Cultural Perceptions of Education and Teachers

I have a lot of friends who are American and, so recently, a lot of American news surrounding the new administration finds its way into my Facebook feed. One that is of particular interest to me is the successful nomination of Betsy Devos as the Secretary of Education. From the outside looking in, it’s very easy to criticise the administration for picking someone who is so vehement in their hostility towards the public education system but I would contend that almost every government on the planet, and every political party demonstrates some degree of hostility towards the education system.

Now, none of them are as explicit in their hostility as Devos but, much like Devos, I would argue that is because they don’t see it as hostility or contempt so much as they see it as trying to create and implement an education system that parallels their own beliefs. The difference between them and Devos, however, is that Devos’ beliefs and intent go a step further and are much less nuanced or subtle. Whilst you might find some conservative politicians who wish all education was private, they still see the value in public schools, whereas you do not get that same feeling from Devos.

However, do not think that my criticism is focused solely on Americans or conservatives. Both sides of the political spectrum the world over share this subtle contempt for the education system, simply because education does not always align with the core values of political parties. Education, like a lot of things, is politicised; it is more a tool for politicians than for students or teachers. This is no more blatant than in Devos’ overt desire to see all students have some form of religious instruction, and since she cannot get that in public schools because of the separation of Church and State, she is forced to push people towards private institutions which are not bound by those same restrictions.

I know I keep coming back to Devos when I said that this is a global problem perpetrated by all political parties but she provides a prime example of when those overtures are overtly hostile. More seasoned politicians are more nuanced in their approaches, so even if it is obvious, it does not appear hostile because they are merely trying to impose their beliefs onto the system. For example, whilst I have said that the funding the Rudd Government gave schools under the Building the Education Revolution program was welcome, I would argue that this is also one of those examples. I have said before that nothing changed, fundamentally, in the classroom. Calling it an education revolution is akin to investing in outdoor landscaping and calling it an interior design marvel. Whilst I would never be angry at funds for education, nothing that was done with the Building the Education Revolution or the National Curriculum went towards improving teaching practice or conditions. But they did get to call it a day and say that they valued education.

You might say that that is not in any way comparable to what Devos is doing and, on some level, I agree but, again, neither side is advancing the cause for education, neither side is improving the education system nor investing in schools and classrooms in a meaningful way. All sides of politics, unfortunately, do the bare minimum when it comes to the education sector, enough to avoid criticism from the majority of the public and to obtain little more than a groan from teachers who are thinking “I guess this will have to do”.

I think that a lot of this comes down to how people view the education system. Whilst you might struggle to find people who don’t value education, you will find lots who don’t value educators. It’s easy to understand why because everyone has had an education, everyone has gone through the system, and everyone has an opinion on education based upon their own experience as students (and parents of students).

We see the school system through the distorted perspective of our youth. Now, don’t get me wrong because I thoroughly believe that students and young adults are very much aware what they are going through but, by that same token, we also tend to see ourselves as the heroes in our own narratives, capable of justifying or reasoning our own behaviour.  This is partly why, I think, that everyone has their own horror story about their education; that one teacher who was horrible or incompetent, that one assignment where the teacher marked you harshly (and incorrectly), all those times where the teachers wouldn’t take into account your perfectly reasonable excuse for your behaviour or late submission of work, all those times where we think the education system failed and it stuck with us.

This is why you get people who love to voice their opinion about teaching and offer misconceptions about the work we do, and no level of evidence to the contrary will sway their opinion. You will get plenty of people who love to point out that teachers get great holidays but who won’t listen when teachers point out that they aren’t really holidays; it doesn’t matter how often you explain it to an individual, you can be sure the next time the topic of education comes up, they will bring up teacher holidays.

You cannot battle these misconceptions because they are so firmly rooted, as if no one wants to believe that teaching is much harder than it seems and that teachers aren’t on easy street. I pointed out in an earlier post that teaching hasn’t changed all that much, that we still find ourselves utilising a didactic approach to education and that is partly due to a lack of serious investment in the education system. However, whilst how we teach may not have changed that much, what is expected of teachers has changed extraordinarily, and yet we are still stuck in a framework that does not allow us to effectively address those expectations.

For example, I have spoken somewhat of my time teaching a Special Education class. Within my classroom of eight students, I had children who varied from preschool level ability (two students who were barely literate or numerate) to a Year 7 or 8 ability (at reading age, with some cognitive impairments, capable of doing basic division and geometry). Now, some of you reading are probably thinking “only eight kids, must have been a cakewalk”, all the while missing the complexity of trying to teach such a broad range of educational and developmental needs. As a teaching student, I was taught to “pitch to the middle” but neither our education system nor framework has any real way of “pitching to the middle” of such a broad range. Normal mainstream classrooms aren’t nearly as complex, I admit, generally straddling between a single year deviation. However, I ask why should we pitch to the middle of a broad range of understanding when we could be using our education system to address the needs of all our students individually?

Again, I will come back to the point that no political party cares enough about education to address these problems that exist in our classrooms, and again I will reinforce that it is due to how the general public perceives teachers that, as a teacher, I don’t feel like political parties care about education.

During my time at Uni as a teaching student and now as an educator, I have heard more times than I care to remember the phrase “those that can, do; those that can’t, teach”.

It is that attitude that has permeated our culture and our perception of teachers, to the point where teachers are not seen as professionals, as masters of their craft (and, I admit, there are some terrible teachers out there, just as there is in every profession), and for many it is seen as an acceptable “back-up” profession.

If that is how we view our educators, it is no wonder why there has been no real significant investment in education that has allowed us to modernise our practice to meet the needs of the next generation, and the needs of the next generation are not going to be met if we continue doing what we are doing.

I have said before that lots of jobs are going to be lost due to technological innovations and that will require more and more people to have tertiary educations, especially in the STEM subjects. Getting more and more students into tertiary education institutions will require a cultural shift in how we perceive education and educators.

Now, I am not stupid; a cultural shift at the magnitude I am asking would take a significant investment in education and a significant change in the structure of school systems. I would argue that such an investment is worth it considering that investments in education can provide significant returns for society in the long run. Teachers and education set students up for a lifetime, which is a huge responsibility, and means that the quality of the system needs to be at a level where it can empower students with the skills they will need and the value society has for learning needs to be at a level where no student will ask “what do I need [subject] for anyway?” because they will already know the answer to that question.

Then question then arises though of how do we achieve a change in the perception of our educators?

The answer is simple: make teaching harder to get into, make the standards for being a teacher higher, pay them at a level to which reflects those changes.

I often ask why are teachers paid so little considering the responsibility of their role in society. You may scoff at this but, as I said before, our role is to set students up with the skills they will need for a lifetime. Do you know what the world will look like in five years’ time? You can make general guesses but you cannot predict the next technological breakthrough, nor societal shift, nor major disaster that could very well change the structure of our society. Teachers need to equip students not with the knowledge but the skills necessary to operate effectively in a future we cannot predict.

So, let’s make sure that the standards for teacher training and teacher learning reflect that burden they carry. The teaching profession should be held to the same standards that we hold doctors to and it should have the same requirements for entry.

  1. Raise the tertiary admittance rank to the high 90s and leave it there.

  2. Have applicants go through an interview process so we can ensure that they want to be in the profession for the right reasons.

  3. After four to five years of study, make their first five years the equivalent of an internship, much like junior doctors go through. But, to add to that, let’s make that a period where they also are doing their Master’s degree, so they can meld both theory and practice.

  4. Make every classroom led by a group of team teachers. We don’t allow newly graduated surgeons to operate immediately and without guidance, why do we then allow newly graduated teachers to be responsible for five classes of 20-30 kids without that same level of supervision? (That is, of course, not to say that newly graduated teachers don’t do a marvellous job already, but that we need to seriously think about improving the conditions to reflect the gravity of the position of a teacher).

Team teaching is a must in every classroom if we want to ensure that curriculum is being implemented effectively, that students are learning and have support, and that new teachers have the guidance they need to become effective educators.

Then, I think we need to pay educators more to reflect not just the difficulty in becoming one but also the demands and responsibilities of ensuring that the next generation of students is going to have the skills and knowledge to face the unknown that is tomorrow.

With a more educated population, people who think like Betsy Devos won’t last long because, more than anything, when people value education, they realise when others do not.

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