Posted in Learning, Schools, Teaching

On success pt. 2

Earlier this month (October) World Teachers’ Day was celebrated around … well … around the world. Did you hear about any celebrations? Did you take part in any? If you have school age children did you do something nice for their teacher/s? If you’re a teacher, did you celebrate in some way, or were you celebrated/acknowledged by others?

When thinking about success yesterday, I began to think about what it meant to be successful as a teacher. How is success measured? What does a successful teacher look like? What do they know, what skills and understandings have they developed, in what ways can they communicate their ideas, knowledge, understandings, thoughts, feelings, views? What are their values and what do they value?  Can you ‘see’ teacher success by looking at their students? Is there a link between a successful teacher and successful students? Is teacher success a sum of individual students’ successes? Is it simply a matter of addition … successful student A + successful student B (and so on)  = successful teacher?

We sometimes talk about students as if they are pieces of machinery that can be weighed and tested to see if they fit a certain list of pre-ordained specifications. Even if they are, would the teacher be the only one responsible for ensuring they meet those specifications, or are others involved too?

The structure of the school, for instance, has a part to play in student success – the kinds of programs the school offers, the number of lessons scheduled each day (and therefore the amount of time students have to work on things that matter), the relative worth of particular subjects (what’s more important and therefore how much time is spent learning Physics, English, Drama,  Maths, the capital cities of the countries of the world, the canon of English literature, History, driver ed, pet care, sustainability …?). And when there is only so much time in the day, what’s given priority? What’s missed out? And ability to ‘do’ which of those subjects would constitute success? If you can do quadratic equations but not name the poet who wrote The rime of the Ancient Mariner and discuss what it’s about in a coherent way, should you be considered successful?  If you cannot name the rivers down the eastern seaboard of Australia, but be able to parse a sentence correctly, are you a success? And for how long do you need to know this information? If you could parse a sentence when you were at school, but couldn’t now to save your life … were you really successful/was the teacher?

Different people will have different views on these questions and I doubt there will ever be any agreement. You might think that there is no question, that surely everyone would agree with your perspective, but ask around. What do others think?  Do they agree with you? On what points do your views diverge?

So the ways schools work has some impact on student success and our understanding of success has some influence on whether we deem students successful or not. The culture of the school – which is often established by the principal and leadership team  – also has an impact. If the principal says, at the end of lunch, ‘Okay troops, back to the trenches’ then she is putting a particular way of being into place. The teachers are soldiers and the students are … the enemy? Language is important, and it is to our detriment that we ignore the power of the metaphors we use and the influence they have on our own and others’ actions.

Of course, parents also have an influence on how successful their children are at school. Parents’ attitude to education and to teachers will be communicated to their children even if they don’t say anything to them directly.  Some parents will be in a position to take their children overseas and provide cultural experiences that other parents will not have an opportunity to provide; some parents will nag their children to do their homework, while other parents will have the view that schoolwork should happen between 9 and 3 and there should be no requirement for children to do school work out of school hours. Some parents will hold that view and still nag their children to do it! Some parents will talk to their children and in that way support the child’s capacity to communicate with adults; some parents will buy books for their children and establish a routine of reading to them at bedtime each night; some parents will limit time on the Nintendo DS and the iPod and how many hours of cartoons/video games/internet porn their children watch and will encourage them to become involved in sporting, cultural, community, and/or social activities. Some parents will speak to their child’s teacher and show an interest in the child’s education and progress.

But not all parents will do those things. Does that mean that some students get a head start? Or are better placed to be successful in schools?

We can’t discount the influence of teachers, of course, but we should remember that not all teachers are the same. They will have different motivations, different ideas about their role in the classroom, different ideas about the purpose of education, different ideas about how best to manage the classroom and its resources, how best to motivate and engage students, how to interact with children to allow them to flourish. Some teachers won’t even think about student flourishing. Some teachers claim that they teach subjects (disciplines) while other teachers claim they teach children. Some teachers are critically reflexive and question everything they do and question why they do it in the way they do it; some teachers don’t. Some teachers go to PD on a regular basis and continually learn; some teachers don’t. Some teachers leave as soon as the bell goes at the end of the day; others stay at school for hours, planning and marking and finding resources. Some teachers take their students on camps or walk the Kokoda Track with them, spending hours preparing themselves and their students for the trek.

Education is not a level playing field – not in terms of the children, their families, the schools they attend, or the teachers who teach them. But neither is it a factory, where a raw product is off-loaded in the loading bay, put on an assembly line, moved through a series of processes that are done to it over a number of years, evaluated at the end of the process to see if it measures up, and sent on its way – that ‘way’ being determined by how it measures up.

I have a hard time thinking of children as products, as things that need to have processes “done to them”.

And so I have a hard time determining what constitutes success when it comes to teaching. What does a successful teacher look like? What is the outcome of their success? Is it a group of children who all know the same things because they’ve been through a standardised/standardising ‘process’? Or is it more than that – how much more? What does that ‘more’ include?

And how do we know when a teacher has been successful? A teacher’s success may take years to be realised – there are countless instances of students who get in touch with their teachers many years after leaving school and recount a story of the impact the teacher had on that child as an adult. Success may not be immediate. Does that mean the teacher is any less successful?

I’m really interested in your thoughts on this. What does it mean for a teacher to be successful? Can success be measured and if so how? Against which criteria and whose judgements? Do we all have the same understanding of success and are we confident that we’re measuring apples against apples – if we agree that there is some way to measure teacher success?

Let me know what you think. I’m sure there’s a body of literature out there – people who have conducted studies on this very issue, but I’m interested in what you think.

And if you do think, then perhaps you should thank your teachers!