Giving teachers a voice in professional development

November 17, 2017

Published in the Brandon Sun

Teaching is a challenging job. Anyone who has spent a few days in a school knows that teachers have a lot of demands placed upon them. Their responsibilities often go far beyond basic classroom instruction. From dealing with disruptive student behaviours to organizing extracurricular activities to supervising hallways and playgrounds, the workload of teachers is extremely demanding.

In order to face these and other challenges, teachers must continually improve their skills through professional development. This is far from easy, particularly since teachers must sort through the myriad of competing claims in the education world. Education fads are a dime a dozen, and they are becoming more prevalent.

Much of the problem stems from the substandard training provided by university education faculties, where preservice teachers are exposed to a plethora of fads, most of which are really bad ideas. Education fads such as individual learning styles, multiple intelligences, no-zero policies and 21st-century skills are but a few examples. Sadly, these and other fads are often reinforced at their professional development sessions after they become full-fledged teachers.

Fortunately, some teachers are pushing back against these bad ideas. One such group of teachers met recently in Toronto at the ResearchED conference. This is a new type of professional development conference that is put on by teachers for teachers. It began in Britain under the leadership of Tom Bennett, a well-known teacher and education writer. Since its first event in 2013, it has expanded to nine other countries and continues to grow every year. None of the organizers or speakers at ResearchED receives any compensation for their work. They participate because they believe in what they are doing — helping other teachers improve their teaching.

Teachers from across Canada came to hear from a variety of experts. Among the presenters were Dr. Daniel Ansari, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Neuroscience at Western University, Dr. John Mighton, mathematician and founder of JUMP Math, Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c, and Dr. Stan Kutcher, Sun Life Chair of Mental Health at Dalhousie University. In addition, a variety of classroom teachers led workshops about how they integrate the best research into their classrooms.

What makes ResearchED different from typical professional development conferences is that teachers are given a real voice in the discussions. Teachers are not simply expected to give lip service to the latest fad but are actually encouraged to openly challenge any claims made by the presenters. For many teachers, ResearchED is their first real opportunity to engage with the research in an environment that actually encourages critical thinking and honest debate.

I led a session at the Toronto ResearchED, so I had the opportunity to intellectually engage with teachers from all over the country. Sadly, many of them are under such pressure by school administrators to conform to the latest fads that they cannot make their identities publicly known.

In a desperate attempt to get their voices heard, they often resort to anonymous Twitter handles or anonymous blog posts.

Thankfully, ResearchED gave these teachers a chance to meet like-minded teachers and researchers from across Canada. Now they know that they are not alone.

During one of the sessions, Sachin Maharaj, a teacher with the Toronto District School Board, delivered an excellent presentation about teacher professionalism and career development. He made it clear that in order for teachers to become full-fledged professionals, they must take an active role in their own professional development. He also argued that it should be possible for teachers to enhance their pay and their status without moving out of teaching and into consulting or administration. After all, the best teachers belong in classrooms, not in offices.

Imagine what improvements we might see in Canadian education if all teacher professional development sessions were like ResearchED. Instead of listening to canned presentations and hearing about useless fads, teachers would actively review the latest research evidence and debate the pros and cons of using these strategies with their colleagues. Considering how much emphasis is put on critical thinking in schools today, it is ironic that so many teacher professional development sessions minimize debate and emphasize conformity.

Hopefully, conferences like ResearchED become the norm rather than the exception in teacher professional development. No teacher should have to create an anonymous Twitter account in order to be heard.

Report cards: Teachers should be free to say what they really think

March 18, 2015

Published in the Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Nova Scotia Education Minister Karen Casey has demonstrated achievement of some of the learning outcomes for this year. She recognizes that parents deserve to receive report cards that actually make sense. But she has not yet demonstrated the ability to significantly revise the onerous comment-writing guidelines and would benefit from using some common sense.

The above paragraph is an example of the mind-numbing drivel many teachers are still required to write on students’ report cards. Instead of simply stating the obvious, teachers must follow a laborious set of comment writing criteria at all grade levels.

For example, the Tri-County Regional School Board in rural Nova Scotia provides its teachers with a 15-page manual called Creating Strong Report Card Comments. Among other things, teachers are expected to identify at least one strength, challenge, and next step for each student in every subject area.

Think this is easy? The manual also reminds teachers not to refer to any behaviours such as study habits, homework completion, attendance, or attitude in their comments. The manual even provides a list of “useful” descriptors such as: “successfully interprets,” “has not yet demonstrated understanding,” and “needs more time to develop.”

So instead of telling parents that their kids would get better marks if they studied for tests, showed up for class and finished their homework, teachers are forced to write comments with useless verbiage. Not only that, every comment is expected to relate to a specific learning outcome.

Hence parents must decipher verbiage such as: “She could identify some cultural groups that have settled in, but struggled to explain their impact on, Canada. Student only occasionally used this learning to demonstrate an understanding of the interactions among people and places over time and the resulting effects on the environment. She needs to consider alternate points of view.”

This comment was taken verbatim from Tri-County’s report card manual.

Much of this verbiage stems from requiring teachers to identify an outcome-specific strength in every subject even when the student is doing poorly and obviously needs to put more effort into his work.

Similarly, teachers must provide specific challenges and next steps for high-achieving students who need to keep doing what they are doing. However, in these situations, old-fashioned comments such as “More effort required” or “Excellent progress” would be a better way of getting the message across.

Commendably, Ms. Casey acknowledged last year that report cards could not be understood by parents. She even ordered some sensible changes such as including percentage marks on grades 7 and 8 report cards, and telling teachers to cut back on the impersonal, bureaucratic language.

However, her department’s press release announcing these changes still mentions strengths, challenges, and next steps teachers are expected to include in every comment. For the most part, the same onerous and convoluted comment-writing guidelines must be followed by teachers.

Rigid assessment guidelines are behind other nonsensical ideas such as no-zero policies, which insisted that incomplete or late work should not affect a student’s academic mark. Schools with no-zero policies quickly discovered that without firm deadlines, students are free to hand in their assignments whenever they want. It didn’t take long for classroom teachers to conclude that this was yet another ivory tower idea that didn’t work in real classrooms.

The same can be said for onerous report card guidelines. Forcing teachers to include strengths, challenges, and next steps in every comment without making reference to behaviour has more to do with enforcing a particular assessment ideology than improving student achievement. In the end, no one benefits — except consultants who get paid to try to solve the problems they themselves have created.

Things would work a lot better if teachers could just write whatever comments they think are appropriate on report cards. After all, they have five or more years of university education and they should know how to write reasonable and appropriate comments on their own. In the area of assessment, teachers need more professional autonomy —not less.

In this case, the next step for the education minister is obvious. She needs to reject her department’s rigid assessment ideology and empower teachers to use their own judgment on report cards.