Worth a note: you cannot legislate to find good teachers
13 March 2013
One of the best teachers I ever had was Miss Greenlees, my fourth grade teacher at Harbord Primary School. She believed in me, understood me as a person, engaged me in the learning process and had high expectations of what I could achieve. Nearly everyone has a favourite teacher in their lives. Just as everyone has an opinion on what makes a good teacher, largely because it's a profession to which we've all had some exposure: whether or not we have children.
Over the course of my schooling as a primary, high school and university student - and later as a teacher and teacher educator - I've been fortunate to encounter many exemplary teachers. I have learnt that a good teacher can change lives and have a profound influence long after their students have left the schoolroom. Indeed, good teachers touch eternity.
How sad it is, then, that many in our community seem neither to value nor understand this. How else do you explain the falling status of educators, the relatively low pay for experienced teachers and the constant deskilling of the profession through over-emphasis on high-stakes testing?
I have no issue with the notion teachers should have a strong intellectual capability, along with well-developed literacy and numeracy skills. But that is only one part of the story. Even these skills cannot be effectively measured by a one-size-fits-all test before graduation. While there are many positive features of both the state and federal announcements about attracting high-quality pre-service teachers into the profession, a good teacher must be more than a high school graduate who achieves a high Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank.
Why are we placing all our emphasis on entry scores when pre-service teachers go on to do a degree? And if intending teachers have to score in the top one-fifth of students - a band 5 - why another test before they graduate? All good questions, but did any education policymaker ask us - the teacher educators - our thoughts?
And the biggest question of all is, where will the funding come from? Every year I have been in teacher education there have been real cuts to funding and increased costs to absorb.
If a test before graduation on literacy and numeracy is instituted, it will not ensure a teacher knows how to establish real relationships with individual learners to teach them how to spell or add. Or to plan lessons that are motivating and fun, that challenge students and encourage them to take risks. Such a test will not discern whether a teacher is a lifelong learner. Or whether they are imaginative and can motivate those learners who are highly anxious or do not see any point in school. Or if they can ask challenging questions and encourage children to think creatively. Or will work well with colleagues, parents, the community and others. A test cannot measure aptitude, compassion, enthusiasm, flexibility, problem solving or dedication to teaching. A capacity to teach is something you either have in your heart or you don't. You can't legislate it into to practice.
Like anything there are skills you can improve, but you've got to start with a predisposition for patience and kindness, and throw in a touch of fun (none of that is revealed in an HSC mark). When learning is fun, magic occurs in a classroom and children's lives are changed forever.
We should not impose further rules on a profession that is already underpaid and overworked. Where is the recognition for existing teacher quality? Where in the debate about teacher quality is the undertaking to improve salaries to a level commensurate with other professions that require high ATARs for university admission? Where is the discussion about responsibility for educational outcomes that depend on parental engagement?
It's also important to remember that it's not just about attracting high-quality people to the profession, it's also about retaining them and finding a way to mentor and support them in our most challenging contexts. Where is the funding for ongoing professional development of teachers?
In the finest Socratic tradition, to solve the education problem we need to break it down into a series of questions.
Before politicians issue their edicts, I wonder why they don't consult the profession itself - why not ask teachers what they need to do their job? When's the last time one of these policymakers came into a classroom? Other than for a photo opportunity? Governments should look first at the strengths of a profession already under huge pressure through lack of resourcing. Or perhaps everyone could sit down and ask themselves the question: ''Who was my favourite teacher and why?''
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