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Lester Flockton: SOAPBOX

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Alan Cooper: Learning styles

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SOAPBOX: Who IS the Good Teacher?

Lester Flockton

Ask any parent. They’ll tell you (what they think). Ask any principal. They’ll tell you (to check out the performance appraisals). Ask the Ministry of Education. They’ll tell you (to read their interim professional standards). Ask ERO. They’ll tell you (to read their Evaluative Criteria). Indeed, ask anyone you like. They’ll tell you! After all, most have lived a substantial part of their lives in the presence of teachers and amidst the conditions over which they preside (for better or for worse). The most typical thing that their answers are likely to tell us, however, is that different people have different expectations and viewpoints, depending on who they are, where they are, and what they believe is best for children. This means, in effect, that teachers (like schools) can be expected to be all things to all people. But that’s clearly unreasonable and probably impossible. Moreover, to attempt to be all things is more likely to induce chronic stress, bodily malfunctions, general misanthropy, morbidity, disillusionment and all other sundry conditions that are counterproductive to attaining the reputation we all desire: to be a Good Teacher.

Last year, as part of the National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) Social Studies assessment, we asked Year 4 and Year 8 children their ideas about teachers (and children). Of teachers, they very typically identified a range of expectations which represent basic humanism, routine custodianism and fundamental pedagogy. Here are some of the commonly thematic things they said: being nice and kind, not being bossy or losing your temper, helping kids to improve their work, teaching them what they need to learn, being a good role model, making sure none of the kids get hurt, making sure children behave, being fair to all students, being prepared for class, explaining things clearly, keeping the classroom tidy, making sure that kids don’t take other people’s things, getting to work on time, doing sport and fitness, listening to the children’s side of the story, getting the kids to spell and read, making kids feel welcome, helping everyone and not just giving some the attention, giving everyone a chance, showing people how to behave, teaching people how to read and write, helping people when they are stuck, appearing to be in control, listening to students’ opinions, having fun as well as teaching, helping children to be happy don’t go over the top.

As I write, the data from this fascinating NEMP task is queuing for analysis, so it’s not ready to accompany me to the soapbox as I prepare to issue forth with my views about the Good Teacher! But what the children’s ideas are already telling us, is that many valued qualities in teachers are those you don’t necessarily acquire from training programmes, or professional development excursions. Simply put, the Good Teacher is the person as much as they are the skilled pedagogue who diligently plans, conscientiously "delivers the curriculum", and compliantly assesses, records and reports student achievement. How often have you heard it said that the Good Teacher is "born" to teach; that teaching is an "art"? Like you, I have known many a Good Teacher, but they didn’t necessarily strike me as being born to the art form. Equally, I have known a number who clearly were. In my book, these "born" teachers are more than the Good Teacher. They are the Exceptional Teachers whose gifts and dedication surely qualify them to rank alongside all of our other national heroes.

For analysing our NEMP task about teachers and children, we identified qualities of liking working with students and helping them to learn; listening carefully to students and respecting their views; planning and preparing good teaching programmes; being good at motivating children and supporting their learning; recognising and providing for their individual needs; treating them kindly and fairly; trying to make school safe for students, and working constructively with other teachers and parents. The list of attributes is predictable and broad, yet generally inclusive. It covers all of those popular notions about what we might expect of the Good Teacher. However, it is timely to transcend such descriptors of the teacher and contemplate the context of our post-modernist time, and its implications for being a Good Teacher.

For the past decade or so, teachers like many others in society, have had to adjust to restructured systems, burgeoning performance measurement and accountability devices, market-driven competitiveness, popular panaceas for improving our reformed schools, numerous proclamations and fallacies on standards, and various mantra on the capacities of all children to learn. The consequence? All too often hear teachers say that the fun and satisfaction have gone out of teaching. I needn’t spell out the reasons typically given (ERO, curriculum, assessment, managerialism, politicisation, parental pressure, work intensification, etc.). No one could deny that these forces have tested, rattled, frustrated and bemused, but to simply curl up, cringe and withdraw or submit is hardly the metal of a strong, resourceful teaching profession. If there is fault, it’s likely to double edged. It’s simply too easy to blame ERO, the Ministry, or their sponsors, the Government.

To be a Good Teacher in this emergent millennium, where some things will never change, while many others will change constantly - then change again, requires a certain determination, a certain resilience, and above all, a strong, clear sense and commitment to the meaning and practice of professionalism. In my view, the distinguishing characteristic of the Good Teacher for this millennium is this oft quoted yet much misunderstood quality of "professionalism". We use this word a lot. But do we understand it, and do we live it?

Orthodox definitions of professionalism typically embrace three distinguishing characteristics: knowledge, altruism and autonomy.

Knowledge: true professionals work from an accumulating and constantly reviewed knowledge base which serves to inform and give effect to their practice. But this amounts to more than being a receptive vessel at the in-service tap ("Pour it into me."). The Good Teacher, with colleagues, regularly seeks out the meaning and worth of new prescriptions, methods and mandates, critically assesses them in the light of practical experience and priorities then, with colleagues, makes decisions about implementation according to confidence in claimed benefits and appropriateness to their situation. The Good Teacher doesn’t do things without being confident of their likely merits.

Altruism: true professionals have an overarching concern for their clients. For the Good Teacher this ‘service ethic’ means an unfailing desire or passion to meet the needs of all children in their care. It requires that they know and understand their children, and that they have the ability and resourcefulness to provide experiences and opportunities that are clearly necessary for meeting the needs of the child (which should always take precedence over those of the ’system’).

Autonomy: professionals, by definition, enjoy a significant amount of autonomy over their decisions. But this doesn’t mean rugged independence or individualism. Rather, it is an autonomy which takes its strength from well-informed and self-regulated collegial consensus (teachers among teachers). It is an autonomy which has the capacity to challenge and modify external directives and controls that are considered inappropriate or unrealistic. In fairness to New Zealand’s official "Guidelines", there is very considerable scope for exercising discretion, localised design and decision-making. But this opportunity has been repeatedly undermined (subverted, even) at all levels through processes of re-invention, reinterpretation, fabrication, gilding and other ill-conceived embellishments. The Good Teacher’s sense of autonomy derives from a need to know what is properly intended, a capacity for interpretation of those intentions, and the skill of taking decisions that ring of good old fashioned common sense.

New Zealand can boast many Good Teachers. They’re not all the same. They don’t all fit a standard checklist. But they do have one thing in common. Good Teachers don’t need anybody to check on them, to push them, to lead them. They are compelled from within.