Great Teachers are Made, Not Born

It’s very popular in schools today to talk about ‘lifelong learning’ and its desirability in our pupils. We are meant to take approaches in teaching and learning that help students to develop the skills, the desire and the willingness to take responsibility for their own learning. We want them to see learning as a “pull” process, not a “push” process. We don’t want children to passively wait for us to put knowledge in to them – to do school TO them. Instead, we want their curiosity, their willingness to take knowledge from wherever they think is appropriate, based upon the skill of discernment towards sources.

Who need to be the ‘lead lifelong learners’? The teachers. As education leaders we need to be very clear – this is unlikely to just simply happen by chance, certainly on the levels and frequency we need to influence children directly or indirectly. So, ways to get teachers on a long term journey of learning and to get it outwardly visible to children should be critical parts of our focus. Commitment to invest time in learning is almost always an additional commitment over and above the standard work that a teacher does (teaching time load etc.), not something you’re going to pay people extra for and not something you can really chastise a teacher for not doing. So, it’s critical that these teachers be;
a) engaged with their work,
b) motivated and positive in their outlook,
c) believing that investing effort in their own learning will be acknowledged and recognised by the school/ organisation,
d) seeing commitment to learning as one of the factors applied when considering who gets promoted/ leadership opportunities, and
e) inspired by a positive mission and vision for what the school seeks to achieve that makes them feel confident that commitment to more learning is a reasonable expectation.

The Economist published an interesting article last year entitled – How to Make a Good Teacher: What Matters in Schools is Teachers. Fortunately, Teaching Can be Taught
(Click on the link above to read the article)

It concerned me that the article failed to give due importance to these leadership related factors or the link between teachers learning and striving to improve and the need for children to develop as lifelong learners.

Other concerns were that the article so easily accepts a starting assumption that ‘grades and scores’ achieved by children are the measure of effective teaching. In such circumstances, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that many teachers become motivated to teach to the tests. If others are going to judge them on the basis of children’s test results, then they will do what it takes to have the children produce the highest possible test results.

There was one issue that the article gets right. This is an acknowledgement that within any school, overall good or poor, there will be pockets of excellence and pockets of mediocrity. Thus, for a parent or a pupil there is a degree of chance in whether they are the recipients of great teaching or not depending on which teacher teaches them, however good the school overall. I continue to feel that other industries and especially service industries would not consider this to be an acceptable compromise – that the experience of different customers can be so very different in standards depending on the individual they interact with. I believe that education has to continue to shift to acceptance that schools and leadership have the right to determine standard expectations – to define what are the ‘givens’ and to expect that teachers will commit to strive to achieve that level of standardisation as a minimum.

Next, the commitment to support the teacher’s learning and skills development to achieve those standard minimums should belong to both the school and the teacher. I get concerned at the frequency in schools and teacher culture where there is a perception that the only party paying (financially or in time) for teachers’ attendance at training or learning events, or conferences, should always be at the cost of the school.

The article touches upon the issue that is often discussed – how are the ‘best’ candidates attracted in to the profession of teaching? This is ironic as it really goes against the title and key directions of the article. If we believe that teaching can be learned and teachers are developed rather than born, then where the candidates come from should be less of an issue. This reminds me of a personal experience. When I was at Shri Ram, we took the management contract to manage a school in the Maldives under a public-private partnership with the Maldives government, known as Ghyasuddin International School. When i went to visit, i met many teachers already working in the school whose own education may have not gone much beyond higher secondary. They were very nervous and apprehensive that the new management would simply replace them with imported teachers from India. I set out to strongly get across to them that if they were willing to put in the effort, commitment and flexibility to learn what we wanted them to learn to teach to the standards that we were looking for, they had no reason to fear.

I recently met the Principal of that school and was very happy to learn that so many of those teachers are still in the school, having been transformed in their teaching and standards through a shared and common commitment to invest time and effort in learning.

My final thought on the article – I agree wholeheartedly with the writer’s belief that openness to feedback is a key part of what enables a teacher to grow, to learn and raise their game continuously. Of course, it goes without saying that you can never be too good – every teacher must believe that there is always something in their skills toolkit that they can make better.

School 21 – Educating The Whole Child

Some fascinating video insights in to a London school that’s doing some great work using project based learning, strong focus on communication skills, oracy, student voice and the development of students with the ability to go out and make a difference in the world.

Teacher Professionalism

Too often in education there’s an inconsistency that’s a little hard to explain. On the one hand, most are quick to state as a truism that the key to better quality of education for every child is the teacher. However, these words don’t tend to be backed with adequate and effective action to raise the professionalism of teachers.

That the professionalism needs to be higher is the case, backed by recent research by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – the same body that runs the PISA tests), and not limited to teachers in any one country or part of the world.

I believe we can put some of the blame on the fixed industrial model that plagues education. When the teachers are seen as interchangeable widgets in an industrial process or production line, this is not a conducive mindset to think positively about how to enhance the skills levels, attitude, motivation and purpose of the individual teacher.

This article shares the key findings from the recent OECD research. I think it’s appropriate that they haven’t tried to simplify or suggest that there is one simple solution that can be applied every where. Professionalism is a sophisticated set of standards, expectations and common norms that all members buy in to. This isn’t about lessening autonomy or scope for creativity. In fact, commitment to continuous improvement, innovation and contribution of new and innovative ideas to the profession are important components of what it should man to be a professional teacher.

The Journal – OECD – Teacher Professionalism Needs Improvement Worldwide

When looking at the findings, I can see them from the perspective of teachers in the Indian private school system. Teachers do get pre-service training whilst in-service development is often rather ad hoc. However, we know that the quality and standards of that pre-service development are woefully inadequate. Talk of major overhaul of the B.Ed syllabus has gone on for years with little meaningful change. Worse, vat numbers of the colleges given licence to run B.Ed courses are sub-standard money-making operations with lack of consistency, standards or awareness of international best practices. For this reason, I’ve often seen that better results can be achieved taking teachers without the B.Ed who have more worldly professional experience, training them on the job and merely requiring them to get the B.Ed within 3 years to satisfy the rules and requirements.

The fifth of the observations is an interesting one, that I’ve seen in practice. There tends to be more professional development available to teachers working with younger children than for those in secondary and higher secondary. This often comes because of perceptions from both sides (the teachers and management) that for those teachers, niceties like theory or science of learning are mere flim-flam and that their job is to know the syllabus material and to target all of their time and energies on putting as much of it as possible in to the pupils’ heads long enough for it to stick to produce the best possible results in competitive examinations. People who are merely dispensers of gobbits of knowledge don’t require much professional development! In fact, its sometimes seen as a distraction and a waste of their time.

The four recommendations make a lot of sense and are quite strongly in aligment with ideas that I’ve been developing lately in looking at the whole ‘end to end’ process of recruiting and developing professional educators who rise above the average.

Acknowledging that the pre-service training available to them isn’t all it might be, we have to go further to counteract this negative effect. High impact induction, proper mentoring and buddying systems and setting them on the right path as lifelong learners are critical factors, after recruiting for attitude, EQ, child-centricity and commitment to the role. Talent with the sciope to grow in to leadership roles should be identified early and nurtured. This isn’t always easy in single stand-alone schools. Groups can do it. otherwise, schools should learn to collaborate more in this area, perhaps where they are not in direct competition.

Then, the teacher professional networking can be taken to higher levels. Today, teachers have the scope to network with fellow professionals anywhere in the world. Within schools, we need a culture where teachers don’t feel threatened by each other’s presence in their classrooms and we need to be training teahers in action research – especially in countries where there is little or no education research coming out of universities.

In short, if we start to really act like we mean it when we say that teachers are the key to raising the bar, there is much we can do. That work needs to start now.

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