For reforms to succeed
‘For all children to succeed’ is the slogan the government chose some years ago to serve as a beacon for the reforms to follow.
The central belief was that we need to ensure that all children go through meaningful and worthwhile educational experiences that will help them grow into independent, productive and active citizens.
This is the most laudable of goals and has to remain at the centre of our discourse and the axle behind our actions. Yet for students to succeed we need to focus on creating professional learning opportunities for teachers, and at the school site.
We teachers risk slowly failing our students by acting alone in our practices. There is an idealisation of collaboration in both education and politics. We think wonderful things will happen if we work in groups.
Well, sometimes it does, and sometimes the effort causes a lot of disappointment and frustration. Collaboration is not an easy undertaking. It requires a lot of effort, hard work, patience and perseverance.
While it is certainly true in a broad sense that we all want what is best for students, when we get down to details we find much difference in what we consider best for students. There are many ways in which a situation that makes one person beam with pride and satisfaction makes another person cringe.
There are many situations in which one person thinks, “That was such an educational experience”, while another may think, “Well, we just wasted another hour.”
Why is there hesitancy to evaluate each other’s decisions for doing things in a certain way or to critically evaluate our teaching styles. We do want what is best for our students – that is not hard to see – but it is nearly impossible to utter a suggestion for fear that it might be construed as criticism.
Teachers may be overemphasising and worried that if they had to speak their minds or share their practice they may be misunderstood. Our take on this is that what prompts this lack of collegial disposition or critical evaluation of practice is the inherent culture of teaching alone. When we enter our classrooms we do so alone for the most part, and close the door.
That closed door represents the barrier that keeps us separate from each other.
Solitary teaching in a classroom lends itself to the feeling of this is my domain, especially when confronted in a public forum such as a staff meeting.
We are also of the opinion that it takes a leader to set the tone and culture of the staff to get to the place where one feels very comfortable with opening up and taking a risk. While the weekly or departmental meetings are a move in the right direction they are simply not enough.
School leaders also need to protect their teachers from external pressures, especially at a time of reform, and set the pace for change that respects teachers’ rhythm. This will breed teacher respect towards their immediate leaders and nurture a culture of trust in the teacher community.
Schools need to find both formal and informal ways to nurture the trust that is needed to be together so as to create an atmosphere of familiarity and comfort that is needed for people to start trusting each other.
We need to trust each other and realise we all want the same thing – the best for our students. They deserve an atmosphere where staff respects each other enough to take those risks and build on them.
We have to acknowledge that teachers have very different ideas of both means and ends. As a profession we need to cultivate a more sophisticated language of pedagogy. The teaching profession lacks a refined language of pedagogy because we still lack knowledge of pedagogy.
Platitudes such as, ‘be fair but firm’ and ‘students learn better by doing than by just listening’ are of no help; they are as shallow today as they were a hundred years ago.
We would like to highlight some ways that would help teachers to discuss and share ideas about their professional practices. We argue – and we do so given our varied experiences in schools – that it is such experiences that help educators nurture the trust needed to engage on the things that matter. We would like to propose three ways that we feel can easily be embraced by our school communities:
1. Share articles on good practice. We have found that teachers benefit a lot when they are given the opportunity to relate and react to short articles on various aspects related to school life.
Schools are encouraged to subscribe to professional journals as these can provide an excellent vehicle for discussion and improvement. Teachers can also be encouraged to conduct a search on a specific topic. These help teachers to lead professional development sessions. This type of empowerment and ownership can have an incredible impact on staff.
2. Share your interests. We have all experienced moments when students asked us what we like to do in our spare time, or what our hobbies are. This could lead to the setting up of clubs that bring teachers and students together. Such opportunities could help students address their social deficits or challenges.
3. Teachers need to discuss reform. Involving teachers in setting the plan and pace of changes in their practice and the school life in general can have a very positive impact on the teachers’ attitude towards change. Teachers should be involved in setting the pace of change for a school. This autonomy will yield the goodwill needed for teachers to own the desired reform.
We wish we could say that such transformations could happen overnight, but we can’t. Such initiatives take time to become part of our lives. These three examples may help reignite the passion for teaching so essential in a context of selfishness, self-centredness, independence and artificiality. They are simple examples that are already evident in some schools.
Finally, remember that we chose this profession for a reason, to make a difference in children’s lives. So take some steps and persevere in seeking ways to get excited again – you’ll find them.
Prof. Bezzina and Mr Calleja are from the University’s Department of Education Studies and Department of Primary Education respectively.