Teacher Prestige

I have long believed that teaching and learning are separate issues and that the evaluation of a teacher’s effectiveness needs to be based on the personal and professional qualities that make for teaching excellence. However, presently teacher and school effectiveness is being measured by student test and examination scores. This system is a misuse of standardised tests and state examinations to hold individual teachers accountable for their students’ learning outcomes. There is a belief that schools can achieve miracles by treating parents as consumers, students as products and teachers as compliant workers who are expected to ‘teach to the test’ – strategies similar to the ones that resulted in the worst economic crash to hit the western world in 2008.

Teaching to the test takes the heart out of teaching and is a sure way of extinguishing a love of teaching and learning. This practice continues despite the fact that standardised test publishers warn that the test measures student performance, not teacher effectiveness. The fall-out from this approach to teacher evaluation is that it is proving more and more difficult to hold onto long-serving experienced teachers and, for example, in America, 40 to 50 per cent of young teachers are staying in the profession for only a maximum of five years.

The word education comes from the Greek verb educe – meaning “to draw forth from within”. The original teaching method of Socrates has been largely displaced by professional deference to received scholarly authority. By and large, students are taught how to take exams but not to think, write or find their own individual path. Teaching is not about instilling knowledge; it is about having the skills to draw out qualities of students’ nature that were present in their earlier years, but somehow can get buried under an avalanche of tests and exams. Children as young as six and seven years tell us how they are ‘all stressed out by tests.’  The natural qualities that teachers need to re-awaken in themselves and in their students are natural curiosity, passion for knowledge, fearlessness, adventuresomeness, aliveness, spontaneity, ease with failure and success, eagerness to learn, expansiveness, creativity and confidence.  Certainly, equality of educational opportunity, individualised learning plans, portfolio feedback and cooperative learning are necessary accompaniments to the foregoing. 

It is essential too that teachers are well educated, well prepared and highly respected for what is a hugely challenging profession.  Ongoing personal and professional development is also essential to teacher effectiveness.  The conferring of a Master’s qualification on teachers would reflect more accurately the status and prestige the teaching profession deserves.

In regard to learning, the experience of our student has become even more urgent given the slippage of literacy levels of Irish fifteen year olds from a third to a seventeenth place ranking among 39 OECD countries.  Of course, there are also economic, social and cultural factors that may be contributing to the fall in literacy levels but the nature of the school holding world – that is the network of relationships between teachers-students, teachers-teachers, teacher-principals and teachers-parents – needs to be the central focus of learning excellence.

It is of interest that Finland employs a system of education which is not based on accountability via test scores but on responsibility, and the approach has resulted in Finland having one of the highest attaining school systems in the OECD.  Over the past forty years Finland has developed a different educational system by improving and extending teacher training, by minimising student testing (students are not given any standardised tests until the end of high school, which are drawn up by their own teachers),  by individualising learning programmes, by emphasising cooperative (as opposed to competitive) learning, by  the development of each student as an intelligent, active and creative person and by emphasising responsibility and trust before accountability.  Their schools are creatively designed to meet the emotional, social, physical and academic needs of students, beginning at any early age.  Finnish teachers are sensitive to not holding students back or labelling them as ‘failing’ because of an awareness that such responses increase student failure, reduce student motivation and increase social inequality.  The story of Finland’s educational achievements – from which performance focused schools can benefit – is outlined in a must-read book by Pasi Sahlberg, What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Author and Lecturer. His book ‘A Different Kind of Teacher’ is relevant to today’s article.