Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking about how to get the most out of professional development opportunities at the Chartered College of Teaching’s Early Career Conference in Manchester. It was fantastic to see so many enthusiastic early career teachers investing in their own learning and taking the opportunity to answer questions and share experience.

During his fantastic keynote, Amjad Ali’s briefly explored the phrase ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’ and spoke about the importance of promoting teaching as a valid and valuable career option when we’re advising pupils. I can’t be the only one who was prompted to reflect on this however there was something else about that day that has made me think about it a bit deeper.

As a completely wonderful surprise, as I was sat nibbling a pre-conference biscuit and working out which room I’d be in, I spotted my cousin with a group of friends (hurtling across the room, hugging and promises of a catch-up ensued). My cousin is training to be a primary teacher, specialising in science. This is not her first career; she was previously a pharmacist, working for the NHS, with the raft of high-level qualifications necessary for this. I’ve not seen her since she made the decision to change direction and having chatted throughout the morning I’m certain that she has made completely the right decision. She’s not gone into this blind either – both our shared grandparents and both her parents have had long careers in teaching and she knows it’s not all about sharpening pencils and long holidays; what surprised me was that she said she’d always wanted to teach but had been advised not to go into it. I can only speculate why this was but I suspect it was a combination of family who’ve seen growing accountability and stresses of the profession, and advice to a highly skilled scientist who’s talents could be ‘used better’. I know that everyone around my cousin fully supports and embraces her decision and my reflections now are in no way an impression of her situation, but meeting her was one of a combination of things yesterday has prompted me to think around this.

When talented, qualified people choose to teach I think it is often viewed as disappointing. Maybe a step back, or a waste of the time they’ve spent on building their skills and qualifications. Someone who is so clever they can be a doctor, lawyer, architect, and all they want to do with their life is teach children – something that’s often seen as a back-up option or for those who haven’t got what it takes to become highly specialised in a more ‘valued’ career. I think some of this comes from the fact that in order to teach you need, with varying degrees, to be a generalist, and we live in a society that places a lower value on generalists than it does specialists.

We gear everything towards becoming more and more specialised when it comes to prestige – even in medicine a GP is seen as less important a career path than a specialist consultant. There’s an unwritten rule that you’re supposed to specialise more and more as you progress in your career; more money’s attached to it, more status. It’s a failure to stay in the same role for years, it’s stagnating or not ambitious to want to stay in the classroom and not move on to management. It’s self deprecating to admit you know a little about a lot rather than a lot about a little.

Teaching is generalist. Even with a subject specialism you need to be across that broad and balanced curriculum you’ve plotted on a twisty pathway poster and you need to be able to teach at different levels and stages. You need to be able to draw from other subjects, manage behaviour, work with data, engage with parents, and all the other things that come with the job. I wonder that one of the reasons primary teaching is sometimes seen as ‘less’ than secondary is the necessity to be more generalist.

Of course we need experts and specialists, but we need to value the generalists just as much. I have a sneaky suspicion that the specialists we place so highly would be rubbish at it. Generalism is a skill and a talent. To be an excellent generalist you need to be across a wide range of expertise and we need to value people who can do this across all the demands teaching requires – whether that’s being able to work across three different sciences from Year 7 to 11 or have an in-depth knowledge of twelve novels; understand not only the intricacies of a subject, but the appropriate level of intricacy for each of the pupils you teach.

In my presentation I discussed making decisions about interests and the direction of your career, but I started with a firm declaration that it is 100% OK to be a classroom teacher for your whole career. As long as teachers continue to develop and hone their practice, it shouldn’t be a bad thing to not want to specialise. We need generalists just as much and the people who do this best should perhaps been seen as a different type of specialist.

Maybe there’s an element of truth in the whole ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’. Maybe though it’s that ‘those who can hold the expertise and professional judgements essential to be a generalist, do; those who can’t manage to be a generalist need to focus on one thing really well and make sure they pass on their bit of expertise to the generalist’.

I’ll admit it’s not as catchy.