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”:

WHAT TEACHERS NEED: AUTONOMY, TRUST AND A CULTURE OF COLLABORATION PART 2

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, http://www.cbc.ca/marketplace/episodes/2015-2016/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

[viii]https://www.cdhowe.org/pdf/commentary_215.pdf

[x]http://classsizeresearch.org.uk/Blatchford.%20Class%20size.%207-11.pdf

[xi]http://www.ccl-cca.ca/pdfs/LessonsInLearning/Sep-14-05-Making-sense-of-the-class-size-debate.pdf

[xii]http://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/

Published by

mollyhurd

Molly Hurd’s perspectives on education have been developed out of her wide variety of teaching experiences in northern Quebec, rural Nova Scotia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Britain. She was also a teacher and head teacher at Halifax Independent School for twenty years. She believes passionately that keeping children’s natural love of learning alive throughout their school years is one of the very best things a school can do for its students. She is the author of “Best School in the World: How students, teachers and parents have created a model that can transform Canada’s public schools” published by Formac Publishing in 2017.

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