For teachers, the beginning of every school year brings several certainties: good days, challenging days, correction, parent conferences, new educational initiatives, and a collection of news media articles criticising the profession.
It has not taken long for 2015 to continue the well refined practice of teacher bashing in this country. The first round came in the wake of the Federal Government’s plan to force would-be teachers to pass rigorous tests in literacy and numeracy before entering the classroom.
The goal behind the plan is a no-brainer. Of course teachers should possess above average literacy and numeracy skills. Such competency is essential to teaching. Yet the subtext behind the plan is that many teachers are not up to standard in regard to said skills. That is simply not true.
It is inconceivable that four year minimum, tertiary qualified students would be entering the profession without a decent skillset. Such a notion only serves to undermine the integrity of teachers and position them as scapegoats for ridicule.
Then the latest round came this week, as commentators have responded to the State Government’s decision to abolish performance based pay in the profession. On Tuesday, Herald Sun columnist Susie O’Brien treated her readers to the same tired formula of teacher criticism: open the article by asserting that bad teachers have to go, fail to explain what makes a good teacher or a bad teacher, qualify the position by saying that most teachers are good, point out that they couldn’t be a teacher themselves, and close by asserting that our kids are worth it.
O’Brien’s article smacked of someone from the outside looking in. The clincher for me was this line: “I know I couldn’t look after the welfare and education of 25 children. Most days I struggle to keep just three in line.” I wonder how many teachers have had that same conversation with a friend who postures as an expert about the profession before declaring that they wouldn’t dare do it themselves.
Everyone is an expert, it seems. The seeming prerequisite for any discussion about teaching is the fact that we were all in a school setting at one point in our lives. We’ve all had different teachers with different approaches, and naturally, this makes us qualified to critique the profession like we know better. No.
O’Brien was clear that she wanted ‘bad’ teachers to be identified and moved on, but never at any point did she offer a detailed assessment of what constitutes a ‘bad’ teacher.
Having worked in the profession for several years, I can say that teachers arrive with a vast variety of personality types and approaches. Far from being the robotic learning faculties envisioned by some, teachers possess individual traits that mark them as unique in style compared to another. We’re only human.
I have worked with highly eccentric, extraverted teachers, and I have met fastidiously organised, professional teachers. I have had the pleasure to associate with inspiring, idealistic teachers, and I have seen examples set by caring, nurturing teachers.
But which approach is better? Is a tightly planned professional preferred over a creative and innovative teacher? Is an experienced, well-read expert to be valued more than an energetic flame sparkling with enthusiasm and passion?
It is in fact very difficult, and highly problematic, to appropriately define what makes a good teacher and what makes a poor one. What is also overlooked in this old debate is that a teacher’s value on a student’s life cannot only be measured by academic results.
Some teachers do a remarkable job simply keeping at-risk students in school, working laboriously to engage kids that might come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In one given day a teacher can play the role of event manager, camp leader, counselor, mediator, coach, or mentor, among a number of other things. A teacher who works tirelessly to organise a class excursion or run a school production can deliver a remarkable benefit to their students, none of which will be measured on a graph sheet.
If a ‘good’ teacher is defined as a professional that consistently delivers good test results from their students, at the expense of everything else, then the criteria for success has been narrowed substantially, with a lack of understanding of what makes schools work well.
Imagine a child’s educational experience minus the extracurricular opportunities that teachers help provide. We would certainly be poorer for it.
It goes without saying that teachers should strive to bring out the best possible learning outcomes for their students. But give me one teacher that ever walked into a classroom with the aim of seeing their students fail. An absurd proposition.
The national conversation needs to shift from one that unfairly targets teachers to one that recognises the complex nature of the profession. Results are undoubtedly important, but they are only part of the wider story.