Wednesday, 9 June 2010
That Plato - spent far too much time thinking
What do you know about Plato? Mmm, I'm the same. A few scattered facts, like the thing about people living in a cave and looking at the shadows on the wall instead of going out to the real daylight, and the fact that Socrates was his teacher, and the fact that when two people enjoy each other's company but don't have sexual feelings for each other it's a platonic relationship. But I expect all of the teachers who received Plato awards in the Waterfront Hall the other day know all about Plato. Mind you, it wasn't for their knowledge of philosophy that they were rewarded: it was their teaching and administrative abilities that they got their trophies. Just as well, really. Looking at the names I recognise the occasional past student of mine, and whatever their teaching abilities, their abilities at writing the assignments required by the course were less than spectacular.
But maybe it doesn't matter. I had RTÉ's correspondent in Washington, Charlie Bird, as a pupil a long time ago. You couldn't have found a more charming lad - all the girls in the class and many of the boys loved him (the boys platonically of course), but he was as weak a student of English as I encountered in my years of teaching. Yet Charlie done good. Likewise it maybe doesn't matter if the Plato awards teachers are versed in philosophy or are able to organise their thoughts in a university essay. You could be a whizz at delivering essays and a dud in the classroom. But somehow I still have a hankering for the teacher who is accomplished in the classroom but who also has a grasp of the theory of what they do, who has wider interests than just doing a good job with 4B this afternoon. The late Laurence Stenhouse had a term for it: the extended professional. Teachers who did the business in the classroom but thought beyond it, were interested in how the school was run, how it fitted into the community, what notions of education shaped the curriculum - someone, in short, who thought and even wrote about the context in which they taught and was active in seeking to make that context the best it could be.
Because if you see the teacher's job as stopping at the classroom door, there's a terrible danger that those who get awards are energetic practitioners suffering from professional myopia. And that's bad news for everybody - teachers, pupils, principals, vice-principals, governors and probably the care-taker's dog as well.