The tip of the iceberg

If you ask the general population about their perception of teaching, I am sure the response would be 9-3pm working day, lots of holidays. Teaching is a profession that is still defined by its (industrial) conditions.

The scope of teachers work remains categorised by a school week, a school term or a school year. The roots of the industrial model of schooling extend well into the 21st century. How many people including teachers themselves believe this is the totality of teachers’ work? Think about how we define teachers work today: number of students in a class, number of hours they can expect to be face-to-face, hours on playground duty etc. School days are divided into periods separated by a bell and controlled by timetables. School years are divided into four terms punctuated by breaks.

This has inevitably influenced how teachers’ work is perceived and even defined by the profession itself. However we know the work of teachers is complex and deeper than is recognised.

Christopher Bantick wrote recently that teaching has ‘become a milch cow for commentators and critics who have either never spent time in a school or whose experience of schools is outdated and ossified. Everyone has a view, but few have actual present classroom experience.” Bantick argues for increasing ATAR scores for teacher training arguing that you “can’t make a teacher out of someone who is not academically excellent.”

Teaching must attract the best of the best. In Finland for example, teaching attracts higher results than medicine or engineering. For me the issue is not simply one of academic rigour, it’s also a question of fit for purpose. You can’t become a great teacher unless you have a passion to teach. Teaching is highly relational and as Educational Leadership Professor Richard Elmore states if you can’t see the relationship between teacher, student in the presence of content in a classroom (instructional core), then it isn’t there.

Two of my colleagues from Parramatta Marist High recently returned from Finland where they participated in the Global Education Community conference. Kurt and Gavin identified three key lessons from their Finnish Education experience:

  1. There is a huge investment in developing high quality teachers. Bantick is right in that you need to start from a high base but teachers are like raw diamonds, the finer the crafting the better outcome. High quality teachers need continual polishing and re-polishing.
  2. Decision making and assessment is locally driven. This acknowledges the professionalism of teachers to make critical judgments on the ‘length, breadth and depth of the curriculum’ to meet the changing needs of students.
  3. Teacher autonomy leads to greater trust. It is a given that teachers know how to teach, know what is required and are able to focus their efforts and attention on improving student learning. Nothing more and nothing less.

IcebergI asked them to reflect on what it means locally. In their view, teacher professionalism in Australia needs to meet “the needs of the 21st century especially in terms of graduates coming from university.” Teaching needs to be seen as a profession not a job so that teachers themselves are responsible for making the best decisions for learning and teaching.

As Finland has demonstrated, minimum academic standards for teaching are just the tip of the iceberg. Only when we invert the iceberg will we begin to see not only the depth and breadth of teachers’ work in today’s world but it’s direct impact and influence on student learning.


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