Teaching Makes You Stupid (or, in praise of Subject Specialist CPD)

Poet W.H. Auden writing poetry in a bookkeeping ledger at his home on Fire Island, New York. (Photo by Jerry Cooke/Corbis via Getty Images)

Am currently reading a book about W.H. Auden, or more specifically about Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’. Although actually it’s not specifically about that poem, even though it is, and it’s not completely about Auden, even though it is. By which I mean that author Ian Sansom makes it partly about himself and partly about The Bigger Picture and partly about Auden and partly about poetry and partly about this particular poem. It is a great book, but it makes me feel Really Stupid, and that in turn makes me sad and frustrated.

For whilst Sansom’s book is Not An Academic Text, it does throw in quite a few references to Academics and Academic Texts and Other Poets and Literature and Literary Criticism which, had I the time, energy and space (in other words if I had the spare cognitive capacity) I would probably rather enjoy. But I don’t. And I don’t. And it’s because it’s barely the second week of term and already I feel like I Have No Life. Or rather it is that life has already ebbed from my sickened body and left me a shattered husk. Not that I want to be over dramatic.

I recognise that were I to be reading a similarly pitched book about Teaching and Learning then I would probably Not Feel Quite So Stupid, but frankly also strongly suspect that I would find such a book to be A Lot Less Interesting. Where is the Auden of the contemporary (Secondary) Education world? Probably busy being a Twitter Celebrity.

Suspect that The Point Of All This (and there may be one, so bear with me) is that whilst the past two/nearly three decades of teaching may have left me Well Versed in an understanding of the Science/Craft (delete as appropriate) of Teaching, it has had detrimental impact on my knowledge and understanding of Subject. It has, in effect, left me (feeling) stupid.

Not stupid in the context of the level to which I am teaching (am fairly confident I could bring home a ‘9’ in the GCSE) but certainly in the broader, deeper context of my subject specialist knowledge. So whilst I am highly skilled (this is not the moment to be modest) at empowering students to think more deeply about the texts that they are reading in order to get a level 6, or 7 or 9 at GCSE, what I/we lack as teachers is that cognitive capacity to either ask each other those challenging questions about SUBJECT, or to ask ourselves.

Which is why more opportunities for subject specialist CPD is so vital. And not CPD that focuses on Subject at the level to which we teach (though there is need for that of course, to make us secure and confident teachers of that content) but the deeper knowledge of our subjects in the broader sense. Where are the opportunities for our History colleagues to talk/argue about the connections between 1970’s Britain and Our Present Predicament? Or indeed to argue about whose books are best: Dominic Sandbrook’s or Andy Beckett’s? Where are the opportunities for our Art colleagues to talk about the work of Robert Frank (including whether ‘Pull My Daisy’ is actually any good or not) or to argue about the value of John Berger’s critical writing and whether it is still relevant to approach Art from a Marxist viewpoint in 2019? Let’s face it: Ten minutes over a rushed instant coffee between a quick pee and Year 7 isn’t really the most productive time for such topics, is it?

Yet when Leadership discussions about Staff CPD take place we continually promote Skills Of Teaching as the Only Valuable Topics for Training. We say it is in response to What Our Staff Want but really, is it? Always? Again? And again? And even if it’s what they think they want, are they always right?

So. How to build cognitive capacity into our daily grind such that we can enjoy the developing treasures of the subjects we fell in love with? (Because we DID fall in love with our subject long before we fell in love with the idea of teaching that subject).

When I start to feel less stupid I will let you know.


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