The Great Divergence: or how subject specialism could be an interesting strand of retention for teachers.

In the most recent issue of Impact, Graham Chisnell described an interesting scenario of recruitment and retention around the career progression of teachers. This resonated with me, and left me pondering some particular and peculiar thinking of the education profession. 

Like most people, my first identity in education is in my subject. A really interesting recent discussion session at the Geography Teacher Educator conference, and work by Ruth Till  asked some interesting questions about how that identity is constructed: but for me, it’s about the expertise and choices I have made over my lifetime that play a huge part in it. I have, of course, taken different roles and interests: as a form tutor, as a UCAS advisor, and as a middle leader and Head of a Department, but in all of those parallel jobs, my core business has remained teaching and learning in my subject on a pretty full timetable. Even as a HoD, I’ve taught 20/25 lessons this week. Most of my reading, professional development and approach has been through the lens of my own disciplinary thinking and upbringing as a graduate and post graduate student, and it’s still endlessly fascinating and exciting to me. My associations with the RGS date back over two decades now, and Chartered Geographer status is a hugely powerful statement about how much I see myself as a Geographer, first and foremost.

But in potential career path and progression, I am about as high as I can go, while still keeping my core business the teaching and learning of Geography. In schools, certainly, the next step on the academic leadership ladder comes with a whole school focus, and a reduction in contact and timetable time in geography. While some of what I have learned could be applied to staff development, or teaching and learning, there is a natural changing in identity away from my subject – what I’ve loosely termed the “Great Divergence”, with apologies to both Pomeranz and Ferguson. These are exciting opportunities – and certainly, I am exploring teaching and learning cultures as part of my Masters in Education, so I’m keen to broaden my thinking. For many people, I suspect, this is a reasonable trade off. They want to be wider in their influence, and therefore need to adapt their identity. But what if you want to keep your subject at the heart of what you do? 

Subject Specialism: the heart of progression models?

This is where Chisnell (2021)’s article is so interesting, by comparison to the Singaporean model. Becoming a specialist in your subject, playing a wider role within the discipline is a valid and powerful pathway to development and career progression.

Singapore Ministry of Education (Link)

By contrast, I feel that many of the components of that progression: examining, work with subject associations, leading conferences, or speaking, or developing ones subject knowledge further are all regarded as “hobby activities” in our education system. They are nice, to be sure, and they are valued for developing your expertise, but they don’t lead directly to career progression, and are not always recognised, validated and encouraged by our school system, which can take a fairly narrow view of one’s circle of influence. Many schools and Trusts are really positive about these things, of course, but as a broad generalisation, it’s not career-defining.

Becoming a better Geographer, or better Geography teacher, then, is only going to take you so far within the UK system – by comparison to the Singapore system, where you can stay in schools much longer.

I should note that I don’t work in a MAT, and the Specialist Leader of Education role, or research lead (e.g. @JTavassolyMarsh, @EnserMark) is not available, but this seems to be the closest proxy to this kind of disciplinary specialism that is available to people in the sector, without crossing over. Harris Academies, for example, have Geography leads across their Trust, and I believe @GraceEHealy has followed this pathway with a different Education Trust. I know of people who have converted their work in their subject in to subject associations, and of course, there are still some Local Authorities who appoint subject specialists across a whole area (e.g. @greeborunner in Kent with English).

But.. don’t these roles exist elsewhere?

Of course, one might take on work with Higher Education, ITT/NQT mentoring, or supporting university partnerships, but I believe these, too, are regarded as “diversions” by the school system, rather than components of your professional development. Unlike in the Singaporean system, they are a completely different world – they aren’t alternative paths to the same end destination.

Even in my (albeit very distanced) understanding of these worlds, there’s quite a schism in identities in domains – ITT is associated with the Education Department, and education researchers who are (broadly) thinkers about pedagogy; rather than the subject areas. Alex Ford’s recent Tweet on this got me thinking about how the divisions might exist, too. I don’t know how many trainee teachers doing their PGCE at a university spend time in their subject Department, rather than in the Education Department – or how often lecturers from the Discipline come and talk to the Education trainees.

Similarly, a recent discussion prompted by @DrRLofthouse has made me more aware of the potential politicking associated with the divisions in different aspects of The Academy – schools, ITT, disciplines etc – and I’d be fascinated to see an extension of Chisnell (2021)’s work in to if (and how) the overlapping pathways construct a more symbiotic relationship at university level, as well as within schools.

Isn’t this just what “leadership” looks like, though? Is it the “price we pay”?

My final reflection is the extent to which this is a problem that is unique to education – and whether this is, therefore, a concern that we should have in our profession alone. I am married to a commercial solicitor. For her profession, associates, senior associates and partners all spend a large portion of their time in their original specialist discipline. Yes, of course, there are managerial, or business development divergences with seniority, but you still identify as a specialist and as a solicitor first, and your secondary roles differently. The “Great Divergence” in identity happens significantly later in your professional career; and even then, only if you choose to aggressively pursue managing roles and team leadership. Solicitors, at least, don’t encounter significant identity problems in pursuit of professional development and career progressions.

I am left uncertain of where the best models might lie, and what might be the best outcomes for our profession. For some, I’m sure, the divergence of identity is a natural and positive part of career development. For others, I think, it will be a major barrier to the traditional routes of progression, and perhaps that is a real shame. But Chisnell’s article on Singapore makes me reflect on whether we would benefit from seeing multiple pathways for leadership and success, and whether there is room in our system for subject champions and experts, who want to keep their core business in the discipline that they love?

Debates, discussions and thoughts welcomed!

Credits & Reflections:

As ever, thanks to @chizkent @RuthHTill, @UoB_Geography, @RushtonDr @routesjournal @jtavassolymarsh @DrRlofthouse @EnserMark @greeborunner @graceEhealy @apf102 who have all prompted thinking on this