Education is more than the sum of its parts
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Education is a complicated thing. It is never more complicated than when someone begins to discuss what makes a competent teacher. As a former teacher, I often marvelled at how successful some colleagues were at getting early years students to read, or how middle years teachers could get hormone-addled teenagers enthused about anything that looked like learning.
Unlike Professor Rod Clinton (Re: Bill 35 doesn’t go far enough, May 20), many educators would be reluctant to suggest that a content-competency based test of teachers would bear much fruit. Teaching is about more than subject knowledge. Teaching is a dance between students with varying abilities, circumstances and levels of engagement and teachers with an equally broad range of strengths and limitations.
Teachers are busy teaching the basics of writing, reading and arithmetic while building social and personal capacity. Teachers are busy preparing individuals to participate as members of a group, a school, a community, a country. Over the course of their years in public school, teachers help children understand the small things that allow societies to function, like why order in groups is important, why waiting your turn and treating others with respect are important life skills.
But they also help their students deal with the larger issues, the ones that are not formulaic, the ones for which there may be more than one answer. Developing these skills is not about curriculum content so much as about how to relate to ideas that are different from our own thinking.
Most teachers understand that encouraging critical thought in young people is the ultimate goal of all education. This process evolves differently in different classrooms.
At Brandon University, speaking to first-year education students, I argued that teaching is different from other professions. If you are an accountant, the numbers you are working with don’t care if you like them, don’t care if you are not fully committed to the task, don’t know if you value them — but students do!
Professor Clifton seems to equate teaching with pouring knowledge into the heads of students. This seems an antiquated and limited vision. Yes, there are basic skills that need to be taught and learned, but there is seldom one way to do that. Good teachers find a way to motivate individuals to learn — by knowing their students.
Manitoba teachers begin their careers as professionals with at least five years of post-secondary education. Like every professional they need to find their niche, where they can function best. That search can, and should be, a joint one with colleagues, school administrators and division leaders.
It would be wrong to suggest that school leaders don’t have the tools to find and promote excellence in teaching — or move teachers out of the classroom and the profession if problems persist. They do, and it does happen.
Because good teaching depends on so many characteristics of both teachers and students, one of the best ways to ensure the success of teachers is to find the right fit for teachers based on their skills and the characteristics of the students they will be teaching.
The role principals and superintendents play in finding the right fit is crucial. There are many options for strong administrators to build effective school teams. Teacher evaluations, teacher self-evaluation processes and formal supervisory evaluations are tools being used. Effective school leaders are also busy finding the right fit for every teacher, an assignment that puts their particular talents to use in the educational process.
While some might argue there needs to be a greater willingness to use those tools effectively, there is no shortage of options for school leaders to support and improve teaching practices.
Ultimately, there is no simple way to judge the competence of a teacher.
The notion that a series of tests created to assess the content knowledge of potential teacher candidates should be used as a professional filter for entry into the teaching profession, regrettably ignores that education isn’t just about content.
Such an approach ignores substantial research that shows having a 4.0 grade point average has little to do with the success of teachers in the classroom. In fact, as a group, teachers entering the profession with the highest grade point average often leave the profession. That is because teaching is an interactive process — a people profession.
It is about the ability of teachers to reach students, particularly the reluctant learners in a classroom. Caring, patience and persistence is what good teachers use to help young people succeed.
Bill 35 is going too far if the competence of teachers is to be determined by a formula that presupposes that an education is largely about a set of facts everyone should know.
Jerry Storie was the MLA for Flin Flon from 1981 to 1994, and held several provincial cabinet positions, including Education.