Expertise in Plumbing and in Teaching

Last weekend I sent the following text message to a plumber who has done work for me in the past.

“Am having a spot of bother with the oil boiler today. It starts off and continues as if about to ignite but then does not ignite. By any chance could you come around tomorrow to take a look at it?”

Later in the day the plumber phoned me and asked me if I was near the boiler. I was. “Have you a flat screwdriver?” I had. “Get a damp cloth.” And he proceeded to tell me what to do. It took me less than five minutes to solve the problem following his directons.

He could as easily have called out and charged me a callout fee to fix the boiler and I’d have been no wiser. Even if he would have ethical concerns about doing so, he may have been able to justify to himself the need for a callout on the grounds that I might make things worse with the boiler, his business was quiet, he was in the area anyway or whatever.

But he decided not to make an unnecessary journey himself and decided not to put any extra expense on me. Immediately he became more trustworthy to me; I’m more likely to trust his advice on other plumbing matters in the future.

But what his action really demonstrated to me was that my plumber is someone who has a good sense of where his expertise lies. He knows there are some things plumbers do that an average client can do as well as a plumber can. But he also knows that there is so much more he can do that I, a non-plumber, could not even attempt. He knows I’ll continue to call him for a variety of plumbing jobs and I’ll also recommend him to my friends.

In teaching there are some things that many people, who are not teachers, but who are actors, parents, classroom assistants, athletes etc. can do as well as teachers can. Although teachers may be able to do the following, and often do them as part of their work, they are not skills that are unique to teachers:
• sketching a still life
• reading a story
• spelling a word
• demonstrating a handstand
• singing a song
• playing an online mathematics game with children
• making a model of a volcano
• asking children to write answers to questions in a book based on an adjacent passage or
• showing a dvd or a video on Youtube.

But in certain areas teachers possess expertise not held by people who are not teachers. Examples include:
• diagnosing causes of children’s errors
• responding educationally when a child who is reading comes to a word they don’t know
• planning the sequence in which aspects of a topic will be taught
• modifying a task according to a child’s ability
• conducting a discussion that promotes learning
• teasing out themes in a poem or in a video clip
• recognising when a child may need a psychological assessment
• explaining a process or a concept in a clear, age-appropriate way using suitable examples and representations.

As teachers we need to be aware, like my plumber was, of where our expertise is unique. We can then focus on and prioritise development of what we do that requires our specialised expertise. With other tasks, which require expertise that is widely held, we may do those we enjoy and have an aptitude for but we can just as easily delegate such tasks to students, parents, other people, or machines.

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