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.