Teachers on productive toes - Noemi Zarb
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Teachers on productive toes - Noemi Zarb

Josef Said’s article ‘Why teachers need grades too’ (October 22) must have got conversations going in several staffrooms; my assumption being that it was read by many teachers in the first place. Whether they did or not, I would like to comment on his vehement opinion that “good teachers with exceptional dedication and pass rates” should be financially compensated.

Photo: Matthew MirabelliPhoto: Matthew Mirabelli

Pity his idea did not make it to the Finance Minister earlier on so that the latter could have included it in the Budget announced last Monday and possibly the said teachers would have had their weekly income increase rounded up to €3. Perhaps more with a bit of luck. Finance Minister please take note for next year.

Now I am stating the obvious when I say that as in any human set-up, any teaching staff in any part of the planet will range all the way from top-of-the-league to outright hopeless with variants of very good, good, average and mediocre sandwiched in between. Of course, the percentage mix will vary enormously, sometimes from one year to the next if a specific school has undergone considerable labour turnover within its teaching ranks.

Commercially thinking, a bonus incentive is likely to instil a competitive spirit and therefore encourage teachers to give their utmost.   Should Said’s idea transpire, schools will also be offering lessons in preening pride and admirable humility, depending on how “good teachers with exceptional dedication and pass rates” – this time with plusher pockets – will act at their work place.

It also goes without saying that like all professionals, teachers need to remain in touch with what is going on in their area of expertise, to share ideas, to boost flagging morale and to rekindle more than a spark of enthusiasm. So yes, there is no quibbling about the need for teachers to be obliged to attend in-service courses/self-improvement workshops. Said is spot-on re the need for continuous assessment.

I would even go beyond this and have teachers get on equivalent bandwagons overseas to hopefully dent some of this rock’s island mindset. True, this presents the snag of travelling and accommodation expenses, but as the cliché goes “Where there is a will, there is a way”.

 Besides, harnessing our digital, virtual reality age will axe more than flight tickets and hotel bills. It will include all members of teaching staff and therefore prevent any agro arising from being excluded from the ‘selected bunch’.

With a dollop more of thinking outside the box, there are bound to be more ways of bringing teachers together on an international platform to keep them on their professional toes.

I also fully agree that teachers need to get on the map of preparing students for tomorrow’s world of digitisation, which of course demands retraining and adopting new ways of imparting knowledge.

What Said is, however, omitting is that any retraining of teachers must be preceded by a total overhaul of the current syllabuses they are asked to teach – syllabuses that are light years away from learning critical thinking and troubleshooting skills.

Education begins and is nurtured at home. Something that is no longer considered fashionable or necessary by countless families who are immune to a moral compass

Like most Maltese, Said also equates education with schooling. They are not synonymous because education is much, much more than learning to read, to write, to count and to draw. Moreover, education begins and is nurtured at home. Something that is no longer considered fashionable or necessary by countless families who are immune to a moral compass, a sense of aesthetics and good manners.

The mega flaw in his reasoning is that excellent teachers will automatically yield excellent results. Students are not goods being manufactured on a production belt heading for a QA/QC at the end of the line. (At least not yet.)

 It is palpably clear that Said has no idea of classroom reality, more so where streaming is not practised.

Nor has he factored in the mire of cognitive difficulties and deep emotional starvation that precludes the learning of basics, let alone anything of a higher level even by intelligent students. As for the dearth of good parental skills, I am not in the mood of going there because that means drowning in desperation.

I will simply point to the entitled upbringing and the myth of quality time most children are immersed in. Ink in the much-vaunted discourse about children’s rights (but never an iota about their responsibilities) and Said might get a clue of what it is like to teach, more so a class of mixed disability on all fronts. 

Consequently, students who do not make the grade are not invariably the victims of lousy teaching. Deeply traumatised students are mentally switched off while academically challenged students cannot give from what they do not have. The best teachers with the best intentions and bottomless compassion cannot perform miracles. Nor is it fair to demand it from them – even through the lure of a monetary carrot. 

Said also states that: “Business leaders in Malta know only too well that students are often ill-equipped to deal with the world of work due to the quality of their education.”

In a society that enshrines mediocrity, he has more than a point. But he is not right to simply blame teachers for such a situation. Nor is he correct in stating that teachers who do not deliver are never asked to leave. 

Incidentally, it would be interesting to see employees rating captains of industry on similar QA/QC lines despite having different criteria to assess. Even so, applying the precepts of the business world to teaching misses a fundamental element.

Teaching is not just a job geared at ruthlessly maximising profits and running roughshod on anyone who gets in your way. It is a vocation and the best teachers are the ones who care despite being ill paid and little respected. They are also the ones who want to learn more and embrace change for the good of their students.

Above all, unlike other professionals, real teachers want their students to outstrip their achievements – something which is anathema to the business world.

Noemi Zarb teaches English and Critical Analysis at an independent school.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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