Unschooling – Again

It’s that time of year again. By “that time of year,” I don’t mean the insidious back to school displays to tide over retailers until Halloween and Christmas, though that is also true. It’s the time of year when we ask ourselves: why bother with schooling?

I’ve written before about what some call the unschooling movement, a loose collection of folks who hold that we deprive kids of authentic, meaningful, and creative experiences in our grand confinement of young people in millions of schools across the world. The cousin of unschooling, homeschooling, has similar issues with modern school systems.

Here is an interview from yesterday’s Globe and Mail. It’s with Zander Sherman, “Home-schooled until the age of 13, he was the odd man out when he finally joined a public high school, a vegetarian who played classical guitar, read his grandfather’s Marxist literature – and found himself wondering about the strange entity called ‘school.’”

I’d like to take on Sherman’s central claims. Of course, Sherman is a well-meaning, intelligent, and insightful person. But he repeats claims often trotted out about the schooling system, and I think they need some exposure.

Claim: “Most people look at the specifics – standardized testing, the number of homework hours a week, teacher tenure – but not the bigger issues. What is an education? What are we supposed to take away from it? As a home-schooler, though, I felt like an outsider, like I didn’t necessarily belong. At the time, it was kind of excruciating, but in retrospect I was able to look at this thing called “school” with fascination and curiosity.”

I think many people do obsess about what we supposed to take away from formal schooling. There are heated policy debates all the time (full year kindergarten, anyone? Homework policies?), politicians running on education platforms (Ontario’s premier styles himself along educational lines first and foremost, as did Davis and Robarts to a lesser degree before him), and discussions around dinner tables every day. As for the claim that he felt like an outsider, I grant that schools can be mean places – and to their detriment. But so can any important public institution. The remedy is not the destruction of schools.

Claim: “Schools have historically turned out citizens and voters; today, though, you could say we’re focused on human resources – schools have become standardized, and that’s because it makes for a good labour pool, it’s convenient for the economy.”

Writers like Michael Apple have made this case, too. But in response I want to develop a line of thinking that suggests the school-as-training-for-jobs is more complicated than both of them suggest. First, schools are usually accused of not preparing students for the world of work; usually, schools are seen as irrelevant wastes of time, a theme Sherman himself flirts with. I think the schooling system, in its insistence on the importance of literacy and numeracy, with mandatory exposure to liberal arts, physical education, and science is a good balance of the exact kinds of things nearly any parent would like his or her child to experience. I would like more specific examples of instances our schooling system is “convenient” for capitalism. Second, to the extent that schooling is directed at employment (there is a half-year course in grade 10 in Ontario, Careers, that helps students prepare for interviews and make resumes), it is quite reasonable.

Claim: “Education should be about instilling a sense of wonder and a love of learning. If people aren’t galvanized by curiosity, what’s the incentive to go to work?”

I grant that there is a difference between formal schooling and education, and that not all moments of schooling are about nurturing curiosity. Though, the system has been stressing a sense of wonder and curiosity for a long time – and has, at least since 1950, lamented the perceived lack of it (see the Introduction to the 1995 Royal Commission, For the Love of Learning, for a brief summary of both the Hope Commission of 1950, and the Hall-Dennis Report of 1968). Our many Royal Commissions and reports over the past 60 years indicate we aren’t as unthinking as Sherman would argue.

Claim: “Finland is a great example. They don’t value standardized tests (although they perform well on them) and there’s less schooling-per-year than elsewhere. Students learn, then bundle up and go skiing. It’s a wonderfully eccentric system.”

There has been quite a bit written about Finland and its “eccentric” system. It’s hard to separate the truth from the hype, but let’s grant that it’s a high-performing system that serves its students well.

What concerns me is the general opposition to a systematic and standardized approach. In all professions, practitioners have benchmarks and protocols and standards bigger than their own offices. In medicine, doctors follow international guidelines; why should teachers not benefit from the collected work of a hundred years of research into teaching and learning?

If we didn’t collect standardized data on student performance on reasonable and accurate measures of our major priorities (literacy and numeracy), how would we know if we were doing a good job? Teachers in individuals classrooms (including yours truly), often lack the perspective to be able to objectively determine their students’ success. In Ontario, our approach to gathering data across the whole system allows us to see if students are learning or not. How would we ever improve the system if we didn’t know such basic data as how many of our students can read?

Claim: “Teachers in Finland are venerated above doctors and lawyers. Why can’t we look at our own teachers the same way? It’s totally baffling.”

A lot of studies have pointed to the lack of respect in the teaching profession as a reason lower-performing undergraduates enter the field, and I think there is a lot of truth to the lament that teachers aren’t esteemed enough. But surely the appropriate response is not to get rid of system-wide data collection and merely increase the amount of nordic skiing. The path to greater respect, at least if medicine is any guide, involves greater transparency, rigorous standards, and the dedicated pursuit of meaningful goals – in the case of teaching, goals like literacy and numeracy. I think teaching is where medicine was in the 19th century; on the way to professionalization through the increasing use of evidence-based techniques, not snake oil.

Claim: “I think a growing number of educators are disillusioned with international comparisons. They often put the economy first – these are not necessarily the subjects that make for the best education. These countries are at war to be economic superpowers, and math, technology and engineering are the sectors that generate the most capital.”

First we should emulate Finland because of its high performance on international standardized tests, but we should also abandon international comparisons. Which is it?

And again, a variation on the claim that the economy drives the curriculum – at least, more than it should. In Ontario, the highest number of high school credits needed is in English, hardly a capitalist bastion. The second highest? Math. Then science.

Is it the case that math and science have been turned over to General Electric? Hardly. Corporations continue to complain that our school system is not geared enough to the needs of the economy.

Claim: “I’m currently working on an article about the importance of Latin and Greek. In the schools of yesteryear, knowledge of the classical languages was part of a pedagogy known as ‘formal discipline.’ The idea was that the human brain is a muscle; learning Latin and Greek gave the brain a workout, students’ minds were toughened, sculpted.

“In the 20th century, the curriculum no longer focuses on simple knowledge and wisdom, but what’s required for the work world.”

How would we define “simple knowledge and wisdom”? While I adore the classics, and have taught ancient history and philosophy throughout my career, the path to greater relevance is teaching Latin and Greek?

Claim: “I was home-schooled for creative reasons. But many home-schoolers are from religious families, and I think the temptation there can be for parents to indoctrinate instead of developing inquiring minds.”

So, his parents taught out of a love of creativity, but the rest can’t be trusted to. In light of this claim against homeschoolers, what’s to be done?

“I like what I see at the local level, when teachers take things into their own hands. One of my best friends is a public high-school teacher. Every day he practices what I preach: He chooses material that engages his students – that gets them excited and curious. He also avoids an emphasis on testing, grading and data in general. That’s what excites me most.”

All teachers can currently do this. There is no prohibition against it, nor has there been much restriction over day-to-day curriculum for several generations (in Ontario, at least). There are no daily suggested lessons in the slightest. Teachers have a tremendous degree of latitude over their daily practices. And of course, no student goes to school at a system-level – every last one is in a local school and the daily experience is made up of relationships with (mostly) caring teachers and peers. (Teachers, a highly unionized bunch, are unlikely foot soldiers of creeping capitalism.)

I still object to the treatment of “data” here. I think it’s important to know how your students are doing, ideally every class period. But that does not mean – in the slightest – that this data collection is only in paper-and-pencil tests. Talking, as any psychiatrist or journalist can tell you, is also data. So is debating. So is conferencing with a small group of students. As is when a student paints in art class. This is all data towards the same aim: namely, to know how we are doing.

If we’re not assessing our students, how do we know if they can read or write, or have the wisdom that Sherman is fond of?

(And again on standardized tests, Ontario has a standardized test – with no individual accountability for individual students or teachers – in grades 3, 6, 9 and 10. Hardly every day are the students exposed to the dangers of these insidious tormentors.)

School is there to do what not every parent can: instill in young people the skills that we have deemed important through our democratic process. Currently, that is literacy, numeracy, with some exposure to science, and a smattering of liberal arts and physical education courses. Evidence of the undue influence of capitalism is hard to find.

And while alternatives to the current system exist, of course, how could they be efficiently deployed? Can everyone be homeschooled? As I’ve written before, the wholesale opposition to modern schooling is the prerogative of the wealthy. Universal, government-funded schooling has been transformative for those not born into wealth. I say we celebrate that success, while dedicating ourselves to improving the system further through a systematic approach guided by – gasp – the most trustworthy data we can find.

Drop the Worry Ball

Dr. Alex Russell has recently released a book called “Drop the Worry Ball: How to Parent in the Age of Entitlement.” I’ve heard him speak several times and his message is a lovely antidote to the usual message of over-parenting.

The title refers to a simile he’s fond of – that children should, for the most part (and especially as adolescents) carry their own ‘worry ball.’ Parents should not be the homework police, or fill out their kids’ university applications. Young people should experience non-catastrophic but painful failure to grow into resilient, productive men and women.

Here’s a clip of him on a local morning TV show explaining further.

Ladies and Gentlemen…

Listening to speeches, you get used to certain turns of phrase. “Ladies and gentlemen” is by far the most overused collection of words in the pantheon of a large group of tired offenders. And the occasion for the most pernicious use of clichés? Without empirical data, I can only guess, but if I were to speculate commencement speeches must top the list. We pass the torch, break the shackles, and oh the places you’ll go.

But not David McCulloch (Jr.), teacher at Wellesley High in Mass. He achieved no small notoriety recently with his commencement speech where he told the crowd – with no special joy – that they are nothing special.

My guess: frustrated teachers will cheer, parents of young children will be outraged (partially for fear their own children will be told the same thing), and parents of adult children will huzzah (because the world is going to hell, and young generations are to blame).

Of course, the media is only interested in the newsbite, and this story has all the markers of a mid-news-cycle story and a tease for the 6 o’clock broadcast. But the popularity of the speech indicates a profound resonance with millions of people.

Below is a clip of McCullogh responding to CBS news. I wonder: would a doctor who hectored his patients, some of whom are likely deluded about their own health, have to defend himself on television? Is it not true, as McCullough says, that “Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs?” Is it not true that at least some of McCullough’s advice is sage?

“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.”

This Film is Sentimental

Wes Anderson’s newest film, Moonrise Kingdom, is as superb as it gets. (Don’t just listen to me – my favourite from this aggregator is Anthony Lane of the New Yorker: “We may look back on Anderson’s works as we do on the boxes of Joseph Cornell — formal troves of frippery, studded with nostalgic private jokes, that lodge inexplicably in the heart. In Moonrise Kingdom, that lodging is already under way.”)

As a film, it has it all: a surly Bill Murray, a soundtrack worthy of the repeat button, and Wes Anderson’s usual dedication to cinematography and set design. This is not an exhaustive list of its charms.

But, as this is a blog about education, it’s a movie for teachers because it shows young people as they often are, but are rarely known for: intelligent, witty, vulnerable, respectful, and desperate for adulthood. In a world where so much of the standard narrative is about infantilized adolescents, and the conformity of youth so common to so many movies, it is mightily gratifying to see the opposite so beautifully rendered on screen. I think anyone who spends time with children will see the echoes of reality in this film and wonder, as I do, how Anderson knows them so well.

Rigour – All Hail the Orphan Child

The Globe and Mail has recently been addressing an old chestnut: the question of rigour in schools. A few recent articles and letters-to-the-editor appeared in the past week or so. The general tenor: schools aren’t what they should be, technology is a distraction, and we should refocus our efforts on a conservative approach to teaching and learning. The excerpted editorial on texting here sums it up:

De shud b HHIS – which may be translated as “They should be hanging their heads in shame.”

Such is the scolding that some parents and teachers may want to give children and teenagers after reading the state of their homework, because a new study by a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Calgary confirms what some fear: that text messaging has a negative impact on language skills.

Ever since text messaging took off – Canadians send 154 million texts a day – linguists have debated the impact it has on the English language. Some experts insist that texting encourages creativity and writing, that asking “wot r u doin 2nite” isn’t laziness, but rather another way in which English is naturally evolving, as it has done for centuries. Besides, young people know the difference between communicating to make plans for Friday night and writing a formal essay. In New Zealand, educators certainly thought so when in 2006 they approved the use of text speak in high-school exams.

But the naysayers now have some ammunition on their side.

In the Calgary study, a group of university students were asked about their reading habits. Those who read widely in traditional print media such as books and magazines were able to identify more words on a checklist than students who said they did not read as much, but sent and received texts a lot.

Some of the words on the list were real, and others were fictitious. The conclusion was that traditional reading material exposes people to variety and creativity in the language. It helps develop skills that allow the interpretation of new and original words. This is not found in colloquial text speak, which actually constrains the use of English and caused the students to reject many words on the checklist.

It is a triumph for the traditionalists.

To which a teen’s flippant answer might be “wateva DBEYR,” or, Don’t believe everything you read.

You would be hard pressed to find a teacher who argued against rigour. Indeed, all teachers think they’re pursuing rigour in their own ways. But there is little shared agreement on what constitutes a rigourous program. And therein lies the rub. What goals should we be pursuing in our classrooms?

The usual turn of events goes like this: various groups (teachers, administrators, consultants) and different members within them, all argue for different end results. We should teach through games to build critical thinking; we should return to the basics; we should spend more time on math; no – more time on community service; and rest of all the old refrains.

There is obviously much by way of merit in debate, but unless we ask what the purpose of schooling is there is little point in persisting; no possibility of progress exists. One thing is clear, though – until we get a better answer to it, we’ll likely continue to work against ourselves.

The article below, in the same edition of the paper as the editorial above, argues – again – for a more conservative approach to education. At the very least, the purpose of schooling is hinted at: students should be able readers, writers, and adept at the classical subjects. I don’t find myself disagreeing with all of it.

The note is written in the shaky, giant letters favoured by children just learning to hold a pencil: “I am sorry for distracting the class too day,” the boy says. He goes on to apologize to his teacher for his disruptive behaviour; he knows the teacher wants more for him, because she has told him so, over and over. “I want to do good in life,” he adds. “I do not want to be a failier.”

The teacher has framed the note, and now, sitting in her south London living room, jabs a finger at it. “How old do you think that boy is?” Without waiting for an answer, she barks: “That boy is 15. He’s about to leave school. How is that possible?” She shakes her head. “I loved that boy. I saved his note. But really – how can this be?”

You don’t want to be disrupting Katharine Birbalsingh’s class, or misspelling words at 15, or indeed trying to prevent her from reaching her goal. That goal, depending on where you stand, is either to fix Britain’s broken schools or to rip apart a perfectly good system from within.

The Oxford University graduate is one of the more controversial figures in British education circles, and she’s not even from here. She was raised thousand of kilometres away, in a rich country where she never locked her bike when she went to the store, and where, to her dismay, she was taught woodworking in high school. That is, in Canada.

What exactly has she done to annoy the teaching establishment and a good section of middle-class London parents? Simply, she is setting up a “free school” – a secondary school that is free to set its own curriculum. At the Michaela Community School in Tooting, a rough-and-ready part of south London, the emphasis will be on discipline, competition and rigorous, back-to-basics instruction.

Who Teaches, and Why?

It seems obvious that teaching, what many have called “emotional labour,” requires more than merely technical skills.  To do it well, it is as Seymour Sarason called it, a kind of performance art; part technique, part passion.  And if we subscribe to that premise, we might well ask what kind of person goes into teaching?The internal states of teachers merits much research, given the role emotions play in the profession.   If we want the most talented, energetic, and imaginative people in the profession, we’ll need to convince them that it is worthy of them.  I think it is, of course, but that is not a widely held opinion.This video clip, though not about teachers, does frame the discussion well.  It is taken from a TED talk by Alain de Botton, a modern day philosopher in line with the Stoics like Epictetus and Seneca.  He points out the arbitrary reasons certain careers become popular, and what we mean when we hear a person described as “successful.”  If teaching was as attractive as investment banking or medicine, would teachers produce better results?  Perhaps.  It might be that until we decrease our material aspirations, and reduce the importance placed on the esteem of others, we will attract mostly those who place the highest importance on self-sacrifice.  In any case, de Botton’s words are worth listening to as a salve to the modern anxieties of the workplace and the little striver in all of us.

Teacher Pay in a Time of Austerity

In the rush to fix the many budget problems that have beset governments around the world, many have turned to spending cuts as a solution.  In education, this can sometimes mean larger class sizes, hiring freezes, layoffs, and pay cuts.  Some districts in the US have been fierce; in Canada, teachers have been spared.  But for how long?Ontario, a province with a significant structural deficit, has hired Don Drummond, a former bank economist, to find efficiencies, savings, and outright cuts.  Obviously, no jurisdiction can have, for very long, deficits that far exceed growth rates, so Ontario does have to act.  But with so much spending wrapped up in health and education, where to find the money?  Early in the new year, we’ll find out.The plan will be to keep spending increases to 1% in key areas – which would mean lower-than-inflation pay increases for teachers.  In fact, it might mean something much, much lower than 1%, and here’s why: pay increases occur in two ways – by moving up the gay grid with new years of experience, and with each new step of the pay grid increasing by about 2-3% each year (historically).  So, even if you stop the 2-3% yearly increases, the overall cost of wages will increase by much more than 2-3% per year because the yearly pay grid increase for each passing year of experience is often approaching 10%.The chart below is the Toronto District School Board pay grid, and it indicates the challenge:

Toronto Teacher Pay

Even if we froze that salary grid completely, every teacher who wasn’t yet at the top of the grid (any teachers in years 0-10 of their career), will receive a pay increase.  And it will cost more than 1%.  Much more.

To take a more radical step and freeze new levels of experience, freeze salaries entirely (not just cost-of-living raises), well much more savings could be found.  But to do so would put teachers in an even weaker salary position in relation to other professions.  And as that gap grows, will it be possible to find the best workers?

Everyone says “teachers don’t go into the job for the money,” but I disagree vehemently – this is one of those silly things people say to sound soft and fuzzy.  Teachers need to be paid fairly, and no teacher would work for free.  Money isn’t their key motivator, but wait to see what happens when salaries are cut or frozen and the gap between teachers and other well-educated workers grows and grows.  If good teaching is important, why reduce it to charity work?  Or on the other hand, why not apply the same thinking to medicine, or law?

Here’s Don and friends on a recent edition of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin.  (Also featured is Ben Levin, one of my recent professors.)

When the Birds Leave the Nest

Most high schools that pride themselves on academics use as a key performance indicator the percentage of their students who go on to university study. All well and good, but a more interesting indicator would be the number of students who actually succeed at university. It is very easy for any high school to send students to post-secondary study – they control the major factor, grades, that matter in future admissions.

A recent article from the Globe and Mail, though, points out something most have known for some time: a shockingly high number of students drop out of their undergraduate studies. The usual critique in articles like this: high schools have failed our students. And while I think that is true in a lot of respects, this article refreshingly directs some blame at the university itself – for not engaging students as well as they might.

One last great insight: the article focuses on the mental states of undergraduates. Most of us know lots of people who didn’t finish a degree, and I can’t think of one that lacked the talent. They were usually crushed by a pervasive sense of inadequacy, though, by a drop in grades from high school to university.

Universities tossing at-risk undergrads an academic lifebuoy

Tamara Baluja

As more than one million Canadian undergraduate university students await their marks from first semester, some are hoping for a holiday miracle that will save their tanking grades.
Bad first-semester grades are a strong motivator for first-year students to pack their bags and ditch university.
Around 45 per cent of students who drop out in their first year do so in panic after getting low grades, said Todd Stinebrickner, an economics professor at the University of Western Ontario who has studied the various reasons undergraduate students choose to leave. Prof. Stinebrickner and his co-researcher studied students at the liberal arts Berea College in Kentucky.
“There is a fairly big gap between university and high school, and students have to be prepared to deal with that,” he said. “And when you perform poorly, that also impacts how much you like your university and how much stress you’re dealing with. When you look at all those factors together, it’s clear how bad grades can derail their university education.”
To stop the flight of these so-called Christmas graduates who drop off the roster around the holiday season, some universities screen students using their fall midterm marks and provide help that attempts to focus on the deeper issues behind poor grades.
At Carleton’s Science Student Success Centre, first-year science students who get a 60 per cent or lower on their midterms are immediately sent an e-mail to make an appointment with a upper-year mentor.
Since they launched the program in 2008, the centre found that students who accepted help had a much higher chance of passing the course, with 70 per cent passing, compared to 65 per cent of students who didn’t participate.
Given its success rate, Carleton is expanding the service next month to all undergraduate students and will enroll at-risk students into a voluntary nine-week ‘Bounce Back’ program.
“It’s not tutoring help at all,” said Sue Bertram, the assistant dean of recruitment and retention and director of the science student centre. “For many of them, it’s their first time away from home, or they’re trying to hold down a part-time job.”
Guelph has a similar program, which gives five students with the most improved grades a reward of $1,000 tuition credit each. In their most recent cohort, students who participated saw their grades improve by more than five per cent compared to the one-per-cent improvement for students who chose not to participate.
Other universities are also focusing their efforts on student well-being. The University of British Columbia, for example, recognizes that stress can affect academic performance and offers wellness programs that help students with depression, mental health and suicide prevention. When professors need to cancel a class, the University of Calgary’s student success centre steps in to use that class time to run sessions on writing exam essays, time management and taking good notes in lectures.
Sami Majdalany, a fourth-year biology student at Carleton understands those challenges. He was an A student and valedictorian in high school, but found his first-year classes too overwhelming and was only able to scrape by with Cs and Ds.
“It was so discouraging and sad, because I really wanted to go to medical school and I knew my grades weren’t good enough,” he said. “I just was unorganized with all my weekly different lab assignments and I didn’t prioritize the assignments that actually weighed more.”
When the science student success centre called him in, Mr. Majdalany was shown strategies for time management. Since then, his grades have bounced back and he is consistently getting As. Now, he is a mentor for the program. “I see so many students who want to drop out around this time of the year and take a break for a semester. But maybe all they need is that little help.”
A recent survey by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found that 70 per cent of students feel well-prepared academically for university and 81 per cent for college.
“Most institutions recognize that first year is the most difficult and they focus their attention on these new students,” said Richard Wiggers, director of research at the council. “The question is, do you reach out to all the students early or do you reach out when you know which students need your help? Most institutions do both, but the thinking is: the earlier, the better.”
That’s why several universities, such as University of Toronto, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island, are also experimenting with first-year seminars that allow students to connect with their professors in small group settings. Guelph, a pioneer, began offering these first-year programs in 2004. Budget crunches forced the university to shut down the program in 2009, but it was revived in 2011, said the university’s provost, Maureen Mancuso.
The university hopes that every student will be able to take at least one seminar course in his or her first-year.
“We’re, in effect, recreating a simulation of the classroom they would have had in high school that was more intimate, and I think that helps with the transition,” Dr. Mancuso said. “It was never intended to be a remedial program in that we’re getting the students prepared for university… for us, it’s more about making sure they have a positive undergraduate experience.”

Teaching Awards; So Much Rust

Last week, Terry Baytor, a former Toronto principal pleaded guilty to stealing $76,850 from the school he worked at, Martingrove Collegiate.

The interesting element here is not that a principal stole money; any system large enough is going to have its thieves. Rather, the part that merits thinking about is this: Baytor was one of the most celebrated teachers and principals of the school board.

I’ve written again and again about the importance of recognizing the deficits in our judgment, and this is another instance proving the point. Moreover, it sheds light on a rarely-discussed but grimy area of teaching: teaching awards.

Baytor was nominated for a 2008 Premier’s Award for Teaching Excellence and Leadership. Baytor’s example serves to remind us what bad judges we often are about “excellence,” and the power of bravado and confidence in bringing success – even, or especially, where talent and ethics might be lacking.

There are 65 Prime Minister’s Awards, six from the Governor General, and a dozen or two from the Premier of Ontario (the exercise is doubtless repeated across this land). We are somewhat obsessed with awards as a profession, and a people – we delight in the raking exercise, feel a sense of certainty in the judgment of others. In teaching, the effect is corrosive.

Like most teaching awards, the Governor General’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History has a liberal policy on nominations: “Self nominations are encouraged.” And even when that isn’t the case, it is hardly very difficult to get a parent of a student, or fellow teacher, to send in the papers.

But that’s where it gets somewhat grimy: the nominated teacher has to submit lots of material on his of her own behalf, like lesson plans, letters from parents and students, and all sorts of other self-aggrandizing balderdash.

On the list of recent Premier’s Award winners’ biographical snippets appear the following lines:

“_____ is an innovative, stimulating and visionary educator”

“An inspirational woman with more than 18 years experience as an educational assistant…”

“_______ has been a kindergarten teacher and neighbourhood legend for more than 25 years. She is a selfless, compassionate educator who has touched the lives of many.”

“___is the kind of teacher that students respect, parents praise and colleagues admire.”

“_______ is an innovative teacher who understands what it takes to help students excel at math”

Recall that these lines were likely written by the teachers themselves as part of their bid for recognition. Teachers and principals who think this way of themselves and their own practice are likely bullies in their schools, obsessed with credit, and less likely to question their own methods. A teacher who tries year after year to gain this kind of recognition, and there are many, is hardly someone we’d want teaching our own children or working beside us.

Yet, despite their possible narcissism, these teachers and principals are probably good enough at their jobs – but it needs to be wondered if an award is the correct response. What is the purpose? To reward good practitioners? Then there ought to be exponentially more awards. To show the way for others to follow? That motivation only holds true if the awards are an accurate reflection of excellence. Since the vast majority of these awards are self-nominated, that’s hardly a satisfying reason.

The truth is probably more base and more plain-spoken: awards serve to elevate a profession of questionable status. Most teachers suffer from totally understandable career self-esteem, and perhaps these awards help. But more probably they serve to simply satisfy the egos of individual award winners. And in doing so, they might be less-than-benign; if hiring, retention, and promotion are influenced by awards like these, self-nominated exercises in narcissism, we should be troubled. The path to excellence does not rest in believing someone’s own press releases, especially someone with an ego to satisfy.

Mindful Teaching and Learning

Most school reform, both of individual schools and entire systems, seems to pivot on technical elements.  There have been forests pulped in the name of publicizing new assessment and evaluation policies, three-part math lessons, rubric design, and scores of other mechanical solutions to the dilemmas that face teachers and students every day.  I’ve written many times that I firmly believe that there must be technical skills to teaching, not unlike other fields like medicine, and I’m always pleased to see (good) research and inquiry done on these and other topics.

 

If schools were merely technical places, technical solutions to technical problems would be all that is required to build the best education system.  But surely, schools are highly emotional places – places where stress and anxiety often dominate.  If students (and teachers) are emotionally unwell, success seems unlikely.There have been many responses to mental unwellness – mostly from the perspective of pharmacology.  Those efforts are to be lauded, but perhaps a broader response might germinate in schools: the adoption of mindfulness, described by Tralee Pearce of the Globe and Mailas “a blend of Buddhism-inspired calm and cognitive-behavioural therapy.”
I’ve been a fan of CBT since studying Stoicism as an undergraduate, and maintaining my interest since.  I think any school board – or brave school leaders – should begin to partner with mindfulness workshop leaders to bring about a cultural change within their schools.

From the Globe:
Child psychologist Randye Semple uses mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to help anxious children ages 9-12, applying the principles in kid-friendly activities such as art and music.

In one session, for instance, Dr. Semple, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California and author of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Anxious Children, will play a 30-second clip of music and ask kids to write down their thoughts and feelings – and write a title for the piece. One child might think a piece was a wedding march and another, whose dog had just died, for instance, might call it a funeral march.

“This helps kids see in real life that their thoughts and feelings contribute to their own experiences,” she says.

In one mindfulness study she conducted at Columbia University in 2002 and 2003 with kids from a remedial-reading program in Spanish Harlem, all the children went on to pass their city-wide exams. The children who had met a clinical diagnosis of anxiety “ no longer met the diagnosis at the end of the study,” she says.

And more clinical evidence about the efficacy of also targeting patients’ parents may be on the way.

Ms. Saracevic, who participated in an ongoing University of Toronto study with her mother, says there’s been a huge change in their relationship since they both began practising mindfulness, and that’s helped her manage her ADHD. “She’s a total Mommy Bear … it’s hard for her to just listen,” she says. “Now she knows we can come up with [coping] strategies together.”

For her part, her mom, Jana Saracevic, says she still finds it hard to apply mindfulness principles all the time. But, she adds, “we’re having an effect on each other. It’s working somehow.”

Though Pearce argues that “Educators are buying into the buzz with programs popping up across the country,” I’m not so sure.  I see very few genuine efforts to respond to the emotional strains teaching and learning so often produce.  Lots of referrals to doctors, but as a system a lack of fundamental care towards mental wellness.

If we were to improve the productivity (through a consideration of affective states) of teachers and students by even fractional levels, the impact across a system would be worth tens of millions of dollars in extra or special programming rendered unnecessary. Teaching with emotions in mind, mindfulness being a part of it, seems promising as an investment in our education systems.