Masochistic Perceptions, Trials and Truths

These are my cyberfied cerebral synapses ricocheting off reality as I perceive it: thoughts, opinions, passions, rants, art and poetry...

Thursday, February 03, 2011

On Modern Education and Educators

Every career comes with their politics, misconceptions, bureaucracy and mixed agendas. I knew from the age of 15 when I was introduced to the writings of Camus and Orwell that I wanted to be a writer and a teacher. In my 40’s, writings a thing I do, and teaching is my passion and profession.

There are a lot of things that are right in Education these days. There are many amazing individuals who cultivate passion amongst their students, and dedicate their lives to the cause. Education systems continually conduct research on better practices, and regularly offer professional development to their employees. Despite itself, all the progress and technology we have in our present day are a result of the system that has preceded us.

In the spirit of what is right in education, I will outline the two primary areas that require work in the interest of better serving our present and future generations of learners.

The first area needing to be addressed is the public image and misconceptions surrounding what being a teacher entails. In the media, teachers are often portrayed as being greedy, holding strike action over the heads of our students in the interest of money. Many see teachers – including the Employment Insurance (EI) department of the Canadian Government – as working 6 hours per day, 5 days per week, 10 months of the year and with every holiday off. When Provincial Achievement results are low, the Government look to the Teachers and, upon their shoulders, lays the blame. In professional development sessions, I continually hear the question “what more can you be doing?” when it comes to our schools, particularly for Aboriginal and Special Needs students. The list goes on.

Beginning with the issue of greed, I would state that this is not true. Teachers have been and remain underpaid in comparison to many other professions. Why wouldn’t we pay teachers well? After all, they manage our most valuable resource – children. Modern day teachers posses an average of 6 years post secondary education, put in approximately 50 – 60 hours per week, make more decisions in a day than probably any other profession, must understand and plan according to a variety of subject curriculums, have a strong background in psychology and keep current with the latest in technology and teaching practices. Why would we not match a teacher salary to that of a brain surgeon? One may counter by stating about a surgeons specialised training, to which I would respond: who provided the training? Answer: teachers. Ultimately, I am not arguing parity for teachers compared to surgeons, but, rather, trying to make a point.

Addressing the issue of hours worked... simply stated, the 6 hours, 5 days and 10 months perception is wrong. The average teacher may teach 6 hours each day, 5 days per week, true. That’s time standing up in front of a classroom full of children. However, those lesson plans don’t just magically appear, nor do the assessments of student work. I presently teach special needs Science, Social Studies, Language Arts and Math, in addition to two options classes. In my special needs class, I have 18 students who are chronologically in grades 7-9, but working on grade levels ranging from K-7. As a result, I have to differentiate for each student to ensure that they are being programmed for at the appropriate level. This takes a lot of planning. Further to this, there’s the bureaucratic side of the job: Individualised Programme Plans (IPPs), progress reports, psychological and grade level of achievement testing. Add to this coaching Rugby and Soccer, supervision, organising large school events such as reading conferences, open houses, special events and parent-teacher interviews. My school is in the inner city and I have to deal with social and health/behavioural issues of my students outside of my classroom time. I am not complaining at all, and do my job out of passion and a desire to help make these kids be all that they can be. I am merely illustrating my point pertaining to the hours worked by my colleagues and me, many of whom go home to their own children and spouses after their school day has ended.

I’m going to introduce my second main point as I address the issue of results and doing more. That is, that the Education system, while endeavouring to do its best, is unclear of its purpose- its raison d’etre. If you look historically at Education, modern Education began a couple hundred years ago as a place for the aristocracy to study for leisure and more scholarly purposes. This was followed by the Industrial Revolution, which broadened the field to where education was provided. The current system of free, public Education for all, however, is a fairly new concept.

In my parent’s time, getting a grade 12 education was something for those who were going on to post secondary school. Many people of the working class would drop out by grade 9 to work as farmers, fishermen, trades people, store clerks, etc. My mother was one of 10 children and only one of her siblings graduated from High School (and went on to become a teacher). Simply stated, you didn’t need a high school diploma in those days. As a result, our school system was very draconian and heavily influenced by academics, focusing only those who were going the distance through grade 12.

But times changed, and so did our school system. The needs of the technologically advanced world required more educated workers, and schools did away with their draconian ways in favour of more research based, social and holistic practices. The changes in society also began placing more responsibility on schools and teachers. As traditional family units and ways of life morphed, schools found themselves becoming surrogate parents as well as those tasked with providing students effective means to learn academic skills.

Re-enter my two remaining points from the introduction: results and doing more.

Despite our differentiation practises and pushing for inclusive classrooms, all students are still measured using provincial achievement tests which favour the academic students over those who are not university bound (despite a variety of vocational options at the high school level). This is highly unfair to the learners, and the data portrays teacher’s effectiveness unfairly. For lower achieving and special needs students, facing such examinations is often traumatising. It erodes their self-esteem. They get frustrated and then drop out. As for the teachers, how can we rate their performance on a PAC if we compare an affluent school full of middle class students to one in the inner city where the demographic is made up of low income families and there are endless social issues? You can’t. But the Government wants their data.

Which leads to the “what more can you be doing?” question often posed. For one, let’s look at the cuts to Education. If our schools are to be the all-encompassing holistic institutions that they have been told to be, then we need a whole lot more in the way of resources. This means teachers, support staff (psychologists, social workers, addictions counsellors, career counsellors, etc.) and materials in all schools. It also means we need to know clearly exactly what we are supposed to be doing. We also need to put responsibility back on parents. In our present culture of convenience, we have lost our communities and many parents feel entitled for the state to be responsible for their children’s upbringing. Television and video games have replaced so much of the social and family fabric that once was, as parents use these things as babysitting tools, leaving it uncensored and unregulated. In the end, we need to have a good hard look on what is coming to pass both inside our schools and inside the homes of our neighbourhood. We need to clearly define our roles and responsibilities.

A good friend of mine used to say the following two things regularly to me, and they made a whole lot of sense:

  1. “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”
  2. “If you know why, then the how becomes obvious”

If we bear these ideas in mind, then solutions will be found and our students and society will benefit. We need to asses our priorities and set them accordingly. We all need to take responsibility. In my opinion, the roles of our Educational Institutions should be to prepare students for life by teaching skills and critical thinking practices according to their needs and abilities, and provide the tools necessary to living a fulfilling and meaningful life. To do this, we need a diversity of options and student placements throughout their school years and re-think our approach to the whole profession.There has been a lot of good work done, and there is lots of work to be done.


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