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Passion and Professionalism

2017-04-13T20:23:33+00:00September 28th, 2016|
“Passion is for the bedroom – not the classroom” wrote Ann Mroz, Editor and Digital Publishing Director of the TES last week.

The headline was enough to catch my eye and provided a welcome break from the steady flow of Green Paper, Grammar School – ‘are you for us or agin us?’ – debate that continues to divide and populate column inches.

Kevin Stannard, Director of Innovation and Learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust, joined Ann Mroz in the TES to report a similar theme. He neatly summarised a recent survey of 11,902 students who expressed a strong preference for teachers who are approachable, respectful, passionate about their subject and who can explain things well. I suspect there aren’t any surprises here and as Kevin Stannard said himself: “It’s not rocket science”.

I would however want to know more about the exact nature of the questions asked that gave rise to these responses; and I might want to pick away a little at the tidy division the article identifies between teacher-pupil relationships / approachability and effective pedagogy. To me it’s all part of the same package; wise classroom craft creates a healthy dynamic and builds trust and mutual respect.

In fairness, the subject of ‘passion’ in teaching has been in and out of the educational press ever since Amanda Spielman, Ofsted Chief Inspector in waiting, was characterised as lacking in this quality.

Passion, it seems, is as Ann Mroz described: “Tricksy”.

Being an increasingly middle-aged man from Yorkshire (cue regional stereotype again), passion is a rare emotion that visits me once a year when I find an unexpected fiver in my coat pocket. Being a former Head of Sixth Form who led on UCAS applications and personally checked nearly 100 of them every year (passion killer!), I developed a Pavlovian dislike for the word and was conditioned to apply red pen when it popped up altogether too frequently and predictably in personal statements.

The word ‘passion’ is overused, often misconstrued and as a consequence devalued. Proclaiming a ‘passion’ for Medicine (all too common), or any other UCAS choice for that matter, seems somewhat lacklustre and most likely a symptom of parental rather than student ambition. If the latter is true however, couldn’t another word, a more believable and authentic expression of intellectual curiosity, emergent enthusiasm or developing sense of vocation be articulated?

Well, err, yes it could.

I followed my own (UCAS) advice when I applied for a post at BGS and avoided telling the Governors how passionate I am (they are far too canny to have believed me anyway) about education. But it’s not just countless UCAS personal statements searching too hard for an elusive eye-catching X-factor that have left me jaded. If the next Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman is passionless, enter current Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw who in a recent speech said:

“We desperately need more mavericks in the classroom and in the headteacher’s office …a pretty ordinary education system – unfortunately we still have one – needs people who are flamboyant, colourful and yes, downright strange. In other words, we need extraordinary people. We need our awkward squad. The independent sector has always had them – our state system needs more of them”. He also said that a “hint of menace” helps teachers to be “truly great”.

So we need strange folk imbued with passion, maverick quality and menace – ideally imports from the colourful independent sector – to flush into the newly created Grammar Schools and this nation’s children will be fine and able to look forward to a better, brighter future…

… honestly!

Long before the thought entered my brain that I might one day become a teacher, never mind a Headmaster, I’d developed a mistrust of the charismatic maverick in the workplace. Such folk are out there, I’ve met them and remember the unavoidable personality orbiting the office KLIX coffee machine who never did a stitch of useful work whilst I, summertime student labour in Sheffield, toiled away in telesales at a nearby desk.

Little surprise then that the fictional English teacher John Keating, played by Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets Society, defined by his passion, force of personality and unconventional methods, leaves me a little cold. I’m all for character, but I’ll trust professionalism and warmth of personality over magnetic charisma any day. I fear I might be in a minority however given the rave reviews that this 1989 film – a favourite of Sir Michael? – continues to attract to this day.

As Kevin Stannard observed, “there is both a ‘heart’ and a ‘science’ to effective teaching”. Get that blend right and healthy relationships between teachers and pupils will flourish. Passion is important, but only as bed partner to professionalism.

“To me it’s all part of the same package; wise classroom craft creates a healthy dynamic and builds trust and mutual respect.”

Simon Hinchliffe, Headmaster


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