Why would a teacher teach well?

6 Dec

For many of us teaching is a vocation and a mission, not a job. Many teachers may not be as lucky and find themselves in a teaching role for various other reasons that have nothing to do with love for students or the subject. Some people find themselves in the teaching profession because it suits their lifestyles, others because it was the only option left to them, and yet others teach because it offers them economic security.

The quality of teaching varies, from excellence in small pockets to absentee teachers – those who do not bother to turn up to school. Official teacher absenteeism records reflect a distressing state of affairs, unofficially, it is truly a crisis. It is shameful that the trust we place in them does not bear fruit in places that need it most. No wonder parents send their children to smaller private schools, some no more than glorified tuition shops. Even if many of them do not meet standard criteria required for schools, at least they deliver value. Their students can pass exams and hopefully get some jobs. James Tooley’s book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ describes his journey across the world hunting for such hidden gems of value and commitment.

The best of teachers would have to admit that they get jaded after a while. It is difficult to keep teaching the same thing year after year and keep up the enthusiasm. And as they get into the groove, they find their rhythm for a few years. The danger here is getting too attached to their materials and their methods. Delhi University has been through much turmoil recently with the newly introduced semester system, where lecturers were very unhappy about having to change some of their teaching patterns. With even the best getting stuck in outdated patterns and slipping into mediocrity, what chance do the average teachers and their pupils have?

Who holds teachers accountable for their teaching? How does one measure the effectiveness of teachers? There are a number of models and methods to do so, but before that, I want to pause and ask: should we hold teachers accountable. Clearly, yes. Then, it begs the next question: how? We have had inspections for years, and of course we know how to game the system. Should we be policing teachers? Watching their every move? Would that make them more accountable?

We have all seen bad teaching, all over the world. Whether it is that funny facebook video about little children meaninglessly memorizing silly rhymes in what they think to be the English language, or the teachers in Nigeria who misspelled words on their protest placards. If the teachers themselves are reluctant to put in the effort to know better, and to know what is right, then what are they teaching our children? Would these callous people be more effective teachers if we gave them some metrics to perform to, or watched them more closely?

It certainly would, for a while, and then they would, like children do, play to the test. The act of testing teachers often subverts the very purpose, and certainly corrupts. A teacher’s authority comes from their dedication, from their genuine caring for progress and from their faith in their cause. Over assessing could be counter productive in some cases, disruptive in others.

And yet, given the scale of the teacher crisis – both of quality and quantity – the burden of proof must necessarily fall on the teachers themselves. Teacher recruitment criteria will necessarily have to be lax, because we need so many. Already, we are in the process of formalizing partial qualifications for teachers in order to get more teachers in front of classes. These and other teachers will be supervised and inspected, of course. And trained – in some form or the other. But would this make them better teachers?

I do sincerely believe that incentives, not necessarily commercial or monetary, are the key to finding solutions. Here too, I ask the same question – what would make teachers want to become better teachers?

Teacher rewards need to be both commercial and non commercial. Monetary rewards for their time, training and erudition. But the enthusiasm, the energy and the fun they bring to learning cannot be measured or compensated in money, nor sustainably encouraged that way. While bonuses do not hurt, a teacher’s commitment and connect needs to be nurtured. Teaching efforts need to be rewarded with respect, enthusiasm, retraining, mentoring, showcasing, awards and celebration. This is when teachers will embody – the celebration of teaching and learning.

Source: This is the blogpost that I wrote for the Times of India, published on September 28, 2011



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