Sunday 24 January 2010
Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music
The word 'magisterium' and its close Spanish equivalent 'magisterio' might come across as two different terms, if not visually, at least semantically speaking, but they do share one common element: teaching. The main difference is that in English, 'magisterium' refers to the authority and power of the church (especially the Roman Catholic Church) to teach religious truth, whereas in my mother tongue, 'magisterio' is used in broader terms, as in what a teacher does every day at school. 'Magisterio' was also the name of one of the courses available to a younger version of myself when I was seventeen and about to finish college and head for university.
It was not until my third year at the former ISPLE (Higher Institute of Foreign Languages) that I fell in love with teaching. And the catalys for that transformation was a lecturer who taught one of those subjects that when you first heard of it, made you want to dash off for the nearest exit: History of Pedagogics. I still remember that first time. He had been given the 'graveyard slot', that was, straight after lunch and the subject was in Spanish rather than English. His future with us, defiant, cocky students in their late teens and early twenties, did not bode well.
By the time he came in, we all had plotted different scenarios. Some suggested that we play hooky, others that we answer his questions in English - it was unlikely that he spoke the language, we thought -, there was another group, of which I was part, that proposed that we give him ten minutes after which, if we didn't feel challenged enough (smug prats as we were then) we could all come up with different excuses to leave the lecture room. In the event, his ten minutes extended to an hour and half and then some more.
Mr Pedagogics turned out to be the best teacher I have ever had in my life.
For starters, there was his approach to education. He didn't believe in mindless repetition, the usual attitude amongst other lecturers. He encouraged interpretation and independent thinking. We later found out that he had been the rector at our faculty some years before and had resigned when he couldn't take the state's dogmatic stand on the learning process anymore. And now we were the ones benefitting from his decision. In explaining the development of pedagogics, he took us from ancient Greece to modern Cuba. And if sometimes his lectures resembled Plato's famous dramatic dialogues, the reason was that he encouraged us to think and think freely.
It was from this moment on that I changed my teaching methods. I had been an assistant-student for a year then and suddenly I began to enjoy more my tutorial role. I became less judgemental and more supportive of my pupils' efforts. I stopped being apathetic towards teaching and started to see it as a viable career option, even if bureaucracy and socialist rhetoric were always going to be a major problem for me, as they turned out to be years later. I felt I had found my calling. Moreover, I realised that teaching was truly the most important job in the world, the type we did even when we didn't engage in it professionally. A parent who shows a child how to walk or use his/her spoon is actively involved in teaching. Recently I found the most appropriate definition of a teacher in 'Reading Lolita in Tehran', Iranian writer Azar Nafisi's memoir. Although she is referring to a close friend of hers, it should not come as a surprise that he had been a lecturer years before: 'Does every magician, every genuine one, like my oown, evoke the hidden conjurer in us all, bringing out the magical possibilities and potentials we did not know existed?'
The reason for this flurry of memories is a recent government's white paper proposal that would allow two-hundred outstanding recruits from its fast-track teaching scheme to become headteachers in as little as four years. All of a sudden, 'magisterio' has turned into an attractive career choice.
One of the consequences of the current economical situation is unexpected career changes. With unemployment at a record high, it is the teaching profession the one to which many ex-employees of the financial sector have decamped. 'City seminars', named so after the part of London where the stock market is located, attracted over a thousand visitors last year, according to the Times Education Supplement, and up to four-hundred companies have already signed up to the Training and Development Agency for Schools' Transition to Teaching programme.
There are more reasons, however, for this increasing interest in education and I'd better mention them before the cynic in me takes over this post. Many individuals feel a duty to give something back. Others find themselves in a rut and want a new challenge. A third group wants a job that will inspire young people. The fact that the subjects they will be/are teaching are relevant to their former careers makes it less daunting to take the leap of faith from one field to the other. At present, these courses are: science, technology, engineering and maths.
And yet, I, too, find myself agreeing with the dissenting voices. Once the economy recovers, and there're already signs of green shoots in the distance, will these people stay? Is the government not depreciating the teaching profession by fast-tracking newcomers into education within six months? Six months? I trained for five years! I had to study Psychology for Children and Adolescents. At university we started our practice in our first year and did not stop until our final one. However, these rookies have six months to master the intricacies of teaching, to inspire a new generation, to become au fait with the complex world of marking and dealing with unsatisfied parents. You can see why eyebrows have been raised at the government's initiative to allow these new teachers to become schoolheads within four years of starting their practice. Would a same scheme involving future doctors be permitted? Would novices to the health sector be given permission to operate on patients after training for six months? Methinks no.
The silver lightning in this story is that other programmes are run for a little longer, twelve months, with prospective teachers training and earning on the job. The economic crisis has also brought with it a wind of change in that more and more people are less focused on job titles or status and more on a profession that makes a difference. How long will it last? I don't know, maybe it will be just as long as a heartbeat, but there's no escaping the fact that you need a lot of heart and soul to teach and a syncopated beat to go with it.
Disclaimer: I finished writing the above post on Friday 9th January. Then last Tuesday 19th January I chanced upon this article included in the G2 section of The Guardian. My initial reaction was surprise and mild amusement, above all, at the parallels between Francis's piece and my column. Then, I realised that with an election year ahead of us in the UK - though at the time of writing the Prime Minister has yet to come up with a date for the general election -, these 'coincidences' will happen more often than not, especially because my Sunday posts are open fora for people to discuss their views on a particular subject, be it UK-focused or of a more worldwide nature. I hope you enjoyed my column today, I strongly recommend Francis Hilbert's feature (his classification of teachers is hilarious, but, oh, so true!) and the music. Fellow bloggers and followers of this blog should know by now that I don't need any excuse to upload music by Aziza. Many thanks, enjoy your Sunday and your week.
Next Post: 'Reading Lolita in Tehran' (Review), to be published on Tuesday 26th January at 11:59pm (GMT)