Recent PISA results have people in Alberta in an uproar. A common reaction is to insist we need better teachers. I agree wholeheartedly. But…
I taught in 5 schools in both rural and urban Alberta, where I worked with hundreds of teachers. Since becoming a consultant, I have worked with dozens of schools and several hundreds of teachers across Alberta. I can assure you that the vast majority of our teachers are good. Some are exceptional. Yes, some struggle. I am confident that each of them, regardless of ability, would tell you that they can be better. All of them want to improve. So how do we help them?
We need to change our PD model. Workshops are fun, but they don’t change teacher practice. Coaching and collaboration do. Let’s steal from the Japanese. Let’s give teachers time to collaborate with colleagues. Build this time into the school day, so it’s not at 4:00 when everybody is exhausted. Have teachers plan lessons together, then observe the lesson in action with real kids in a real classroom. Have them get back together and discuss how the lesson worked. It’s called lesson study. It makes everybody better.
Connected and collaborative teachers have strong social capital, and one study concludes that “even low-ability teachers can perform as well as teachers of average ability if they have strong social capital.”
More and more of what I read and experience when I’m in classrooms tells me one thing. It doesn’t matter what school your child is in. It doesn’t matter what program your child is in. It doesn’t matter what the curriculum looks like. What matters is the adult that is in front of your child. Great teachers move children multiple grade levels in a year.
Great teachers come in all styles. Some lecture. Some use discovery learning. Some are constructivist. Some are disorganized. Some dress well. Some are sloppy. What they all have in common, though, is a deft ability to build positive relationships with students.
When students have a positive connection with their teacher, good things happen regardless of style, curriculum, subject area, program or any other variable you can name. In my experience, teachers that struggle seem to have a disconnect with their classes, despite the fact that they may be well planned and hard-working. I’m not sure this ability to connect can be taught. I think it’s directly related to people’s personalities. Beat me up in the comments over that one.
While we are at it, we might as well do one more thing pertaining to better teachers. Let’s make sure our best teachers are where they are needed most. Put them in the schools with high populations of our most at-risk students. Let’s give those kids a chance.
And to the people who suggest we fire a bunch of under-performing teachers, all I can say is this: You still need to convince me that there are hundreds of people out there desperate for teaching jobs who will be better than the ones you want to get rid of.