The Value of Teachers

Nicholas Kristof, in his article “The Value of Teachers” in the New York Times (Jan 11 2012) (www.nytimes.com/2012/01/12/opinion/kristof-the-value-of-teachers.html?src=ISMR_AP_LO_MST_FB) discusses research into the importance that good teachers play in the overall development of students.

The policy alternatives offered in the article are apparently firstly, to reward good teachers and pay them more to stay, and secondly, to dismiss “bad” teachers. As in all professions, in all occupations really, there will always be excellent workers and those who just aren’t. The really bad plumber will hopefully not get many referrals and eventually discover he cannot survive if he doesn’t improve in the quality of his work. We know of medical professionals who just aren’t very professional. It is a worrying issue when our lives in in their hands, and sometimes we are made to feel that we don’t know as much as they do. No different with teachers.  Students and parents are often at the mercy of  the new teacher and few can recognize it or know what to do when a “bad” teacher comes their way.

So lets move away from the simplistic description of  “good” teachers and “bad” teachers and begin to question what we can do. There are “good” students and “bad” students right? And do we just get rid of the bad? Well, I have come across schools that did look at this as the only alternative. Years ago, when my son was in the second or third year of primary school, his teacher pulled me aside at a parent-teacher meet. She had heard that one of the other students in the class was the son of a clerk in my school office. Could I tell him, she wondered, that perhaps the child should be moved to another school because he just wasn’t performing the way the others in this elite school were.

“Bad” student, “Bad teacher” – labels that deserve to be explored a lot more.

Not everyone who leaves school or university is entirely prepared for work. Not everyone enters the workforce with the ideal abilities and expectations of the employer in mind. In the last five years of my teaching in various Queensland schools, I have come across schools that  provided me with the knowledge and resources to perform to the best of my ability. I have also been in schools that left me feeling completely inept as knowledge and resources were jealously guarded. Just one scenario.  I’d like to end this entry by suggesting a couple to things that can be done to improve teacher performance.

Mentoring – not enough is said about this but more must be done within schools to address the issue of how teachers can be brought to reflect on their performance and enhance their skills. As head of department a few years ago, in a Singapore school, it was my responsibility to account for the development of each of the teachers under my care. I enjoyed this task  that called for constant conversations with my group, supervisions in their classrooms and guidance for the teacher to ensure improvements could be seen in our  mutually identified area of focus. I saw many of the teachers in my department improve dramatically in their motivation, skills and attitude.  I miss that culture now that I teach in Queensland where I find little is done to mentor teachers.

Leadership – The ideal person to address the developmental needs of teachers is the head of department. They have the academic knowledge, pedagogical skills and curriculum awareness to recognize what needs have to be met.  Leaders need to walk into classrooms and around the school to know what is happening. Some teachers look on these visits as an invasion of their privacy or a lack of trust in their ability.  I can understand how they feel. I made it clear to my supervisors that they could walk into my classroom without notice at any time. I invited my teachers to do the same. Few did initially. So I would send them a note that I would be popping in anytime that week. That got them mentally prepared and eventually when they saw how non-threatening the process was, many told me to just come in anytime I wanted.

Lets stop talking about how our employees have deficits in their ability. We don’t do that to our students do we? Let’s instead begin talking about how we can meet their needs through training and guidance.  That will lead to confident and loyal teachers dedicated to doing their best.

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