What Teachers Need
Whenever we get to talking about teaching and teachers, which is often, we talk about what we need to do to improve “educational outcomes”. For some people these need to be quantifiable. To be able to be measured. They focus on results in literacy and numeracy tests and compare them to other countries to try and determine how well we are doing in classrooms around the country. These league tables are used to point out the deficiencies in our teaching and leapt on by those who are convinced we are falling behind. They then come up with a range of solutions to turn this around and put us back at the top of the table where we belong.
Now, no teacher in the country is going to argue about the principle behind this. Fundamental to our teaching practice is trying to improve “educational outcomes” or, as we’re more likely to put it, get the best out of our students. It’s a given that we want our students to learn. It’s why we do what we do. Not only that but we are always trying to find ways of doing it better. We aren’t teaching English and Maths the same way we taught those subjects twenty years ago. Or even ten. Or even a year ago. Like doctors we are always on the lookout for the latest in professional practice. You only have to go into any school in the country to see this. If you’re a parent and you look at what your child is being taught and what you were taught you will see exactly what I mean. That applies to every subject on the curriculum.
The problem is that we are looking in the wrong place to find out why we are slipping down league tables. It’s not because teachers aren’t keeping up with contemporary educational practice. It’s not because they don’t know their subjects like the back of their hand. It’s not because they don’t have PHD’s.
It’s because no matter how qualified a teacher or how many post graduate degrees they have if they can’t engage with their students they are not going to get anywhere. If they can’ get through to them they are pissing into the wind. I’m not talking about teacher’s being bad communicators. I’m talking about the road blocks that are put in the way of their pedagogical practice that prevent them getting the results that will see us improve our educational standings.
Put simply. It doesn’t matter how many PHD’s you have if there are students in your class who don’t want to be there and make that abundantly clear. You will spend most, if not all, of the forty minute lesson trying to engage them, or simply keep them quiet, so the rest of the class can learn.
This is the hub of the problem and no one, apart from every teacher in the land, will recognize it.
It might surprise you to know this is happening across the board in private and public, advantaged and disadvantaged and same sex and co-educational schools. It is a societal problem and one, if we continue to ignore it, that will prevent us ever getting to a higher place on the league tables. It’s also a very complex one.
To turn it around, to engage our students in learning, no matter what their socio economic background we need a concerted, three pronged attack that has nothing to do with the theory of teaching and everything to do with the practice of teaching.
Young teachers need support. They need mentoring in how to deal with, let’s be quite frank, students who have never had boundaries and think they can do as they please. Students who swear at them and are contemptuous of them and the school rules the teachers are trying to enforce. They need to learn that teaching isn’t a popularity contest and it’s fine to call out poor behaviour. There are thousands of grey nomad ex teachers caravanning around the country who would be perfect in this role and would love to give back to the profession they served in for a lifetime. Schools need to support young teachers in terms of teaching loads and the ever increasing paper work that forced many of the nomads out of teaching in the first place. Teaching is exhausting and emotionally draining. You need to learn the skill of juggling different classes and different year levels. Young teachers need support in analysing what went wrong is a disastrous lesson. There are too many demands placed upon them that are preventing them from being able to do this. The non teaching workload now demanded of all teachers is not only effecting the time they can give to classroom teaching and engaging disengaged students, it is making it impossible for experienced teachers to offer young teachers the kind of mentoring they need.
The second prong is to recognize that the issue of class sizes isn’t an industrial one dreamt up by teaching unions to make teacher’s lives easier. It’s a fundamental one to engage students, help change behaviour and support students with learning difficulties. Smaller class sizes will facilitate the kind of pedagogy that is needed to get better results. If, in a class of 27 students, there are 1 or 2 who are constantly interrupting class discussions then it is obvious this will affect learning for not only them but the rest of the class as well.
The final prong is to recognize that no amount of teaching expertise and no amount of money thrown at schools will have any effect on learning if there is no support at home. Parents who can barely manage their children at home need to come to terms with the blindingly obvious fact that schools cannot wave a magic wand and transform them into engaged learners on their own. If a student is set homework and doesn’t complete it whose responsibility is that? The teachers? If a student is out partying to all hours and is disengaged in class what can a teacher do? If a student thinks it is ok to be disrespectful to teachers, in particular to women, then the school is fighting a losing battle to change that behaviour. It’s not enough for parents to wash their hands of their parental responsibilities and expect schools to be able to do the job for them.
Schools around the country do everything, and I mean everything, in their power to try and address these problems. It’s not as if they turn a blind eye to them.
We need a holistic approach. We need politicians to realise that making comparisons to countries where classroom (and social) behaviour is highly regimented is absurd. We need them to understand that we are dealing with issues that will no amount of academic expertise will solve. We need to stop trying to find a quick fix and confront the realities of the world we live in.