Education: Is teaching only a job? Well lets make it professional again

New technology is offering teachers the chance to regain mastery of what they do.
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The Independent Online
Teachers are overwhelmed with advice on how to do their job, from government officials, inspectors, parents and journalists. Teaching is no longer a profession - its a job that everyone, it seems, knows how to do better than a teacher.

The teacher beleaguered with all this unsolicited advice has no professional body which can develop good practice and promote mastery of a changing role. A self-regulating General Teaching Council has often been suggested but seems to be no nearer fruition. Meanwhile, teachers have few platforms to speak, unless the tabloids unearth a sinner.

Opportunities to meet their peers to exchange good practice have decreased since the local management schools' policy gave heads the power to direct staff professional development. Heads are reluctant to pay the cost of a cover teacher. Teachers themselves worry about the disruption to their classes when they are absent. Many teachers with families, cannot commit to evening or weekend classes to up date themselves. As a result, many local training centres and in-service courses in the universities have disappeared. This leads to professional isolation, a major cause of demoralisation.

There are some professional groups based in the universities which aim to alleviate this isolation by promoting school-based research into school effectiveness. MirandaNet is a similar professional development organisation, designed to provide an opportunity to mentor and support teachers as they make changes in the classroom, using Information and Communications Technologies. Shortened to ICT, this new name for IT emphasises worldwide communications with peers. This aspect of computers has a wide appeal among teachers, especially women.

Teachers in MirandaNet have found the benefits of using a website to publish their case studies for others. In a closed conference group they debate teaching and learning issues and how to mentor their peers. They also partner curriculum exchange projects with their peers all over the world.

The impressive government strategy to connect all schools and libraries by 2002, on the National Grid for Learning (NGFL), can provide a strategy for the teaching profession to change its image and alleviate isolation. NGFL offers an opportunity for teachers to receive these professional benefits and improve classroom learning.

The NGFL document, Open for Learning, Open for Business, published last week, boasts that pounds 1bn is being invested in hardware, and in raising the competence of teachers "to develop ICT confidence in school-leavers, and make Britain a world leader in the field of digital learning".

But is this a virtual bridge beyond the teachers' reach? The authority of a teacher is challenged by the vast repository of current information which reposes on the Internet. Do established, traditional teachers, who see themselves as experts and authorities, want to be formal learners again? If they fear the changes that computers might bring, BT's Peter Cochrane will not comfort them. "In the future, there will only be two types of teacher: ICT literate or retired."

What do expert teachers of teachers think? At a conference, organised by the British Education Research Association and MirandaNet in London last week, teachers agreed that computers provide exciting learning opportunities.

These teachers, already expert and enthusiastic in the use of electronic networks in staffrooms and classrooms, did not accept that teaching is merely the authoritarian transmission of knowledge. Their teaching and learning online involved refining traditional classroom roles as well as identifying new professional skills. In the ICT context, teachers saw themselves as lion-tamers, pretending control in classrooms with unpredictable computers. They also have to come to terms with constantly asking their pupils for assistance with the "lions".

The teachers had some advice for the Teacher Training Agency, which is about to review bids for providing ICT teacher training resources online. John Meadows, a teacher educator at South Bank University, reported that teachers wanted their own computers online for use from home, so that they could teach themselves the skills. They valued online peer tutoring, advice on classroom management, and information on what outcomes are required. Significantly, they wanted to read about other teachers' experiences and debate possible strategies.

But time is essential for professional development. Squeezing teachers' learning space into the school day, and edging the rest of the family off the home computer, is not a trivial matter. Teachers recommended online computers for all teachers, the standardisation of systems, flexitime and scaleable technologies, as reliable as the telephone.

Motivation is a key factor in teachers' learning. These teachers were tempted by the promise of an adventure for the mind. The appeal of these services was the opportunity to engage with other teachers in debate, to maintain an independent critical review of publications, services and tools, the chance to publish their own work and to fly intellectually beyond the classroom walls.

One idea which has developed from the teaching community is TeacherNetUK, a service designed to provide continuing professional development, just as regional Teachers Centres, where they still exist, provide support for teachers. Could this independent service provide a grassroots infrastructure for a General Teaching Council by promoting a genuine debate across the profession?

The writer is Visiting Fellow at The Institute of Education, University of London: c.preston@ioe.ac.uk

Director of MirandaNet:

www.mirandanet.com

Teachers and pupils are already testing their cyberspace wings:

Argosphere: www.argosphere.net

Argonet: www.argonet.co.uk/barclay .sch/

Biz/Ed: www.bized.ac.uk

Campus World:

www.campus.bt.com/CampusWorld

MirandaNet: www.mirandanet.com

TeacherNetUK: www.teachernetuk.org.uk

Tesco Schoolnet:

tesco.schoolnet2000.com

The National Grid for Learning: www.ngfl.gov.uk

The Year of Reading:

www.yearof reading.org.uk)

Netherhall School:

www.netherhall.cambs.sch.uk

Staffs Learning Net :

http://www.sln.org.uk/

Thomas Telford School:

http://www.tts.salop.sch.uk/frame.htm

Institute of Education, University of London Assessment, Guidance and Effective Learning, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 2AL

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