Value of Great Teachers

Here’s a quite startling article I squirrelled away from the New York Times a few years ago. It shares some truly mind-boggling numbers in terms of the financial value difference for a child between whether they have a great teacher, a merely OK teacher or a poor teacher. How they arrived at these numbers, I’m really not quite sure, but let’s agree to take them on face value for now.

New York Times – The Value of Teachers

To me, there are a few things that the article highlights.

Firstly, there’s a whole history of school culture that left teachers largely to their own devices day to day in their classrooms as to ‘how’ they taught pupils. Their job was to put the knowledge in to the children and this would be checked periodically through testing/ examinations (see my article from a couple of days ago). This was all pretty naive as it ignored the maxim – what gets measured, gets done. Result = some teachers will just focus on getting the children to produce the right results in the exams, by hook or by crook. We’ve even seen high profile cases where this tempted some teachers to cheat the process to artificially inflate student exam performance. However, we all know there were many other ways that teachers had that were arguably just as immoral, but not condemned; writing a really easy exam paper, only testing for memory, priming students beforehand to pretty much know what was going to be in the paper, dropping big hints about what to memorise/ prepare or not, having children do practice papers/ essays/ questions that are almost identical to the ones coming in the exam.

The principle for many teachers was, “If you’re not getting any complaints about my classroom and my children are producing required results in the tests, then everything else is up to me!”

Amongst other things, this has great relevance for the article i wrote yesterday about school sizes. In a big school, if such teacher attitudes prevail, then which teacher a child gets for a year becomes a lottery issue that, as this article suggests, can have a significant impact on outcomes for the child. We are all aware of those conversations that go on between parents (mainly mothers) each year at the annual orientation when they compare which section (which class teacher) their child has for the coming year. They either congratulate or commiserate. Is there any service industry where we would accept such a lottery or such broad disparity of standards and expectations dependent upon the employee (or branch/ unit) the individual customer will deal with?

Teachers defend the status quo on the basis of their freedom of expression, their creativity and their innate knowledge of the individual children in their classroom. However, whilst I believe this is true for the best teachers it has been a tragic hiding place for the sub-standard and inferior. Worse, everyone at the individual level around schools could name who those teachers were!

Overall, I believe more professional approaches from leadership wouldn’t deny the teacher their creativity. In fact, at times we can find that effective systems and processes actually increase the scope for individual freedom and creativity.

I don’t believe the blame lies particularly with any one group (especially the teachers themselves). Nor does the solution. Leadership must step up, own the issues and begin to address them.

There are fundamental issues of consistency, establishment of good practices and then strong execution around; how we recruit teachers in to schools, how we induct them and bring them on board, how we train them and how we manage them on a day to day basis (including appraising and supporting raising standards and continuous professional development.

For example, when i first got involved in schools in India i was quite shocked to see the extent to which the ‘principal as superhuman’ with control and driving force over every little detail meant that recruitment interviewing often consisted of little impromptu 10-15 minute ‘chats’, the Principal’s gut instinct and occasionally a request for the candidate to deliver one or more ‘demo lessons.’ References were (are?) rarely followed up once candidates are shortlisted, except occasionally for more senior roles. If what we want is personalised learning, then I’m really doubtful of the merits of demo classes where the teacher is put with students they don’t know – this can only check for their skills in ‘delivering stuff’. What do we recruit for? If we believe that what matters are a set of skills and competencies, character traits and student-centricity, then shouldn’t we be working to develop recruitment methods that focus more on these things. Otherwise, we’re claiming to have new perspectives in terms of our schools’ visions, but continuing to recruit to support the old ways.

In my experience, teachers who join a school at the start of an academic year undergo some form of induction programme, may be assigned a buddy to help them acclimatize and generally have some sort of structured induction. However, quite a high proportion of teachers join during the year, especially in newer schools and then the induction pattern is far more patchy. This reinforces a set of messages that how the teacher approaches his/ her classroom is largely their choice, rather than formalising a set of expectations and beginning a process of alignment to the vision and mission of the school and how it chooses to manifest those in the day to day work of teachers.

There is a saying that has always struck a chord with me, “learning hasn’t taken place until behaviour has changed.” Way too much professional development and training for teachers just feels and looks like going through the motions and too little changes as a result in terms of what teachers do and how they do it. One of the objectives of PD should be to embed certain practices as common ‘minimum standards’ expected by the school in every classroom, taught to every teacher and coached to become standards parts of daily practice. I stress again, this is not to deny the freedom of creativity, spontaneity or individual expression. Those teachers who advocate for no such standards must be looked upon with suspicion as advocating a free-for-all without quality that makes the classroom more about the teacher and less about the child, their learning and what a parent has a right to expect.

The above saying can be put together with another – “Training without coaching follow up is mere entertainment.” I’m not sure who said it, but I believe it wholeheartedly. We need, if necessary, in many schools to reduce the variety of training, focus on the key deliverables that make a difference and then train them to a level and degree supplemented by on the job daily coaching that makes very clear that whilst a teacher will receive every support to attain the standards and levels expected, they are not optional, subject to the whimsy of the individual teacher. There’s a soft and a hard aspect to this – coaching is not soft on accountability. Consistency and congruence of expectations of the leadership team and supervisors is vital. Rubrics can be used in teacher PD as much as in student learning to clearly guide towards effective and expected levels of performance.

Perhaps the biggest factor that can determine the extent to which schools can achieve such standards is leadership – not necessarily that of one individual, but of the full leadership team in the school. Time allocation of leaders needs to reflect the importance of these things. In terms of Covey time management approaches it’s about ensuring that school day time is not all sapped by the urgent (whether important or less so) to the point where those things which are important but not necessarily pressing and urgent get squeezed out.

It’s also vital that the leadership culture is right. Too often, I have seen or experienced school environments where the vision and mission talk of wanting children to grow as lifelong learners, to be self-directing, to have good character, self-discipline, to be empathic, caring etc, to be creative, hard working etc. and yet have day to day things happening that talk of a real culture which is top-down, command and control and directive in terms of discipline. These are not congruent, but at times leaders are responding to informal driving forces that are leading culture in to dangerous directions. If teachers are uncomfortable about being truly accountable, it’s the easiest thing in the world to misbehave a few times to the point where the leaders then get tempted to fall back on command and control, stick and carrot and top-down. Now, the teacher can say – I am not responsible. I do what I’m told, how I’m told, when I’m told. They treat pupils likewise. In the meantime, the culture informally becomes one of seeking to ‘get away with things’, to defy and undermine the command and control based rules because there’s no sense of ownership.

In short, I believe great schools with great leaders are likely to have lots of great teachers. When those things are lacking, the presence or absence of great teachers will be a scattered, inconsistent thing and parents will continue to see their child’s education as a lottery based on who teaches them.

Small School Good, Big School Bad

There are many things in education that are taken as truisms, often because they’ve been done for a long time and nobody has questioned them. These include; the necessity of homework as a means to consolidate classroom learning and the need for academic testing to determine learning levels (and to keep students sincere about effort in their learning). There’s also one about class sizes (small good, big bad) and a similar one about school sizes.

The arguments in favour of small schools are usually about sensitivity, a sense of belonging, nurturing and caring etc. However, I believe the fundamental flaw here is that the starting assumption is that these things will be lost if the leader (Principal, Head) can’t touch all points personally daily, know and name every student etc.

These arguments are mirrored in this Guardian article about a UK announcement to move to larger schools in many areas:

The guardian – Education – Supersize Schools: How big is too big

These are not dissimilar to the kinds of arguments used by some people in the past to suggest that if a company wants to truly deliver high levels of customer service, then it has to remain small so that the promoter/ leader can handle interaction with every client/ customer personally. However, we’ve seen from the work of people like Tom Peters that it’s perfectly possible to have large companies that deliver excellence consistently and at ground breaking levels that raise the bar for their competitors.

So too, I believe that if the vision and mission are sufficiently inspiring and meaningful, if the leadership are high calibre, committed and dedicated and people development approaches are of the highest order then large schools can be very high quality educational environments.

The potential benefits are many. Students in higher classes can be offered more flexible combinations of subjects to suit their areas of interest. A far broader variety of extra curricular activities can be offered. For the professionals who work in the school growth opportunities are far more likely to be there that suit the career aspirations of educators, without them feeling the need to change schools. There are lots of opportunities for teachers and educators to get leadership accountability and coaching at all levels of their career development. this is highly motivating. Teachers have a broader variety of colleagues from whom to learn and there are far less risks of complacency or group think. I could go on.

In short, small or large, I don’t believe that the size will be a significant determining factor in the quality of a school.

Getting in a Mess Over Testing

In the last week or so, the debate about testing in the US took a significant new direction with a decree from the President, Barack Obama with the headline – “We’ve been doing too much testing.” Here’s a New York Times story with more background on the issues:

New York Times – Calls for Limits on Testing in Schools

There is real irony in this story and the way that it’s reported. Politicians dictating to educators about how children will be educated. For example, no clues are given as to how they’ve arrived at this figure of 2% of instructional time to be given to testing. As the article quite rightly suggests, with testing not defined, who decides what forms part of the 2%? Also, if the testing is rubbish it doesn’t matter whether it occupies 2% of a student’s learning time in school – it’s still going to be wasted time.

Further, we have to be realistic. part of the problem with high stakes testing isn’t the actual time the tests take to conduct. it’s all the other associated lost time that worries me. If, as is often the case, teachers are going to find their performance assessed according to the performance of the students in the exams, we can hardly be surprised that the teachers turn over large amounts of learning time to ‘test preparation’. Before you know it, even with one annual cycle of exams, way more time is lost in revision lessons, exam priming sessions, practicing for the processes of answering the exam questions etc. Before you know it, learning to excel in the exam has become far more important than learning.

Then, in most Indian schools, my experience suggests that combined pressure from the parents, the students and the teachers will see one exam take place per day, with the remainder of the day written off for the child to go home and ‘mug up’ for the next. Then, there are often some days declared as ‘non-instructional’ while the teachers do the marking of the exam papers. Then, we lose some more learning focus and time whilst everyone fills themselves with angst about the results afterwards.

The net effect in an academic year that typically amounts to about 190 school days is that, easily over 10% of learning time is lost to this process. I have always felt that this was truly bizarre if the purpose is really to check progress and point the way for future learning.

So, while the US tackles the mess it’s got itself into with a new limit on testing time, the Indian educators need to take a long cold hard look at the entrenched habits of examinations.

School must be for learning, not testing.

Seth Godin: Linchpin – Making Work Matter

Yesterday, I added a post to the blog which, by coincidence cross-referenced three of my all time top 30 books. Today, I saw a link to a video that was about Seth Godin’s great book, Linchpin which also makes my Top 30 list, for sure.

To see the video follow this link. Then, go about half the way down the page where you are required to put in a password (which is areyouagenius taken from further up on the same page). Well worth a watch.

Seth Godin – Video Talking About Linchpin

Seth starts just after 4 minutes. The gist of what he talks about is making work matter, making it purposeful.

Pursue Meaning, Not Happiness

Quite a few years ago, a trainer on a programme i was attending suggested a book I might like to read. When I found it, it was small, blue and didn’t look very exciting. However, it has become the most prized in my ever burgeoning book collection (even over the books that i’ve been fortunate enough to have signed by their authors.

That book was, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl. To be honest, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read that book and my copy now looks even less attractive to anyone who doesn’t know what they’re looking at. To me, it is quite simply, one of the most inspiring and moving books ever written.

Here’s a great article I came across a little while ago, that sets out what’s important about this book:

Business Insider – Article – A Lesson About Happiness

The article also cross-references another of my favourite books (certainly Top 30!) – Roy Baumeister’s “Willpower”. Reading the article again, I’m also reminded of the work of Adam Grant on giving and his great book “Give and Take” (also Top 30).

So, there you go, three of my top 30 books referenced in one place!

Then Along Came Pre-Crastination

In the pursuit of doing more, achieving more and generally being more (in the same amount of time), procrastination has been the big bad enemy of productivity and effectiveness for a long time. So, we all set about trying to slay the demon of procrastination. We equipped ourselves with productivity software and other tools, focused on making daily ‘to Do’ lists and all the other tricks that the ‘experts’ said would save us, make us more productive and increase our success.

But, all along, there was another peril lurking that didn’t even have a name – until along came ‘pre-crastination!

Scientific American – Pre-Crastination: The Opposite of Procrastination

Now, usually, logic says if something is the opposite of something bad – then it must be good. However, not in this case. Here, we’re talking about the kinds of tricks we play on ourselves where we put tasks on the ‘To Do list that are easy, enjoyable, fun and sometimes quick – and then do them first! Then, we may get to the end of the day with half the list completed and tell ourselves what a great job we did. After all, look how much of the list got completed!

As the article says – we’re very tempted to grab the low-hanging fruit.

I guess the answer is continuous rigorous self-analysis and honesty coupled with the Stephen Covey maxim to ‘Put First Things First’.

Political Correctness Gone Crazy !

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
Evelyn Beatrice Hall

For anyone who’s read George Orwell’s 1984, you’ll recall how a big part of the sense of oppression and discomfort comes from the apparent ease with which the populace fall in to Groupthink – a sort of somnambulent, unquestioning acceptance that there’s one way of thinking and all go along with it for an easy life. Of course, as we see in the film, this is encouraged and developed by those who control ‘the system’ so as to keep the population subservient and controlled.

There are plenty of commentators who have been more than ready to show the examples of how the education systems of many developed countries have been used to achieve similar things, going right back to the early days of mass education. The use of bells, strict imposed discipline, rigidity and rewards and recognition for reproducing the views and perspectives conveyed by the teachers are amongst many examples given. The argument is that this ensured that mass education produced obedient followers, not thinking leaders ready to break moulds – a way for the 1% to ensure that the 99% stayed where they belonged.

However, here’s a pretty disturbing article from The Atlantic that highlights a trend that has been going on in colleges across the USA for some time (and arguably elsewhere as well) that has all the appearance of a self-imposed and willing form of Groupthink emanating from the students themselves as a bi-product of the sheltered and cotton-wooled childhoods that they’ve experienced. The students themselves are creating climates within which there is “one right way” to think and communicate and anyone who deviates is immediately made to pay a heavy price for their audacity.

The Atlantic – Article – The Coddling of the American Mind

One aspect not talked about in the article, but that I believe is playing a part is levels of debt and the costs of a college education. In such circumstances the pressures become far greater to see college as a means to an end, rather than as a free form growth opportunity. In my own college years, fierce debate, argument and counter-argument formed a vital part of college days (and nights). By no means was everything expressed ‘politically correct’. At times, the older (maybe wiser) me might shudder at the naivete of some of the thinking behind views that were expressed. Nevertheless, I believe the activity of forming an argument, defending it, presenting evidence, listening to others and setting out to understand why they held the views they did (without having to agree with them) was a vital learning process that I wouldn’t have missed for anything.

Where are we headed, as a species, when the person who dares to hold an unorthodox or unconventional view is to be neutralised, stifled, forced to clam up and keep it to themselves whilst all gaily sail to oblivion on a sea of group think. Where is the space for Apple’s crazy ones, the misfits?

Apple Advert - To the Crazy Ones

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