The line is so familiar that it practically rings in my ears: “I’m a teacher and we are not allowed to have opinions.” Over the past couple of years, bumping into regular teachers while walking down the street, signing books at Chapters Bookstore, or standing in a check-out line, I hear that same refrain. Our K-12 provincial school systems all purport to encourage students to ask higher-order questions, to act creatively (out of the box), and, at times, to think critically. Why – I wonder — does that not extend to their teachers ?
CBC Radio’s Maritime Magazine series, “Mind the Gap,” hosted by Pauline Dakin, was one recent attempt to discover what teachers really think about the state of the Canadian public education system. A January 29, 2012 segment entitled “Teachers Edition” provided a rare glimpse into the real, unvarnished opinions of two rather brave Nova Scotia teachers. The show followed two previous segments, including one featuring top education bureaucrats Carole Olsen (Halifax Regional School Board) and Karen Branscombe (Moncton School District). http://www.cbc.ca/maritimemagazine/mind-the-gap/2012/01/27/mind-the-gap—teachers-edition/
One of the two teachers, Margaret Coady, a 31-year veteran teaching at Bayview Education Centre, Port Hood, NS, broke with convention. When asked to respond to the Chief Superintendents’ session on “Closing the Gap” in student learning, Marg did not mince any words: “Real teachers do not have time for such verbiage.”
Over the next half-hour, Marg Coady and another forthright teacher from the Halifax Regional Board opened-up and began “talking out of school.” Both teachers confirmed that a serious gap exists between the policy-makers and classroom teachers. New teachers, they reported, feel tremendous pressure to “push them all through and to meet the outcomes.” Their sage advice: close the door, forget the mandates and “trust yourself as an educator.”
Cutting through the usual “EduSpeak,” Marg Coady offered a few priceless gems: “There’s so much to cover that it’s become watered down.” “We see a lot of social advancement.” “There is not an inclination to see that children complete their homework.” “The one-size-fits-all approach won’t work because all kids are different.” “What I’d like to see is more autonomy(for teachers) in the classroom.” “We need honest assessments (of how we are performing).”
What can be done to fix the situation? Believe it or not, Marg was courageous enough to actually answer the question. “We have to erase the degrees of separation between parents, boards, unions, and students.” “Teachers live in hermetically-sealed (environments). Sometimes I feel that they do not even know who is minding the store.”
Such honesty, openness, and candour are all-too-rare in the surprisingly closed world of Canadian public education. Our provincial and territorial K-12 school systems have an estimated 360,000 teachers (2005), certified by faculties of education and entrusted with the education of our nation’s children. Among this class of professionals, it might be reasonable to expect hearing a multitude of different voices on the most critical issues in education.
Stepping outside the box is not without its risks. Most school boards remain very hierarchical and climbing up the ladder, from probationary teacher to principal to superintendent too often means mastering the “edubabble,” looking the other way, and giving up your opinions. Careerists know that the surest way of plateauing is by speaking your mind outside of the staff room. Voicing views counter to the teachers’ union is career-ending for most teachers. Over three decades, I can cite dozens of personal examples, many of whom ended-up being outstanding teachers in independent schools.
Sincere, well-intentioned public school educators like Toronto’s Stephen Hurley are to be commended for trying to open a few doors and cross the Hadrian’s Wall of education. His Blog, Teaching Out Loud, is a bright spot on the horizon and Stephen actually talks to education reformers of a different stripe. After 27 years in education, he’s becoming more conscious of the “degrees of separation” and is venturing outside the “echo chamber.” http://teachingoutloud.org/
Today, while preparing this post, Stephen Hurley’s latest offering appeared and I experienced a kind of epiphany – We were both addressing the same issue, each safely ensconced in our own educational silos. Each of us was reaching across the divide, attempting to incite a little cross-boundary discussion of educational matters. On his Blog, Teaching Out Loud, he not only acknowledged the existence of the Society for Quality Education, he conceded that jumping into the”shark infested waters” of the SQE Blog might have had some beneficial effects. That’s a start! Perhaps more voyeuristic, risk-taking educators will follow.
Talking across the divide is absolutely critical to finding solutions to the challenges facing 21st century public education. Looking southward, we can see a tragic example of an “Education War” where the combatants have a take-no-prisoners philosophy to the detriment of students, families, and schools. Having said that, the policy divide here is significant and we have a tendency to simply paper over the cracks and to pretend that a broad public consensus favours the golden mean or the status quo.
The terms of engagement are critical to pursuing a rapproachement. Peter Brimelow’s 2003 book, The Worm in the Apple, might be a good place to start because he actually addresses this issue, pointing out that the core interests of teachers and unions can be radically different than those of parents and students. http://www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780060096625
When the ice is broken, that discussion will have to tackle the major conundrum that tends to derail such diplomatic initiatives. Simply pouring more money into the system without any checks-and-balances is a non-starter. Getting down to brass tacks will lead us inevitably to a serious discussion of five fundamental matters: the role of achievement testing in assuring quality; giving parents more freedom in choosing schools; reforming salary scales to recognize meritorious teaching; removing principals (and superintendents) from the teachers’ union; and recognizing teaching as an essential service with free collective bargaining leading to arbitration or “final offer selection” Getting to Yes will involve a little positional bargaining and actually confronting the familiar stumbling blocks. http://www.aims.ca/site/media/aims/TakeBack.pdf
Why are the vast majority of Canadian teachers so reluctant to speak out of school ? What explains the “group think” afflicting the official voices of public education? What has happened to muffle or silence dissenting voices? Most importantly, how can we seize the opportunity afforded by recent overtures?