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 https://esjns.com/teachers-voices-an-independent-survey-of-nova-scotias-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)
WHAT TEACHERS NEED: AUTONOMY, TRUST AND A CULTURE OF COLLABORATION
“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.”
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