Good teachers aren’t enough

I recently read with sadness the resignation letter of veteran history teacher Gerald Conti. In his letter,¬†“My profession no longer exists“, Conti mourns the requirements of the Common Core and the Essential Learnings that “demean” the profession and rob teachers of their creativity. After a career of inspiring learners Conti realizes that the very qualities that made this possible are no longer valued or encouraged. Instead today’s teachers are expected to adhere lockstep to teaching scripts and one-size-fits-all lesson plans, helpless to halt the inexorable progression to standardised mediocrity.

He’s right. There is little room for inspired, creative teaching in the new dispensation – good teachers are squeezed out. The order of the day is adherence to prescribed curricula and national mandates.

He’s right. These reforms are an attempt to fix what may not be broken at his “superior secondary school.”

He’s right. There are good teachers who will be driven out of the professions by the new expectations, many good schools will no longer be able to do the very things that distinguish them.

But good teachers aren’t enough.

Good schools aren’t enough.

Conti is right – there are good teachers, there are good schools, but these are the few exceptions rather than the rule. The public education system is failing. We need look no further than the results – and I don’t mean test results or scores on national exams either. By results I mean the quality of the our graduates. Too many have wasted years of their lives in mediocre to poor schools only to emerge ¬†under-educated and semi-literate, completely unprepared for our increasingly complex brave new world.

Good teachers aren’t enough.

There are too few of them. Fewer and fewer quality teachers are entering the profession, or when they do, leave before they can make a real impact.

He’s right. The profession has been demeaned, but not by standardisation or the Common Core. The truth is, society does not value teachers. The profession is at the very bottom of the list in terms of prestige, compensation and career prospects. We have created a narrative that says that teachers should not enter the profession for material fulfilment but rather because of a “calling”. And while there are and always will be teachers who are called to this noble profession, to this life of thankless service, they are and always will be the minority.

This core of good teachers aren’t enough.

Fundamentally, teaching is no different than any other profession. In any profession there will be a core of “true believers” who are driven to their life’s work no matter what. That core will never be enough to determine the overall product quality in a large-scale enterprise, however. It’s the quality of everyone else that matters.

In a perverse way, not only are good teachers and good schools not enough, but they can attract resources and other good teachers away from less-fortunate schools, creating an even more unbalanced and unequal system. Unfortunately the ones who lose at are usually those who can afford to least.

The common core and standardisation and quality assurance models are all attempts to ensure that those not-so-good teachers and those not-so-good schools are at least meeting some minimum standards of teaching which in turn will produce literate, functional graduates.

I agree with Conti – while quality assurance is critical, the attempts at standardisation are misguided at best. The fault is not with the school systems, however, but with ourselves. We have devalued teaching to the point where the only ones who will enter the profession (other than the true believers, of course) are those who cannot do any better. Like it or not, the majority of university graduates choose their profession by the career possibilities and not because they believe it to be their “life’s work.” If we want good teachers we need to attract good graduates to the profession with better compensation and career potentials. This is not surprising, though. The one common denominator in every successful education system in the world is that teachers enjoy high social status and are compensated accordingly.

I’m not saying just pay teachers more and all will be fixed. Rather, the better pay and career possibilities should be a reflection of the high regard we as a society have for teaching and the teaching profession, and really for education as a whole.

In the end, we get the educational system we deserve. I guess the question we must ask ourselves is what can we do to deserve better?

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