What’s in a name, pt 2.

Another re-post from Yammer.com…

I find the very term ‘teacher quality’ to be entirely (word meaning something between pejorative and denigrating), and I find the use of it to be a linguistic attempt to shift blame and responsibility away from the centralised management of the system (being the government) and onto the fringes, being the individual teachers.

As we (should) all know, language is a powerful tool for shaping public opinion – the Americans probably hold the trophy for the most public and blatant manipulation of language on a global scale for the sake of controlling public opinion in the 20th and 21st century. A few examples off the top of my head include changing the military term for a small hiding place from fox-hole or rabbit-hole to spider-hole. This happened after Saddam Hussein was found in such a hole and they though ‘spider-hole’ sounded more menacing and aggressive than words associated with furry animals. I learned on QI tonight that Viet Cong was a name made up by the CIA because they thought it sounded more menacing than the forces actual name of Viet Minh. Global Warming was replaced with Climate Change because Global warming doesn’t sound too bad to those people living beyond a certain distance from the equator.

Anyway, not to labour a point, but catchphrases have a lot of power to shape public opinion, and Teacher Quality is such a catch phrase that has very very very negative connotations.

The first word, teacher, begins by placing the entire focus of the discourse solely on the concept of an individual social entity. The Teacher. The lens is focused primarily on the individual with all other considerations,be they social, economical, institutional, all are existing on the outside of the primary focus of the teacher. This is, primarily, unfair, because placing the focus so singularly on the individual teacher suggests that the whole issue lies with each individual and their actions, behaviours and activities. I object to this idea because anyone who claims that effective teaching is something that exists in isolation from a sense of community has NO IDEA about effective education.

Show me a teacher who say that they can do everything on their own and get their students to achieve excellent results without the involvement of anyone but themselves, and I’l show you a teacher that everyone else calls an a**hole behind their back. Or possibly even to their face.

The second word in the phrase is quality. What is Quality? Anyone who has read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance will have a good understanding of what a nebulous concept Quality is (if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you go out RIGHT NOW and get it. Maybe even read it). To try and imply that there is a mould or model of Quality that a teacher can be objectively measured against is to again demonstrate a very limited understanding of the context-dependent nature of effective teaching. I know a number of teachers who excel in their current contexts, but admit that they would struggle in significantly different contexts – i.e. moving from selective schools where the primary focus is on course content, to a school where behaviour management and welfare is a primary focus. Is there a model of Teacher Quality that incorporates seamless transition between these two contexts? I believe there is, but I don’t believe there is one that fits under the title of ‘Teacher Quality’.

So by saying ‘the issue is teacher quality’ what is being proposed is that the issue lies with the Quality (whatever that is) of the individuals who fit under the title ‘teacher’.

It is also worth noting that both levels of government quickly adopted the phrase teacher quality as a replacement for the phrase ‘Quality teaching’. Why do that? what’s the difference between these two phrases that makes such a switch necessary?

Well Quality Teaching puts the focus on a Verb, ‘teaching’. It is an action that is designated as having Quality, and while the concept of Quality is still nebulous, under the Quality Teaching framework it was a word that actually had grounding in concept and practise. Any teacher could use the QTF to engage in Quality Teaching. Yet it was deemed necessary to make the switch from Quality teaching to Teacher Quality, and shift the focus of the discussion away from the quality of WHAT the teacher was doing, and onto some abstract concept of measuring the quality OF THE INDIVIDUAL THEMSELVES!

AT this point in what is turning into another long bloody ranting essay I have a simple proposition as a measure for what makes an effective teacher. Quite simply, it is being motivated primarily (though maybe not entirely or solely) by the desire to do the best they can for the sake of their students, and being willing to adapt, change or reflect upon themselves and their practices as the initial point of change or development in any teaching process.

Example: Teacher who says “I’ve been using these worksheets on Hamlet for 20 years” is probably not as effective as we would like them to be. Teacher who says “How can I make Hamlet engaging to this new class?” or better yet “What else might be a more engaging way to develop these skills in these students, even though I’m personally much more comfortable teaching Hamlet?” then we’re looking at the beginnings of a more effective teacher.

In short, it’s an altruistic yet balanced (i.e. not obsessive) attitude towards teaching that largely makes effective teachers what they are. It is a social attitude, coupled with considered educational practices, that might give us a sense of a ‘Quality’ teacher.

But here is the final problem I then have with the term Quality Teacher. If it is accepted that the basis of a ‘Quality Teacher’ is an attitude that drives practise and skills, then either each individual who possesses that attitude is of a saintly disposition, with innate goodness and compassion for others, or they have had experiences that have guided them towards that attitude. Many teachers have that attitude already and choose to become teachers as a way of exercising their desire to do right by others, however many other teachers, many many MANY other teachers become teachers for less altruistic, more selfish reasons. They didn’t know what else to do after uni, job prospects were low, teaching seemed safe employment, they thought the hours would be good, they didn’t really want to work in an adult environment and would rather be with kids. Without passing judgement, these are all genuine reasons why some people become teachers, and the implication is that doing he best for students may be in the mix of motivations somewhere, but its not the driving force, meaning that disillusionment at expectations not being met comes much easier, as does complacency and other less desirable attitudes that shape our less effective teachers.

Some people take on the job for personal reasons and discover they really enjoy the benefits of teaching for the sake of students, but I’d be surprised if everyone on this site couldn’t think of at least one person they’ve worked with who was not a particularly effective teacher and was disillusioned by the job for whatever reason, usually because it didn’t conform to some expectation they had. What’s really heartbreaking is to see those who have been passionate and effective teachers whose motivation has been broken by their experiences in the education system, but this brings me to the final point I’m trying to make.

For the vast majority of teachers, that student-focussed attitude is something that can be fostered in them if they have positive experiences as they enter the profession. It is a cultural attitude, just like any other cultural convention, it can be shaped and fostered by experiences that positively reinforce the value of engaging in Quality teaching for the benefit of students and the community they are a part of.

At this point I’d ask you to cast your mind back to any management subjects you may have taken at uni, or even reach for Managing Teams for Dummies if you haven’t studied management, but in any management course you will find one singular principle phrased a thousand different ways – simply that the culture of a workplace is established from the top, downwards.

It is the actions, attitudes and policies of the highest levels of management that establish the workplace culture of an organisation and shape the nature of business operations.

To complete the syllogism, if effective teaching is driven by a positive cultural attitude instilled in teachers, and workplace culture is determined form the top down, then the concept of Teacher Quality is in fact the responsibility, primarily, of the state and federal ministers, then of the DG, and then on down the line. Within each school worksite, the principal bears a brunt of responsibility, however even principals exist midway through a power structure, though they may have responsibility for the management of a large workplace entity like a school.

So I get a little uneasy when I see government ministers and DET officials deliberately switching to phrases like ‘Teacher Quality’ that shifts the focus on to the individual teachers, effectively the bottom rung of the power structure, when in fact THEY bear the brunt of the responsibility for creating an environment that fosters and encourages that positive social attitude that makes for an effective teacher, but instead there are an overwhelming number of behaviours and policies implemented by those at the top that have exactly the opposite effect, and instead breed negative cultural attitudes that are counter-productive to quality teaching.

It’s like giving a toddler a shovel and then spanking it for not digging the foundations for your house properly. But when you believe you have an infinite supply of toddlers, why should you care about training them to do the job effectively?

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Filed under Quality Teaching, Reflections and Musings

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