Decades ago, I remember hearing criticism of a new All Black coach when the team wasn’t going well. He apparently bemoaned the fact that, although they were All Blacks, he was having to teach them the basics of passing the ball before he could otherwise improve their performance.
Let’s assume the rumour was true, and let’s fast forward to now, and assume that all rugby players are taught the basics of passing. Maybe their first coach or a parent taught them. Maybe they learnt by watching a video on the Web. Let’s go further afield and assume that all athletes and performing artists and all students of anything are taught the basics pertaining to their endeavours. When you think about it, teachers and coaches—and parents for that matter—naturally tend to start with the basics because they are the building blocks for on-going learning. Sounds easy.
The problem of the long tail
So what’s the problem? In New Zealand, despite our high fliers, we have a well-documented “long tail” in our schools where too many kids do not have the basics of reading, writing, and numeracy. How can we get everyone up to at least “average”? There are always inherent difficulties once you move beyond one-to-one instruction to teaching 25-30 students, because, even in a streamed situation everyone is at a different level in some way.
After decades, if the problem of “the long tail” were easy to fix, now that we are well into the 21st century, wouldn’t you like to think that every Kiwi kid would be literate and numerate? Is it too much to ask that all students know their next-step learning, and so do their parents? As the kids say “Are we there yet?” No we are not, so it’s not a giant leap to say that the problem is hard to fix.
In your 21st century classroom, if all your class don’t have the basics — if half can’t read, half can’t write, and the other half can’t add up (grin), where does that leave you as a teacher, and where does it leave your students and their parents?
If our kids are all to have the opportunity to grow into healthy and successful adults, then there are important roles to play for many interconnected people such as teachers, whānau, principals, middle managers, politicians, economists, and students themselves.
The importance of teachers today
I would argue that teachers have never been more important. Teachers are often at the interface between the many parts of our society, and between all the parts of the education system and its people. They motivate and teach our children, they give feedback to parents, they and their spouses and children live in our communities, and they make sense of the curriculum. Teachers have responsibilities for the intellectual, social, mental, and physical health of our children. Having said that, like all teachers, the best teachers need to operate in an effective and relevant system where they can make a difference; in schools with clear governance and collegial support, with appropriate infrastructure and facilities, and that are well resourced in areas like technology.
Someone once said that, “Any teacher who could be replaced by a machine, should be.” Because of the complexity of teaching and the fundamentally human nature of the job, I don’t think that there is a single teacher out there who could be replaced by a machine. However, I think modern teachers should have access to and be able to use all the technologies they need to enhance teaching and learning.
Like other professions, teaching has become increasingly specialised with its own lexicon, its own culture, and its own way of using ICT. I think this is a good thing, as increasing specialisation and the use of modern tools in our civilisation raises the level of expertise in that area and ultimately leads to better outcomes.
In my previous blog post I wrote about Universal Design for Learning or UDL. Frameworks such as UDL are underpinned by large body of pedagogical research, and reflect an increasingly sophisticated education sector.
Likewise, when I reflect on teaching and look through evaluations that teachers provide about our LEARNZ programme, there is clear evidence in their comments that there are many excellent teachers out there who are springboarding off the “heavy lifting” that we do for them in a LEARNZ field trip. It’s heartening to see some top practitioners who add value to the LEARNZ experience for their students in creative ways that we never dreamed of, and who are not fazed by the use of ICT.
More sophisticated tools, but the rewards are satisfying
If we go back to the sports analogy, technology has added a vast array of tools to assist coaches. Video analysis alone has been transformative; yet, instead of one All Black coach we now have three — plus a vastly enhanced team of medical people, managers, psychologists, and physical trainers. Although a cynic may say this is bloat, in the high-stakes professional era, it takes a lot to get the last 1% of performance that makes the difference between winning and losing.
These days, I’ll bet the All Blacks’ coach does not have to teach his players how to pass, and I’ll also bet that he’s glad he doesn’t have to, because working at a higher level is so much more challenging and rewarding. Although the players have access to the latest ways to improve their individual performance, the coach is still essential. In schools, I think teachers will continue to be essential for the same reasons. I’ll also bet that teaching students who have good literacy and numeracy skills is ultimately more rewarding and intellectually stimulating for most teachers.
An opportunity to win!
Unlike a single sporting contest, education is a win-or-lose game in the broadest sense, because, if we raise achievement, we give our high-fliers the chance to fly and we rid ourselves of our “long tail” tag. That way, all of New Zealand wins.
Lastly, here are my three suggestions for teachers to keep motivated and affirmed:
- Listen to a visiting speaker at a CORE Breakfast in your area. You will find what they have to say relevant and stimulating.
- Add a weekly item to your calendar to do a web search on “why teachers are important in our life”? You will find a host of good and great stories.
- Reflect on the top 10 for your best teaching moments.