Sunday, January 29, 2012

Frustrated and tired...

As a preface to this post, I need to remember the time of year and acknowledge that I may be fatigued, as may several of the people with whom I have spoken.  Our school has just completed semester break and the week of exams, supervision, marking, and preparation for semester 2 start-up has left many people (myself included) exhausted.  When this is coupled with the continuing labour dispute and negative press that surrounds education in British Columbia, many of the best in the business are frustrated and feeling a lack of appreciation of their efforts.

During the week, I had the opportunity to engage in several conversations with teachers about how they are doing and what they are looking forward to next semester.  While many are excitedly preparing for new courses and a new group of students, some are frustrated by a series of issues being faced by our educators.  I also watched a Dan Rather Reports episode called "Finnish First", a report on how the American system is lagging behind the education system in Finland, and it caused me to reflect on how educators in this province may be feeling.
Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor in the Stanford University School of Education, was quoted several times throughout the piece (below is just one excerpt), and she talked about how the Finnish system doesn't put great value in standardized testing (an issue in BC, but an even greater issue in the United States), has a shorter school day for students, and supports the teaching of the arts, noting that success in those areas transfers well to core courses like Math and Science.  What really caught my attention, though, was her comment that Finland's educators are happy to be teachers.  She describes them as feeling appreciated, appropriately paid, well-trained and selectively chosen, not having massive debt and being given plenty of time to train and continue professional development.  This is an important factor in any profession.  Do the employees feel valued and appreciated?  I know that B.C.'s teachers love what they do, but I worry about how supported they are feeling.  I am not suggesting that Finland's system is infinitely superior to Canada's (I am sure Finland has its own set of problems in school and in society), but I am confident that much of the reason for Finland's success in education has to do with a qualified and satisfied teacher workforce.

Reflecting again upon the conversations I had this week, I am drawn to two discussions with two of our very best, most dedicated teachers.  Both of them care passionately about kids, work exceedingly hard to prepare students for their futures and are constantly rethinking their practice, looking for new and better ways of doing things.  In both cases, the students in these teachers' classes enjoy being there and recognize that they are being challenged, well-prepared, and given an opportunity to develop skills that will serve them well.  Both teachers are considered firm and fair evaluators who support their students, but insist on a level of work and engagement that will result in the students learning.  These teachers are also very strong leaders within our school community, and help affect whatever change our school attempts to make regarding assessment practices, embracing technology or sharing ideas around new teaching strategies. 

While the reputation of each of the teachers is very strong, they are presently feeling frustrated for a variety of reasons, among them the fact that many students are wanting to withdraw from their courses to take the same class on-line.  The reason for the students making this request is simple and clearly articulated; they admit that they would likely learn more in the class offered in the school with either of these teachers, but feel that "it will be easier to get a better mark if I take it on-line".  Please note that this post is neither an indictment of the on-line learning programs around the province, nor is it an attack on the BC Ed plan, much of which, as articulated in an earlier post, I agree with and think we are already doing.  What concerns me, however, is the inconsistency within it.  We continue to speak about improving our assessment practices, trying to move away from numbers to more descriptive feedback about what students are learning.  But with universities, parents and students still clamoring for numerical data, we do not appear ready for the societal shift that needs to accompany this change.  Conflicting messages about needing certain marks versus learning for learning's sake still bombard students, who often choose the path of least resistance, opting for what they feel is an easier route to their desired goal.  As the BC Ed plan promotes more Personalized Learning and the use of technology to assist students educational pursuits, this conflict may increase.  We must remember that the system we have now has evolved over many years, and while not perfect, has many excellent qualities and practices that should not be abandoned as we search for new and innovative methodologies to add to both teaching and learning.
So what is my point?  Primarily, that we are doing an excellent job educating our students in British Columbia (see chart below that has Canada ranked 3rd in the world on 2009 PISA testing, and note that BC is considered one of the best educated provinces in our country), despite the challenges being faced (including a widely diverse population and what many consider to be funding shortfalls within education).  Can we improve?  Of course we can, and we will, but only if our very best teachers feel their efforts are appreciated, recognized and appropriately supported.  The discussions around the BC Education Plan need to be carefully considered and the relationship between the government and the important stakeholder group of teachers needs to be repaired. To create a new plan, force it upon teachers who are feeling unappreciated and underpaid and then have the group face reports describing them as greedy, dishonest and unprofessional (a common practice in negotiations, I understand) is not likely to result in the positive outcomes described in the BC Ed plan. It may, in fact, chase away some of the best and brightest in the profession--the ones we need most to continue to improve our already excellent system.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Life-changing Learning

The first week back after a break is always a challenge.  Finding the rhythm, returning to busy-ness, early mornings, late evenings, the stress of trying to balance home and work...  This week has been difficult, and I am tired (despite it being only 4 days long).  After enjoying this morning's Canucks versus Bruins hockey game (a high-emotion game, to be sure!), I can not stop thinking about a fantastic class I had the chance to observe on Wednesday.

Allow me to give a brief history to what led to the lesson.  Shortly before the Winter Break, I was approached by a young teacher at our school who was inquiring about taking a two-week leave of absence.  She had recently been presented with an opportunity to travel to Rwanda and do some volunteer teaching of English in the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) just outside of Kigali. As a fairly young teacher, she was unclear on whether or not she could get the time away from her job in Richmond, and what the cost would be.  While worried about the consequences, she was enthusiastic about what she could learn from this opportunity.

After speaking with me, she contacted her teachers union and the teaching personnel office to request a leave.  It was granted, and she was given permission to venture to Rwanda for two weeks, starting December 30th.  She has been there now for one week, and has been blogging about the experience as a means of journaling and sharing (her blog is appropriately titled Hand in Hand: As You Teach You Learn).  What she describes is both eye-opening and inspiring (for her and the readers).

The village was originally founded by Anne Heyman to aid teenaged orphans from the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.  The model for the village is based on the Yemen Orde Youth Village, which was established in Israel to help orphans from the Holocaust.  The village was built to accommodate 500 orphaned students aged 15-21 with a focus on caring for, protecting, helping and nurturing these children who have survived some incredible hardships.  The intent is for graduates to be ready to continue their educational pursuits and lead balanced lives with a commitment to making their community, country and the world a better place.

On Wednesday afternoon,  one of the classes Ms. Davis team-teaches with another staff member at Burnett had the pleasure of connecting with their teacher via Skype.  I watched as students got to interact with their teacher, ask her questions about the experience, and learn about Rwanda, the genocide and the efforts to support the survivors, all in real time!  The students were genuinely interested and engaged, learning about Rwanda, social responsibility, and technology.  When the Ministry of Education talks about the BC Education Plan, here is an example of high learner-engagement working on 21st Century Skills, empowered by technology.

The experience Ms. Davis is getting is indeed life-changing, and I laud her for taking the risk (both financial and otherwise).  But I am equally impressed with how this experience is impacting students at Burnett.  When I reflect on the education I had when growing up, I have nothing but positive memories.  I had the chance to be influenced by strong professional instructors (see blog post, World Teacher Day), and enjoyed time making friends and memories, playing sports and learning some requisite skills that have served me well in life.  But nowhere in my experience was there a focus on the world like students are exposed to today.  Many schools around BC have social awareness volunteer programs, with opportunities for students to travel to less fortunate parts of the world and build schools, homes, playgrounds etc.  Even for students unable to travel on these expeditions, there is a much more broad awareness of social issues and a desire to help than there was in my school years.  Much of this is due to the technology tools that can "bring-to-life" the experiences of others in far away locales, but it is also a credit to the students and educators who are making it a priority.
Congratulations and thank you goes out to Ms. Stephanie Davis and the organization she is working with.  You are making a difference in the lives of the people in Rwanda, but your impact is far greater than that.  You are setting an example for many others, and by sharing your experience with them using technology tools like blogging and Skype, the good work you are doing will cause others, here in Richmond and around the world, to be more active in helping those in need.  We are all impressed with your willingness to take risks, help, and teach others.  This is 21st Century Learning at its finest!