Most teachers and educational leaders in public and independent schools approach their work from a place of goodwill: they genuinely want the best for their students, and they typically work very, very hard to ensure that students get what they need. Their manifest purpose -- their intention -- is to do right by kids.
I have a good friend who is a public school elementary teacher. She goes into work every day with a predisposition to do the best she can for each and every student in her class. In many ways she is successful in this regard, for she is particularly gifted at nurturing one-to-one relationships with students all the while directing the ebb and flow of the class as whole. Although she is justifiably proud of the connections she has been able to make with her students, she nonetheless frequently comes home at the end of the day completely exhausted by the professional and emotional demands of her job. And yet she nonetheless sometimes has misgivings about “not being able to do enough” for the children in her care.
In a public presentation entitled, How to Change Education From the Ground Up educational author and commentator Ken Robinson once proposed that, if we really want education to be effective, what we most need to focus on is the process of “teaching and learning”. Good teachers, he thinks, “need to be able to excite people, find points of entry, engage them, fuel their creativity, drive their passion.” When someone had asked, “but how can you do that with 35 kids in a classroom?”, his retort was that he has known teachers who have 42 kids in a class and they were all engaged. His advice was that you do not engage students by teaching them, but by getting them actively involved.
While perhaps temporarily inspirational, this is a tad simplistic. Even though it is no doubt true that some teachers may have managed to get 42 students “engaged” for at least some portion of a class, it is more universally true that there are real structural constraints for most teachers to bring about this level of engagement across an entire system of education as currently constructed.
A little later on in his presentation, Robinson makes a direct appeal to teachers by saying that “if you are in that [all important teacher-learner] relationship, then “you hold the tools of power right in your hand”, i.e. “you can change the system by yourself”.
This kind of public proposition is simplistic and borders on the irresponsible. It is simplistic because the operational constraints that real teachers (and real school leaders) are operating under are significant. It is not simply a matter of class size; it is bigger than that. We have teachers teaching subjects they know little or nothing about within a standardized delivery and assessment system that is trying to reach students of wildly different levels of ability and interest. Real teachers teaching in real classrooms understand that they live within a world of constant compromise.
This kind of proposition borders on irresponsibility, moreover, because it leads to guilt, defeat and cynicism when teachers are predictably unable to deliver on the dream. Guilt comes for those teachers who genuinely want to have an impact on all their students. They struggle heroically to excite people, find points of entry, engage them, fuel their creativity, drive their passion, and they also look for ways to have their students “get actively involved” instead of teaching them directly. While they will have their successes, to be sure, the more perceptive of them will see that there are systemic roadblocks that bar the way to the kind of breakthrough they are looking for. This might take the form of a restrictive job evaluation format, or a lack of adequate student support, or an assessment system that focuses on the wrong things. If they stay in the profession long enough, they are then liable to defeat and cynicism. In the absence of any systemic structural change, they will get tired of beating their heads against a wall and will retreat instead into self-survival mode.
Education cannot be transformed by merely philosophically wishing it so. This time around we desperately need to give our teachers and educational leaders the structural support they need to be able to put good ideas into action. If we fail to do this, then betray the people on the front lines and, in so doing, forfeit our opportunity to create an education for students that is worthy of the name.
Dr. Ted Spear is the founding Principal of two independent schools in British Columbia, Canada. Using research on contemporary educational innovation, and drawing on 25 years of teaching and administrative experience in public and independent schools, he is currently writing a book on the future of grade school education.
Ken Robinson, How To Change Education From the Ground Up