based on good relationships and that praise and other positive reinforcement make a telling difference to pupil performance.

However, even worse than no praise is praise automatically and insincerely given - the "good idea" and "well done" that some teachers sprinkle over their lessons like sugar over cereal; the smiley faces in pupils' books.

Some colleagues talk about teaching as if it comes in a box - like a toolbox of skills, with the expectation that you have to use as many as possible to do your job properly. The result of that is - surprise, surprise - newly-qualified teachers can feel boxed in when they need and often want to be liberated.

The freedom to be yourself is the profession's greatest reward and, when times are tough, the best consolation.

Alistair Macnaughton is head of The King's School, Gloucester.

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