Lambs to the Slaughter – Teaching Staff Inductions – Sink or Swim? By Sean Errington

16th February 2017

It is vital in the FE and Skills sector vocational learning that we recruit people to teach/train that have good subject knowledge and experience. In some subjects it is vital because a key part of the teaching is to instill safe and effective working practices in learners. People who have worked as a Roofer or Car Maintenance Technician usually have immediate and sometimes personal experience of the dangers. This really helps them to communicate why safe working is important. Personal experience also provides a fund of anecdotes about all aspects of work which can be used to make learning more contextually relevant. Such anecdotes are often about solving problems and learners value these and frequently store them for later use – in addition to using them in assignments.

But … and you just knew there was a ‘but’ coming didn’t you. Let’s look at the reverse situation for a moment. Today you are a teacher of Physics but tomorrow you will be a Motor Mechanic. Well of course you will get an induction on basic Mechanic skills, and you will get a Mentor to give a hand if things get hard of course, and most certainly you will be put on a proper Adult Apprenticeship! Who in their right mind would employ someone who is supposed to be a fully functioning Car Mechanic through such a route? No one of course and yet isn’t this more or less what is happening in reverse. We are recruiting people with great knowledge of for example Managing Maintenance Operations, presumably with good communication skills and expecting them with modest support to become Outstanding Teachers. The implicit thinking here – acknowledged or not – is that teaching skills are something you can pick up as you go – well it’s not brain surgery is it?

Whilst teaching might not require the technically challenging motor skills necessary for delicate brain surgery, it does require a very high level of thinking capability. Many of the concepts about learning and creating a stimulating and challenging learning experience for a diverse group of individuals, are I would argue highly complex and challenging both cognitively and in some cases physically. Whilst generally learners do not die of poor teaching, their interest in and their self-belief in what they can achieve, can most certainly die as a result of poor or even just adequate teaching. I would also point out that surgeons – brain or otherwise, only work on one patient at a time – usually.

Teaching is the act of facilitating learning. It is not simply telling people things. It requires the willingness and ability to understand what motivates people to want to learn along with a wide range of other complex concepts. The necessary cognitive understanding and practical teaching skills development are not quickly acquired, and possibly not acquired at all when individuals are very rapidly teaching substantial timetables with complex qualification assessment requirements and large numbers of learners. I have yet to see a Teacher Induction process for staff new to teaching that does not deserve the description ‘basic’ or ‘primitive’. Those individuals that do survive in such circumstances and go on to become great teachers should be lauded – they are champions.

Sadly too many just ‘get by’ and live in terror of being observed. They are experiencing the equivalent of the old swimming teaching approach. Having explained how to swim, I am now showing you the deep end of the pool. All you have to do is jump in and get to the other side. I am sorry you cannot have a lifebelt – how am I supposed to know if you can swim if you have one of those. Now stop moaning, give it your best shot, walk across the bottom if you must. If you have not surfaced in the next ten minutes I will find someone to save you – I hope.

I might possibly be exaggerating a tad, but I feel we have many important questions to answer about how we enable people to become good and better teachers. We also have to consider, by the way, how fair this type of approach is to learners.

Sean is Errington is the Managing Director of People Projects UK Ltd and has extensive experience as an education and training organisation performance improvement consultant and trainer.

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