The role of the teacher

“SAlcuin peronslisationo essential is this deep thought and tender care to the teaching profession that it has its own name, that of pedagogy.”

I have known some teachers who, without realising it, saw their classroom as an accident of location. There is a classroom, in which there happens to be one knowledgeable adult amid a group of ignorant children. It almost goes without saying that these classes were as much of a burden to the students as they were to the teacher, and in them I learned precious little. By contrast, I have also known some teachers who consciously view their classroom as a place of relationships, in which there is a teacher in the midst of a group of students. These classes were a delight, and I carry much from those classes with me in my mind and in my heart to this very day.

That which separates these two extremes of a poor experience and a very good one is this: the first teacher acts as though ‘teacher’ were merely his job (or, worse, his burden); the second acts as though each relationship between him and a student is significant and important. The former does his work grudgingly; the latter, with much thought and care. So essential is this deep thought and tender care to the teaching profession that it has its own name, that of pedagogy.

In his classroom, a teacher demonstrates love for his students and for his field; a teacher demonstrates thoughtfulness in reading as well as in writing; a teacher demonstrates honesty in academics, and in life generally. In short, in a world that has the technology we have, and in a world that relies as much on skills (as opposed to knowledge) as ours does, it becomes imperative that the teacher be more than a mere transmitter of information. It is crucial that the teacher model how a scholar and a human being thinks and behaves. For it is becoming increasingly clear that all of the planet’s resources are finite, and that there is no way that the cutting-apart of our home will cease nor that poverty and violence will be acted against unless the academics, activists, politicians and citizens of the time to come are filled with passion and compassion, with thoughtfulness and honesty.

This, then, is the great and noble work of the teacher: to lead, with deep thought and tender care, the young ones entrusted to him into the future with the skills and moral resources they need, that they may play their part in the betterment of the human race and of the little planet they inhabit.

Published courtesy of Jan de Beer
From the article “On Pedagogy”
March 02, 2012

Why our kids have lost faith in school (Part 3)

Well-intended initiatives that fail (over and over … again)

Anxiety in school

The extent of stress, anxiety and depression among students has reached alarming levels.

It goes without saying that schools have to be environments that foster the well-being of our children.  Thankfully, in most schools, this holds true: teachers tend to take their role of ensuring the wellbeing, safety and health of their students ‘in loco parentis’ very seriously.  In my experience of ensuring my own students’ wellbeing, ‘prevention’ has proven to be better than ‘cure’.  I refer particularly to the widely-prevalent bullying-prevention programs, which often try to mitigate the damage of bullying after the fact.  Far more effective are the numerous preventative approaches which are intrinsically tied to the core of education, and serve as invaluable components of it: physical education and training, health and career courses, driver safety programs, and service initiatives, to name but a few.

The rationale of such preventative programs are to provide students, teachers and  parents with the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to be able to make healthy and safe choices. Such initiatives provides opportunities to:

  • think critically about a variety of health and safety issues;
  • acquire strategies to facilitate sound decision-making and goal-setting;
  • develop pro-active attitudes in ensuring personal and communal health;
  • allow students to become knowledgeable of their personal skills, abilities and interests, and of how these can relate to a variety of contexts; in school and beyond;
  • acquire the skills necessary to develop and maintain healthy relationships; and
  • become aware of the sources of assistance that are available to students, teachers and parents on education, health, and safety issues.

A broad-based education therefore endeavours to allow teachers to assist students and parents in identifying possibilities/issues (intellectual, human, social, health- and safety-related), to maintain and reinforce healthy habits, and to develop the necessary management skills to deal with complex, ongoing change.

Unfortunately, we seem to fail in achieving a number of these goals, mainly due to the fact that preventative programs often lack dynamism and  can be tedious, are boring and one-dimensional, or sometimes don’t even exist at all.  Essentially, in being ineffective, they fail to serve those entrusted into our care.

“How do you know this?”, you may ask.  Well, I ask and students tell me …

The importance of asking students for their honest responses, enabling them to do so safely and discreetly, cannot be over emphasised.  In fact, the very first points raised by the National Institute of Mental Health in helping children and adolescents deal with trauma is “listen to them” and “Accept/do not argue about their feelings”.

Unfortunately, very few schools (none that I know of) actually survey their constituents on these issues; nor do they conduct a longitudinal study of any nature to determine whether preventative programs actually have the desired effect.  Over the past 20 years, I have made a point to talk to students and parents about these issues, both conversationally and in surveys (even if lacking in scientific approach and data).  I have found, on the whole, that the main concerns from the students’ perspective are: a lack of activity (P.E. excluded); the lack of effective threat assessment; and measures to ensure personal safety, including ergonomics of daily functioning (e.g. ‘The chairs make my back hurt.’) and the necessities of mental health and well-being.  More importantly, students seem to feel that the situation is not improving.

While our focus on personalisation is justified, it is important that we remain aware of the ‘other’ concerns that students are facing.  Even more importantly, we should begin to devise plans of action that actually address the issues with a degree of success.

The first example that probably comes to mind would be bullying prevention (so-called ‘anti-bullying’) programs, which requires various ongoing and engaging initiatives to be successful.  Trying to anti-bully after the fact does only limited good; let us instead build physical and social skills into various classes, and develop a personal environment in which teachers actually listen to what their students say, and act upon it.  A community that works like this will probably not need an anti-bullying program; for a community that works like this roots out the anxieties, distrust and imbalances from which bullying springs in the first place.  Indeed, dynamic preventive programs on the whole (and programs that address anxiety and ergonomics in particular) need and deserve much more attention than we have yet given them, so that we can better ensure the wellbeing, health and safety of our students.

Why our kids have lost faith in school (Part 2)

“The more things change, the more they stay the same”, it seems.

Fresco student

Boy reciting (Pompeii)

So, this is the education revolution? You could be excused for not noticing anything but a mild westerly breeze blowing in your face. If you are a student in a mainstream education, you might not have noticed anything at all, in fact.

The point I am trying to emphasise is that very little has come of the epiphany that occurred since Sir Ken Robinson’s ground-breaking TED presentation in February 2006. ‘Personalisation’ has become a generic catch phrase for anything that encompasses a variety of initiatives, from a wide range of options and elective courses offered by schools and districts with deep pockets, to students using their own electronic device (BYOD) in a formalised classroom setting. As laudable as these initiatives may be, they have, in actual fact, very little to do with personalisation. Allow me to explain …

Schools, like shopping malls, are expanding rapidly; state-of-the-art classrooms, art-and-media studios, and sports facilities abound. The only limit seems to be the extent of the capital campaign that the school’s community can muster … Those that have, get more, and those that don’t, well … they just don’t. Despite their struggles, these very communities often offer the highest level of personalisation. Continuing on with the analogy of an expanding shopping mall, clients may love the options and choice available to them (what I call ‘customisation’); but may long for the personalised level of service that the corner-store owner offered, before it was demolished to make place for the consumerist expanse.

What, and whom, do we serve? The students are our clients, and it would be useful to ask them a few questions:

  1. Does your teacher know you?
  2. Are you able to use your personal strengths to achieve the goals in any given course, or are you expected to do ‘the same’ as everyone else?
  3. Do you have a choice as to which content you would like to study in depth in any given course?
  4. Are you relying on tutors to help you get through your academic program?
  5. How many students should be in your classroom in order for your teacher to provide you with the personal attention you deserve?

In the midst of escalating levels of stress and pressures among our learners (the topic of the final post in this series), we do not seem to realise that ‘small is everything’ when it comes to education. Ask any teacher in any academic program whether he would rather teach 24 students or 12.

While we all may concur on the value of ‘personalisation’, it would be hugely beneficial if we could actually agree on what the concept actually means. Does it mean that we can just offer more courses along the same old lines; or does it mean something else entirely, something smaller and more … personal?

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