the Dragonfly journal

I'm a good teacher, therefore I can teach anything!

By Dragonfly Training

I was having a conversation with a group of teachers the other day when I happened to extol the virtues of another member of the profession. Knowing what I do for a living, they asked me why I thought this teacher was so good. I explained that I thought they had an excellent rapport with their pupils, used assessment for learning extremely well, made work challenging yet achievable and had really good subject knowledge.

There was a sort of pregnant pause, then an embarrassed silence and finally a lot of laughter. Now I’m used to a lot of my comments about education being found unusual, but funny – no. Rather nervously I asked why this was so humorous and I was told that it sounded so quaint and old fashioned. Luckily I’m used to being sometimes described as old fashioned. But quaint? Not so much.

That moment provoked some serious thinking and ultimately made me realise that nowhere do I now hear anything about subject knowledge in the education sector. I scoured countless issues of the TES, looked relentlessly at teaching books and researched through dozens of educational blogs. Yet nowhere was it ever mentioned that a teacher might need to have a good grasp of the subject in order to successfully communicate with his or her class.

In fact, whilst no one ever directly said it, many writers heartily implied that those in possession of too much subject knowledge might not be able to deliver content to pupils very well as they wouldn’t be able to see the wood for the trees or couldn’t articulate their knowledge clearly to their pupils. It seemed as if many educationalists were hell-bent on taking the subject out of the equation and advocating that a good teacher could teach anything.

Their opinions certainly spark the debate over whether it is more important for a teacher to have a good teaching technique or good subject knowledge. It has become a modern trend to favour well-rounded teachers who can apply their teaching skill set to any given subject area. But on a personal level, I believe the traditional approach of inspiring pupils by knowing the subject area inside-out will always be the best option.

Whilst I fully appreciate there were/still are some teachers who possess all the knowledge and don’t know how to put it across, I also wonder how many teachers don’t really do their subjects full justice as they simply don’t know enough about them. The specific details involved in teaching history, science, maths or a foreign language, to name just a few, are such that only a subject-wise practitioner would know them sufficiently. In my opinion, these details simply cannot be communicated to pupils at the same level by a teacher without specific subject knowledge like they would by a teacher with an intimate understanding.

I also wonder whether lawyers would ever say another lawyer knew too much law, or doctors say another doctor knew too much about medicine to prevent successful practise. I wonder why we almost seem embarrassed to acknowledge that what we do is a form of academia; perhaps not of the highest form, but academia all the same.

This whole area of debate really begs the question that if we don’t seem to value the knowledge of our subject ourselves, how on Earth can we expect our pupils to?