Sometimes you just have to write…
Here is another “modest proposal” to add to the one about teenage boys that I wrote a while back.
Everyone, in just about every country in the world, thinks their educational system could be better. Some blame problems on the government, some on the teachers, a few on the students or parents.
It’s the teachers, though, who are generally the ones dealing with the problems of education on a day-to-day basis. They make do with insufficient materials. They handle poorly-fed or poorly-brought-up children. They cope with poorly-thought-out, misguided and/or underfunded government mandates, muddling through as best they can.
They don’t do it for money. They don’t do it for respect. They don’t do it for an easy lifestyle. They do it because they care.
Teachers are amazed at the ease with which so many problems are blamed on them, and even more amazed at the generally-held belief that their job is so easy: “but you’re done at 3:00 every day and you have such long vacations!” Let me just clear that one up right now: teachers work into the evenings, they work weekends, they work over Christmas vacation. They might not work the whole summer vacation, but they certainly work some of it, and/or they take a second job over the summer to supplement their income. Frankly, many need the longer summer vacation just to have time to work up enough enthusiasm to return to school for the new school year!
Teachers take criticism from parents, children, school administrators and governments, yet they continue to make the effort every day. Even when they are excellent teachers, they seldom hear positive remarks. The negative gets repeated and reported; only rarely do we hear about successes.
Some get burnt out and leave teaching, which leads to more criticism about the quality of education, and leaves the remaining teachers even more overworked. Or, worse yet, they get burnt out but continue teaching, which means the quality goes down.
I have a simple, elegant solution that would work just about anywhere in the world, if only policy-makers would have the guts to make education a priority in reality, rather than just in sound bites.
Here’s my three-step plan:
Step 1: Double the salary of each and every teacher. No matter where in the would you are, doubling the salary from whatever it is now would immediately make teaching a more desirable career, and that high salary would very quickly transform disrespect to respect. Over a number of years, enrolment at teacher-training colleges would increase, leading to a flood of newly-trained, young, enthusiastic teachers clamoring to be hired. That means schools could be choosier and hire the best, rather than accepting whoever has a pulse and a teaching credential. Yes, in the first few years, some bad teachers would be earning more than they deserve, but step 2 would take care of that eventually.
Step 2: School heads should have the power to fire. Yes, there is the danger that they could abuse this power, but a simple review process by some independent group would be enough to guard against that. Any teacher who is burnt out and waiting for retirement? Out! Any teacher who clings to ineffective teaching methods and doesn’t make the effort to improve? Out!
I doubt either of these would happen much. The fact that it would be easier to get fired, combined with the fact that the pay had gone up so much, would be ample incentive for teachers to do whatever was needed to keep their jobs. If that means improving the quality of education, that’s what they’d do. A year or two of encouragement and support to improve would certainly make this step less draconian, and possibly unnecessary, but the mere possibility of being fired from such a well-paying job would be clear motivation to improve.
In addition, if a school head was performing poorly, or not performing at all, the next level of authority – school boards or local governments or whatever it is in a particular system that serves as the school head’s boss – would be able to fire him or her.
Step 3: Give individual schools autonomy. Except for big, general requirements from governments, such as language requirements, education should be left in the hands of professionals: teachers. And, remember, because of steps 1 and 2 above, they would, over time, be the best of the best. Let them work together as school-based teams to decide what to teach, how to structure their curriculum, and, yes, even how and when to assess. Trust them. They’re the professionals. Let them do what they are trained to do.
I recognize that in this time of economic recession, this won’t happen. Be honest, though: even in boom times it wouldn’t have happened, would it? It would have been dismissed as extreme and ridiculous and unaffordable – with the subtext that teachers don’t really deserve that much money. But why do we dismiss it? Is it really unaffordable, or do governments just have other priorities: things that they feel are much more important to spend money on? And why are we so unwilling to value teachers when we trust them with what we value most: our children and their futures, and the future of the world as a whole?