In monitoring the commentary yesterday on the release of Australia’s latest rankings in PIRL and TIMSS exams, there was general agreement that our performance was well below par. A country like Australia cannot tolerate poor performance. We must lift our standard of learning and teaching and do so as a matter of urgency.
In noting the response, there was the usual long line of experts, policy makers, academics, teacher union and parent representatives across the various media channels all pointing the finger at the other saying teachers need to do better, spend more, get paid more, be smarter, get better training, work better with parents, and so on.
Glaringly absent in the commentary was the voice of the professional teacher.
If everyone agrees that good teaching makes the biggest difference to student learning why aren’t we looking to the profession to help drive the changes needed to ensure continuous school improvement?
We spend so much time and energy in the education sector adopting, adapting and applying – or arguing against and avoiding – yet another shortsighted, secondhand or unproven reform or initiative. As a veteran in the educational game I have lived through many of these reforms before and know they don’t work, so yesterday’s commentary about why Australia’s performance is below par and how we can ‘fix it’ made me throw my hands up in the air. When will we ever learn?
There are no easy fixes here. We have to be brutally honest if we are to substantially change our existing practices. We know they are not delivering the best for every student, so we need to stop tinkering at the edges and start transforming schooling. Old mantras need to be tested; everything must be scrutinised.
And the only way to do the work is for teachers to do the work. And if they don’ t know how – to learn the work. The simple fact is we need to get the distractors out of the way so good teachers and school leaders can get on with the job.
It would be nice if we all got paid what we thought we were worth. Additional pay might get a teacher up in the morning but it certainly won’t be the reason why they persist with a student who just doesn’t seem to be making progress. All the good teachers I know do the job because they love the job; even when it’s difficult and demanding. They persevere; they try everything in their toolbox and then some, to ensure that the kids in their class are getting it. And more than that – that they are thriving.
Think about the teachers you know that inspire you or challenge you. They aren’t doing the same thing they did last year or even last month, they change and flex to suit the needs of their students. They spend much of their time finding new and better ways to engage students; to make learning interesting, relevant and meaningful for their students. The learning experiences they create range from using pen, paper and string to fully charged, connected, digital experiences. Like the teacher from Northern Beaches Secondary College featured in last week’s Sun Herald who dug up half the school yard to create an archaeological site for her students. What motivates this breed of teacher? What makes them tick?
Often in the teaching profession we mistake complacency with collegiality. We convince ourselves it is better not to celebrate excellence or elevate a few shining examples for fear of denigrating the whole profession. This is wrong thinking.
Imagine the outcome if the medical profession didn’t push the boundaries, risk failure, dust themselves off and try again? Forget organ transplants, brain surgery or even penicillin. None of these life saving techniques or treatments would be around today if the few hadn’t persevered and looked for new and better ways of doing the work, and they wouldn’t have perfected and improved these techniques and treatments if they hadn’t shared their learning with their colleagues.
The same needs to happen in teaching. The best thing the profession can do for itself is identify innovative practice – excellent practice – and showcase it, celebrate it and share it. In essence good teachers need to teach other teachers how to do it too.
As I mentioned in a recent post, thought leader Don Tapscott says we need to share our intellectual property in order to ‘lift everyone’s boats’. This is true of the teaching profession in driving school improvement. Not one individual has all the answers. Good ideas require more than one head, great ideas even more heads. One teacher won’t improve the learning in their school in isolation… nor will two teachers. They might make a difference to the kids in their class but without the collective responsibility of all teachers in the school working together to lead the improvement agenda their influence will be limited.
I know I run the risk of alienating some of my colleagues, but that’s not my intention. After yesterday the last thing I want to do is point the finger.
What I do want to do is challenge the profession to take back the agenda; to work together with their colleagues and school leaders to drive change and improvement; to challenge the status quo; to find new ways, better ways; and to make that difference to the lives of their students. There is no other way to improve learning except through good teaching.
If we can reflect honestly on Australia’s performance, we can identify new possibilities rather than rehash old programs or experiment with new ones. We just have to focus with determination and precision and address the central issues related to the practice of good teaching.