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THE DILEMMAS OF A "PROFESSIONAL" TEACHER

Why are most schools so badly structured for achieving their publicly stated goals? Taking mostly bright, inquisitive, active young children away from the real world for which we are supposed to be preparing them, keeping them locked in rooms in the company of an adult who will drone at them for forty minutes before releasing them to another adult who will do the same...ten times during the day...days punctuated by bells... days that run into a dozen years interrupted only by vacations which are increasingly filled with breathlessly anxious prepping for "success''.

Does this sound like the real world to you?

Not unless the world that we are preparing them for is a prison or a factory governed by a panoptical regime which tracks every waking and sleeping moment of its inmates, and occasionally spews out reports about the condition of the prisoner or the output of the worker.

So it's not a surprise that professionalism in teaching is mostly about compensating for these structural contradictions! According to some books about teaching, we are supposed to be able to engage learners and keep them on task every lesson, document every learning moment, form judgments about their learning as well as ours...while accepting overcrowded or overheated (or underheated) classrooms, administrative procedures for generating mostly useless information, ever-changing government policies, new requirements for testing....all the while mindful of the individuality of each student, and keeping the classroom environment conducive to learning. But this is not how teachers actually teach, although it's perfectly true that good teaching and learning in most schools happen - if and when they do - despite, not because of, the systems and structures that are in place.

Good teachers do spend a great deal of time trying to design engaging and interesting activities with clear objectives before the student. I say "trying to", because the three crucial resources required for good teachers to thrive - time, material resources, and the affirming and supportive companionship of teachers with ideas and passions - are almost always scarce. Most teachers who take their profession seriously are being "professional" to the extent that they are striving to do their best by their students, while ignoring or trying to circumvent or compensate for the constraints and systemic failures that keep them from doing their best. The pressures created by the systemic failures often take their toll on teachers' personal lives in the form of isolation, frustration, cynicism, fatigue and burnout.

A good school is one where teaching with integrity and passion is not a daily struggle against interruptions, delays, failing technology, administrivia, isolation, lack of time and appropriate resources, and students are not usually violent, rude, intransigent, tired, or just having their own difficult times. Such schools are rare enough. But a great school is where the systems, structures and ethos consistently support teachers in giving their best, even if the students are not ideal and the furniture and technology is a bit run down. These are extremely rare.

I don't wish to suggest that all teachers are selfless saints struggling in exploitative schools run by evil heads. Some of us are bone lazy, and would prefer nothing better than to teach from notes and administer tests that have remained the same for the last ten years. There are days when I myself have walked into my classroom without the faintest idea of what I should do with my students (you have to believe me when I say I don't make a habit of this), and sometimes wished that I had these ten year old notes to fall back on. A school that I know with an unassailable reputation as a "successful" school, and one, moreover, to which all parents in this country aspire to send their children, has a good number of such teachers, secure in their comfortable sinecures for decades. Many teachers are self-satisfied, teach the way they have been taught, remain in blissful unawareness of the changes in educational practice, and rely mostly on teachers' folklore and war stories about what makes a successful student or an inspiring lesson. Many teachers make terrible students, and admit as much among themselves half-jokingly. This is because most teachers work within schools and in educational environments that demand a great deal of them by way of managing large class sizes, piles of marking, high pass rates in their exams, but very little by way of artistry in designing good lessons.

To counter such tendencies among teachers, administrators sometimes spend time drawing up long lists of what makes a Good Teacher, in the hope that once they put these lists into a faculty handbook, every teacher will strive to become a Good Teacher. The list then often becomes a device to catch teachers out in their failings, however minute, if it becomes necessary to retrench them. Such administrators rarely have time to visit the classrooms in their schools, and seldom talk to their teachers about teaching and learning, about the best way resources - especially time - could be used to support their work. They don't communicate by example or by empathy, but by fear.

The best teacher (and the best administrator) is one who supports students (and teachers) through conversations, commitments and action. These conversations are judgmental only to the extent that it supports the student (and the teacher) in discovering ways of improving their learning performances. But the main attitude behind these conversations is patient optimism, the main commitment is to steady improvement till mastery (often defined by some publicly available standard of performance) is achieved, and the action is mainly of supporting in various ways the efforts of the learner to attain mastery.

Unfortunately, most teachers are under pressure from parents and administrators to raise the scores of their students (the only criterion of success) in standardized exams and tests. Administratively, tests and exams are the most convenient ways of assessing achievement, and exams requiring single responses are much more efficient at measuring achievement than exams requiring evidence of reflective and evaluative thinking. It all depends on what one means by 'achievement'. Pedagogically, exams and tests are among the worst instruments for assessing achievement if the achievement being assessed is in the depth and flexibility of understanding (comprising conceptual grasp, awareness of one's own thinking, and ability to apply in unscripted situations as evidenced in actual performances or artifacts of understanding). How after all would you assess a swimmer's ability to swim? By having him write a test on swimming or by watching him swim in various settings? Why is it any different if one wished to judge a learner's mathematical ability, or understanding of business, or of biological principles or of historical changes? It's different because it's administratively convenient for the highly complex and individualised process of learning to be flattened into a standardized format yielding numerical results as a product that could then be accepted by schools, parents, universities and of course children as representing scholastic achievement. The teacher's role then is to "improve" scholastic achievement as measured by these numerical indices. And when teachers are rewarded professionally by the degree to which they can get their students to show this success, then their commitment to steady and patient improvement in performative and artifactual evidences of understanding is undermined, and the effective teacher becomes the efficient trainer of techniques for achieving exam success.

Teachers need to constantly bear the burden of living and working within this structural contradiction: the burden of struggling to keep alive the kindly light of developing learning and self-awareness both within their students and in themselves; but doing so amidst and despite the encircling gloom of industrial modes of schooling, with their fixed times for absorbing knowledge and skills, their standardized measurements of student achievement in exam scores and the associated traumas of failure, their inability to accommodate individual learning styles and trajectories within the standard curricular molds, and the boredom and self-destructive behaviour induced by their worship of efficiency. The master teacher is the one who has learnt to resolve this contradiction in his/her own context and environment.

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Comment by Peggy Hale on July 14, 2010 at 9:41am
Wow, you have a wonderful vision! We need this type of openess and sharing to spur our educators in my area. I am amazed at how much online learning one can achieve on the WWW. It completely blows me away. I just can't get enough of it. I think that technology has already made some productive strides in our education system, we just need to get everyone on board. I am almost at the point of saying " Jump on board, or get left behind!" Something to that effect.
Comment by Gautam Sen on July 14, 2010 at 9:36am
Not that a learning society will be some kind of utopia! It all depends on what is learnt. - GS
Comment by Gautam Sen on July 14, 2010 at 9:35am
Thanks for your comment, Peggy. One of the changes made possible by technology is the re-design of the learning situation. This means that schools, as well as the teaching profession, will need to evolve away from their present form. I envisage a time when the barriers between school and society, between workers and teachers, between work and learning, will dissolve, and the practice of apprenticeship will be reinstated and universalized. Wouldn't that be a truly learning society? - GS
Comment by Peggy Hale on July 14, 2010 at 9:21am
Thank you so much for this excellent research of ideas that plague our education system today. I am an educator of 18 years and have lived this structural contradiction. It is a constant struggle as you evaluate yourself year after year trying to measure up. I'm currently taking a Research course for my M.Ed degree, and all of your points have been discussed in this course. I have not reached burnout, and keep optimistic about the changes coming forth through the use of technology.

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