Valentine’s Day: how the NS government shows its love for teachers Part 2

Here is the second part of Chapter 8 of “Best School in the World”:


Respect and trust

“If you can hire people whose passion intersects with the job, they won’t require any supervision at all. They will manage themselves better than anyone could ever manage them. Their fire comes from within, not from without. Their motivation is internal, not external.” Steven Covey[i]

My experience has taught me that nearly all people who are treated with respect and are expected to be professional respond to those expectations to the best of their abilities. Teaching as a career tends to attract people who want to make a difference in the world, who have a strong commitment to children and their learning, and who are invested in improving their own teaching practice. Of course, being a good teacher requires more than just having good intentions, but even if there were problems in the classroom, at Halifax Independent School everyone would work hard to overcome them. Some teachers needed support; when it was given in a respectful manner, those teachers grew and many became excellent teachers. I firmly believe that good teachers are not born, they are made – in large part, by mentorship from more experienced teachers who have retained their enthusiasm for teaching. 

In general, Canadian teachers enjoy respect and relatively good working conditions compared with many countries in the world. Canada ranks 6thout of the developed countries in terms of starting salaries for teachers[ii]and most teachers have enjoyed the good benefits and working conditions that come along with the strong teacher associations to which most of them belong. Since 1920, the Canadian Teachers Federation has been an umbrella organization and powerful voice for the various provincial and territorial associations and unions that represent teachers. Canadian teachers also generally benefit from good training (for many provinces a teacher’s degree requires 2 years of post-graduate study and practice teaching) and have many opportunities for professional development. 

But these conditions are just a starting point – as I saw at Halifax Independent School, salaries, after a certain level has been reached, are not the most important factor; respect and trust are.

In Finland, “Teachers are autonomous in their work, as the system is based on trust rather than control.”[iii]The lack of standardized tests until the end of high school means that parents trust teachers’ assessments, and trust them to do their jobs. Salhberg  describes the “shared responsibility” that happens when teachers work closely together for the school improvement that is a constant refrain. “Teachers have accepted curriculum development, experimentation with teaching methods, responsibility to engage in student welfare support, and collaboration with parents as important aspects of their work outsideof classrooms.”[iv]

Canadian teachers also need to feel valued and trusted. However, the influences from the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) have begun to creep up on them and this has had an effect on the public’s perception. Sometimes in the Canadian media, teachers have been portrayed as spoiled (long holidays, pension plans), as lazy and needing threats to make them work, or as chronic complainers (too many special needs kids, too big classes, not enough resources). Reports about the secrecy of disciplinary proceedings against teachers contributes to this perception, even though the proportion of these cases is very small and there are solid reasons that most of them are kept confidential.[v]

GERM started with the perception that Western education systems were lagging behind the more rigorous Asian ones, and that our economies would soon follow suit if nothing was done. They blamed teachers, with their wishy-washy ideas about “child-centred” education. Part of the solution was to find ways to make teachers more “accountable” for their students’ results – but this meant removing curriculum development and then the assessment of it from the teachers, and evaluating them more stringently. This sent the message that teachers were not to be trusted to do any of these things. 

By now, this lack of trust in teachers’ judgment and expertise has percolated right through the system. I remember one anxious parent who was worried about her 8-year-old’s spelling, and who, in spite of reassurances on the part of several teachers that the child was a good, average speller for her age, insisted on taking her to a private tutoring agency for “testing”. When the results came back that she was “above grade level”, the parent was satisfied – but I thought that the whole episode was harmful to everyone – to the parent who needlessly spent extra money, to the teacher who felt demoralized and to the child who bore the brunt of the parent’s anxiety.

At Halifax Independent School, parents put a great deal of trust in the teachers. Even though the governing board has more parents than teachers, teachers are generally deferred to on matters concerning curriculum and children’s development. Parents see their role on the board as advisors or helpers; the teachers strive to be worthy of the trust that is put in them. Thus an atmosphere of “shared responsibility” is created, where the teachers help and monitor each other and the parents contribute where they have expertise. 

When teachers are respected and teaching as a profession is highly valued, it becomes high status and more people want to get into it. Teaching in Finland is a highly sought-after profession, on the order of medicine, law or engineering. There are more than 10 applicants for every opening in teacher education programs, and standards for admission are high. When teachers graduate with a Master’s degree and enter the profession, the high status keeps them in the field; 90% of Finnish teachers remain in education for the whole of their career. At Halifax Independent School, where teachers are respected and trusted, they tend to stay for a long time – many for more than 20 years.

A culture of collaboration

Creating a culture of collaboration between teachers, administrators and parents is another key contributor to successful education. At Halifax Independent School, during its years as a co-operative, collaboration among teachers and parents was constant and expected. From regular meetings where teachers shared curriculum ideas, to committees of parents and teachers formed to develop policies, few decisions were made that were not collaborative. Learning activities such as Mini-Society would not have been possible without such collaboration, as well as the planning time needed. 

As the children were coming in from the playground after recess, Heather, a teacher, noticed some of the girls were teary eyed; a couple of others had grim, defiant expressions on their faces. While the rest of the class was gathering in the circle area, she pulled Lindsey and Jan aside and asked if everything was all right. Jan burst into tears, and Lindsey explained that Lily was being mean to them on the playground, and that it had been going on for a long time. Since Lily was in another class, and Jan and Lindsey didn’t seem willing to talk about it further, Heather realized that she wouldn’t be able to deal with it right away. She comforted the two girls and told them she would look into it. 

The upper elementary teachers were having a lunch meeting that day, so Heather asked the other teachers if they had noticed anything going on with Lily. It turned out that several children in other classes had mentioned that Lily and her two best friends were “being mean,” but no one would be more specific. One teacher said she had overheard something being whispered about a “club,” and wondered if that might have something to do with it. After comparing notes a little further, Heather was delegated to meet with Jan, Lindsey, Lily and her two best friends to get to the root of the problem, which she did before the end of lunch time. It turned out that Lily had organized a secret club to which you could only belong if you played a trick on someone else. Some of the tricks were quite mean, and Lindsey described how she had been asked to hide Jan’s lunchbox, but didn’t want to since she was her friend. Both girls had a chance to tell Lily how they felt about the situation, and after a lot of discussion, Heather felt that Lily understood the impact her exclusive, secret “club” was having on everyone else. She shared her results with the other teachers, who would all keep an eye on the girls to make sure there were no repeat occurrences, and who would all talk to their classes in general about playing tricks and excluding children.

The collaboration between these teachers, who worked closely together on many issues and shared a common commitment to children’s emotional health, was vital to nip this problem in the bud. Because it involved several classes and was “secret,” the situation could very easily have gone unnoticed by the teachers and have escalated into a bullying situation. This is the kind of situation that arises often with children, and for which collaboration is essential. When there is no culture of collaboration, it will often be overlooked.

Teachers in Finland have a great deal of autonomy over curriculum, the life of the school and community involvement, and to exercise this, they collaborate together a great deal. But collaboration between teachers and with parents requires time, which needs to be built into the school day. Finnish primary children have only 650 hours per year of instructional time (590 in middle school) compared with 900 for Canadian children and 1080 hours for Americans. This allows ample time for collaboration and for the preparation that is necessary for schools where there is no set curriculum. 

Teachers in Canada are already spending about as much time working and preparing outside the classroom as in it (an average work week of 49 hours means about 25 hours “instructional time” and 24 hours preparation).[vi]“Teacher burn out” is often a big topic at teacher and principal professional development sessions. Teacher collaboration time needs to be built in to the school week – time for peer assessments, curriculum planning, mentorship, and professional development. 

More hours of instructional time does not necessarily lead to better outcomes on tests or any other measures of education. I cringe when I hear a news story about schools in the US cancelling recess or otherwise lengthening the school day or year to increase teaching time, on the theory that this will boost student achievement. This flies in the face of all the research on the subject. Students need breaks; in Finland, they get breaks every 45 minutes. Teachers also perform better when they have ample time for collaboration and preparation, and when they are not working late into the night and on weekends. Many countries give children an afternoon off per week to provide time for teacher collaboration; others have a shorter school day so that after-school meetings and preparation do not keep teachers at school into the evenings. This would be worthwhile for Canadian schools to consider.

Creating a culture of collaboration requires trust, respect, and teacher autonomy as well as dedicated time in the week. However, there are some structural factors that actively work against collaboration. When the system encourages teachers to compete against each other, which is what happens when external rewards are used to incentivize individuals, it is not surprising that collaboration will suffer. In both the US and Britain, some administrators have claimed that the best way to encourage excellence in teachers is to reward it with “merit pay”. In many schools in the US, the Value Added Model is used to measure a class’s “growth” in scores over the school year and as a way to sort out what gains or losses are caused by the teacher, as opposed to other factors such as absenteeism or socio-economic status. This model has many problems and, the author of one study concluded: “If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”[vii]

Even if one could measure teacher effectiveness fairly and objectively, the singling out of “good” teachers for rewards leads to dysfunctional competition among teachers, exactly the opposite of the PISA findings on collaboration among teachers. Teachers will often choose to plan alone, so that they will get all the credit for successful activities. 

Assessment of teachers should not be used to reward the good and punish the bad, but to provide support and encouragement for all teachers to help them all improve their practice. At Halifax Independent, where sharing is encouraged, teachers feel rewarded when others want to emulate something they have tried.

Teacher autonomy, respect and collaboration are three basic conditions that have been shown to actually improve student learning, and they are absolutely essential for any kind of progressive teaching. But there are other conditions, which are also important for progressive teaching and for which many teachers have been advocating for years. One of these is keeping class size and composition to levels at which teachers feel they can teach the way they know is best for children.

Class size and composition

More students in a class means more administrative work for teachers: more report cards, more marking, more parent contact and therefore less time for planning and one-on-one attention. One of the most contentious and, for parents, confusing issues is that of class size and the numbers of special needs children in those classes (the polite term for which is “class composition”). Much has been written about it, and recently it has been one of the main issues in negotiations between teachers and governments. 

Teachers care about student learning, and about the wellbeing of their students. They know that with large classes they can’t give children the individual attention they need, both for their emotional wellbeing and for their academic progress.

If you have read this far in this book, you will have an appreciation for the amount of individual attention that is required for progressive teaching to work, and why Halifax Independent School caps its elementary classes at 18 (and middle school at 22). But if you take a look at the extensive literature on the subject, you will see that there is a huge and confusing variety of studies on the subject of class size, with very contradictory results. In Canada, a paper issued by the C.D. Howe Institute in 2005, “School Class Size: Smaller isn’t Better,”[viii]received a great deal of media coverage and has influenced governments, even though many of its conclusions were questioned. It bases its findings upon studies by economists, such as Hanushek,[ix]who are concerned about costs arising from lowering class size, and who use students’ results on standardized tests as their only measure of achievement. 

So what is going on here? Who can we believe? If raising test scores were the only goal of education, then it probably doesn’t matter how many children are taught by one teacher – I can prepare 35 children just as well as 20 children if all I am doing is vertical, whole-class teaching aimed at drilling the answers to standardized test questions. 

However, both recent research and many older, well-established studies also look at variables other than test scores to measure outcomes: things such as number of interactions between teachers and students, attitudes towards learning, long-term educational attainment, and teacher satisfaction. What is not in question is that research has shown that smaller classes (especially under 20 students) are very beneficial for students in the early years. Even the C.D. Howe report acknowledges this effect for Kindergarten and Grade 1, and attributes it to the fact that these years are largely about “socialization.” I guess the underlying assumption here is that social learning stops at the age of 6 and that the rest of schooling is only about passing tests. 

These studies point out that with smaller classes, “there was more individual attention, a more active role for the pupils, and beneficial effects on the quality of teaching.”[x]These positive effects are even stronger for children who have been “educationally disadvantaged,”[xi]and for classes where “innovative” teaching styles such as self-reporting grades, formative evaluation and “micro-teaching” are used.[xii]

These two factors – class size and class composition – have featured prominently in several job actions on the part of teachers. Governments have resisted allowing teachers unions a say on these issues because of the costs of reducing class size in this era of austerity budgets and smaller government. It is true that hiring extra teachers puts stress on education budgets; however, in November 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada finally upheld the BC teachers union 14 year case against their provincial government about their right to have class size and composition included as a working condition.  As a result, negotiations between all teachers unions and their provincial governments should include class size and composition  as a working condition.

This is one area in which governments must respect teachers’ experience and knowledge of students’ needs and their failure to do so whittles away teachers’ autonomy. 

How can we keep teachers engaged?

“I love my job! You learn something new everyday. Today’s lesson: my car can fit 5 Christmas trees. Who knew?!?” Liam Knox, Middles Teacher (Facebook)

Parents want their children to spend their days with teachers who know their children and are excited about learning – in other words, are engaged. Teachers want to be engaged and want the best for the children they teach. Therefore it seems logical that one of the essential cornerstones of a healthy, progressive education system is to make sure teachers get what they need to do their jobs.

Yet in many places we still have unhappy teachers and parents. We have looked at the effects of GERM on teachers, and seen how it undermines the 3 major characteristics of a healthy teaching force (feeling valued, having autonomy and having time for collaboration), and it is foolish to think that Canadian education is immune from these influences. 

A few years ago when Halifax Independent was starting to grow, and we were building the new school, there were times when the stress level among teachers was quite high. We were constantly having evening meetings to make decisions about the direction of the school, meeting with builders and architects, fundraising, developing new policies and recruiting new students – and this when all of us had full teaching schedules! The staff had recently doubled in size, and some of us noticed that not everyone felt as free to express concerns as others did. When things settled down after we moved in to the new building, we decided do an anonymous staff survey, as well as a parent one. Both were very revealing, but what really stood out was the number of hours the teachers worked each week (it ranged from 48 to 60), and the worry they felt over how this was affecting their families. 

Recognizing that this state of affairs was not sustainable, the staff and some parents sat down to figure out what to do about it.  We came up with a much more realistic division of labour, streamlining the number of teacher meetings, and mandating only one teacher on each parent committee instead of several. As a staff, we also became more conscious of the need for work/life balance and reminded each other of it from time to time. These surveys were repeated every 2 years, and always gave us something new to work on – a good example of how shared responsibility can contribute to a constantly improving, vital institution.

Halifax Independent continued to operate as a co-operative long after it gave up its official designation. This structure allowed us to keep a focus on everyone’s needs – children, parents and teachers, but acknowledged that teachers do matter a lot. In order to have truly excellent teachers, we made sure that they felt listened to, respected and had lots of time to work together.

[i]Steve Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989, Franklin Covey

[ii]Education at a Glance, OECD, 2014

[iv]Sahlberg p. 90

[v]Marketplace, CBC, Trouble in the Classroom,

[vi]Smaller, H. et al (2005) Canadian Teachers’ Learning Practices and Workload Issues: Results from a National Teacher Survey and Follow-Up Focus Groups. (Retrieved June 20, 2006 from

[vii]Fryer, Roland G. Teacher Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence fromNew York City Public Schools 2011





Valentine’s Day: How the NS government shows its love for teachers Part 1

Two years ago on Valentine’s Day 2017, Stephen McNeil and his government introduced Bill 75, which imposed a contract on teachers. Huge protests followed, and the legacy of that event has affected teachers to this day. A survey of teachers was just released this week (Teachers’ Voices: An Independent Survey of Nova Scotia’s Teachers and shows them to be demoralized and burnt out with many thinking of leaving the profession.

Two years ago, in April 2017, I published a book called “Best School in the World” (Formac) about the small co-operatively run school I was associated with for over 20 years. While I was editing and polishing the book, the teachers’ “negotiations” with the government were going on, and I observed it closely. I thought at the time that there would be long lasting effects on teacher morale, but I never imagined that we would be facing this impending shortage of teachers so soon. I thought that if only Stephen McNeil had read Chapter 8 of my book, perhaps none of this would have happened 🙂

So although it’s a bit late, I’m reproducing parts of the chapter here. It’s a bit long for one post, so the second half will appear tomorrow. One thing to note…I talk about “progressive” teaching in an elementary/junior high school in this book – but these principles apply to most types of teaching and levels. But I think (based on what I read in the teachers’ survey) that part of many teachers’ frustration is that they’d like to be able to teach more like this, but just can’t because of the restrictions of the job.

CHAPTER 8: (Part 1)


“There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.” 

― Robert Frost

If there is one thing that all sides in education debates agree on, it is that teachers matter. Endless studies have been published saying that excellent teachers are the key school factor to great outcomes in education.[i]Yet the discussion gets tricky when educators, administrators or economists try to define “excellence” and even more so when they suggest ways to promote it.

I have seen that when teachers love their jobs and are treated like professionals, it sets the stage for excellent, progressive teaching. Progressive teaching is more complex, more varied, and more interesting than teaching to the test – in a real sense, it is harder work. It does not require extraordinary paragons to carry it out, but it does require a supportive school environment. 

A teacher’s genuine enthusiasm for learning is infectious. Most of us remember boring teachers from our childhoods who droned on, expecting us to reproduce their words on the next test. It was not just the students that found this deadly – this kind of “vertical” teaching can also lead to staleness and boredom for the teachers doing it. But unfortunately many educational administrators believe that as long as a teacher knows the subject content, knows what students will be tested on and is capable of transferring this knowledge to the students in time for it to produce good test results, they are “excellent”. In this view, transmitting a love of learning to students is not a priority. 

As a teacher, I help children to learn how to learn, and in the process, experience the joy of making new connections, find out interesting facts and reach new levels of understanding. I participate fully in this process, experiencing all the highs and lows with the children. This type of teaching requires a lot of preparation in advance – not just finding out all the information (which I could then just tell the children), but instead finding activities, experiences and materials that will engage, challenge and stimulate them in active learning. When it works well, it is deeply rewarding and calls upon all of a teacher’s resources and professionalism.

To create the conditions that will foster excellent progressive teachers does not need to be expensive, require years of training or the overhauling of curricula. What teachers need in order to teach well in a progressive system and to be fully engaged in it is relatively simple.

Teachers need: autonomy in curriculum, assessment and decisions affecting them; to feel valued by society (respect and trust); and a culture of collaboration with enough time for planning.Teachers who work under these conditions will generally feel and exhibit a high degree of professionalism.[ii]

These three conditions have been identified by the PISA studies, among others, as the conditions that lead to the highest teacher job satisfaction and the greatest educational outcomes.[iii]They are certainly vitally important for progressive teaching to occur. This chapter will look at these and other conditions that allow teachers to give their best to their students, the factors that currently work against these conditions, and what the education system can do to overcome them. 

Autonomy in decision-making, curriculum and assessment

Although I have taught in many schools, I spent most of my teaching career at Halifax Independent School (formerly Dalhousie University School) which started out its independent life as a co-operative. In its earliest years, all three or four teachers were on the board of directors, along with an equal number of parents plus one. This gave teachers a great deal of control over decisions on everything ranging from curriculum to finances. Policies were developed as needed, and were carefully crafted to reflect the unique needs of the school. 

Salaries reflected what we could afford, which were often as low as 70% of what teachers in the public system were getting. During these years, some more business-minded observers questioned the wisdom of having teachers as part of the group that would decide on salaries and benefits, feeling that it created an inherent conflict of interest. What actually happened during these years of planning and building the new school was that the parent members of the Board would consistently argue for higher salaries, while the teacher members, who perhaps appreciated more clearly the financial situation, would consistently advocate salary freezes. When the school finally got its new building, and started to expand, attracting new teachers and then keeping them became an issue, and salaries started to rise until they reached approximately 90% of those in the public system. Teachers at Halifax Independent School had almost total autonomy over decisions that affected the school and their role within it, and it was an exciting place to teach. 

When teachers have autonomy over what and how they teach, as they have at Halifax Independent School, instead of being obliged to follow a set curriculum, it is amazing how creative and engaged they become. I have known teachers who would not have previously described themselves as innovative or creative when they started, who after a few years at Halifax Independent School, were developing highly original units of study. The example of others, the mentoring of more experienced teachers and the freedom to share ideas is motivating for teachers, as it is in other jobs. 

Teachers at Halifax Independent are also responsible for creating and administering all student assessment as we saw in Chapter 7. When an education system takes away the discretion of teachers over testing and curriculum, it is a way of “deskilling” them. Like most teachers, I was attracted to teaching partly by the opportunity to be creative in planning lessons and designing curriculum materials…teaching only ready-made content and lessons can be boring, frustrating and demeaning for most teachers. Using the authentic assessment measures we had developed as a group gave us confidence in our judgment and provided opportunities for real connection with our students.

Pasi Sahlberg talks about the autonomy given to Finnish teachers: “They control curriculum, student assessment, school improvement and community involvement. Much as teachers around the world enter the profession with a mission to build community and transmit culture … Finnish teachers, in contrast to their peers in so many countries, have the latitude to follow through.”[iv]

One of the key characteristics of the Finnish system, which Sahlberg points out, is the idea of the teacher as researcher. All teachers have a Masters degree in education, which implies a familiarity with educational research and experience in conducting original research of their own. This allows them to benefit from new research-based ideas and methodologies, which they are then encouraged to try out. 

On the other hand, in Britain, the highly centralized and standardized curriculum and testing leaves little room for teachers’ creativity or initiative, and this, along with experiencing the deafness of the administration to their concerns, means that most teachers have little autonomy. The UK now has one of the worst records in the developed world for teacher recruitment and retention. Almost 50% of teachers leave the profession after 5 years, in spite of having relatively good salaries and benefits. 

The assessment of teachers is another area in which teachers themselves can play a role, both in developing the assessment system, as they do at Halifax Independent, and in carrying it out. The further away the assessor is in status to the one being assessed, the less autonomy the teacher feels. Thus, when teachers are assessed primarily by their peers, the feedback is more likely to contribute to their confidence as teachers instead of undermining it as when they are assessed by “superiors”. When teachers are evaluated by a principal or head teacher who is considered part of a team of teachers instead of management, again, the feedback is more likely to be well received. On top of the stressful assessment that children in Britain go through (which also affects teachers), teachers there have to put up with assessments of their schools every 4 years or so in which inspectors are free to barge into classrooms at any time. It is no wonder the job satisfaction rate among British teachers is so low! 

The more autonomy we can give teachers over decision-making, curriculum and assessment, the more we are likely to encourage true excellence in teaching. The contradiction in Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) countries is that by undermining teacher autonomy, they actually limit themselves to a very narrow definition of teacher excellence that doesn’t improve the student outcomes they are so concerned about.


[iii]Education at a Glance, OECD, 2014

[iv]Sahlberg, Pasi p.7