Teacher Hiring?

I have only ever worked in a private school.  This isn’t by intention; though most would imagine that I would prefer the privileges of private school, the truth is that the public system has never been interested in hiring me.  Six years into a teaching career, three university degrees and a fourth under way, six 100-hour-plus additional qualification courses, and the public system is still closed to me.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like private schools.  The school I started my career with, and the one I am starting a new position at this month, are wonderful schools with great programs, and looking back I wouldn’t change the past six years for anything.  But it is to say two things: part of the reason these (private) schools work well is that teachers could be – and sometimes were – fired; and two, if the public systems across the continent are to achieve greatness, they need to adopt the nimble approach of private schools – that is to say, the practice of any organization committed to success where hiring and firing decisions are based on competence, and competence alone.

There are three possible reasons the public system doesn’t hire people like me – or nearly all of my teacher friends who, like me, can only find work in private schools.  It could be that we are weak candidates, or that we present poorly on our CVs or in interviews – this remains an open possibility.  Second, it could be that those interviewing don’t know how to pick good candidates out of the pile.  But I think the third possibility is most likely: public boards are so burdened with bureaucracy and unionism that hiring decisions are often driven not by applicant quality, but by inflexible and unworkable set of practices designed for the needs of the organization, not student success.

The hiring process in the Toronto District School Board illustrates the point.  While much of what follows is conjecture, there are a set of agreed upon facts.  Any teacher wishing to be hired for the fall needs to apply the previous winter.  Exactly when isn’t clear – the TDSB website encourages applications from December until an indeterminate point, but there are lots of rumours about secret deadlines earlier in the year.  The application is on-line, and fairly basic: which degrees are possessed, what additional qualifications have been earned, and the like.  If those in charge of hiring (often former teachers who have moved up the board hierarchy) choose to, they invite applicants to a board interview.  At the interview, applicants are asked five questions – and the questions are easily guessed at through a Google search.   In order to keep the interviews standard (and fair, goes the logic), interviewers are not allowed to ask follow-up questions, but instead largely check-off a set of ‘look-fors’ – sadly, sometimes not more than educational buzzwords strung together.  You cannot leave any supplementary paperwork, like letters of reference, copies of a teaching portfolio, or even a sample lesson plan.  In fact, to remain impartial, the interviewers do not have a resume in front of them.  If against all odds you manage to impress during the interview, you are placed on the eligible-to-hire list.

And what a list it is. On it sit the collected hopefuls of the fourth largest school board in North America, and a district with two teaching faculties over-producing teachers.  There are rumours that there are divisions within the list between those ‘recommended’ and those ‘strongly’ so, but no evidence of this is available on the board’s website.  Principals determine staffing needs sometime in the late spring, and begin to fill vacancies.  First, openings are available only to those currently in the board.  And finally, when the leftover spots are still leftover, principals access a list of candidates who are ‘eligible-to-hire.’  The board maintains that those on the list could be called for one last school-lever interview starting in June – but it seems most common to get calls much later, even well into the fall term.  And by the time the principal interviews the candidate for the school-level job, the situation is often desperate and nearly anyone will do; teachers are frequently hired mere days before they are expected to teach.

The process, then, is at least six months long, and often much longer.   And at the end of it, questions remain: how can the best candidates emerge from such a slow process, on which is biased towards existing union membership, and relies primarily not on the judgment of the person legally responsible for the program of any school, the principal, but an educational Russian doll of sets of committees within committees?

Earlier I had argued there are three reasons the public board has never seen fit to hire people like me and my teacher friends, but there will be those arguing there is a fourth: they will say that as part of a demographic crisis in education there are fewer children, and therefore fewer jobs.  Public boards aren’t hiring, they say.  Doubtlessly true, but I would argue that with so many underperforming teachers, surely there are some on the unemployment rolls who would be better in the classroom than those with tenure.  And the argument against reform on the basis that ‘unionism prevents us’ is hardly a response.  If education is important, clever politicians and passionate educators must find ways around any impediment to the overall success and dynamism of our education system.  If we don’t change (some of) the teachers, any talk about reforming our education system is mostly air.

Teaching as Calling

In the constellation of teachers there are many kinds, but among the divisions are those teachers who enjoy it and those who might prefer to be doing something else.  In the latter, the tradition is to grumble and seek out a realtor’s license.  In the former, you often hear satisfied teachers go on and on about how teaching is ‘a calling.’

While I am a satisfied teacher, and I’m fond of saying that teaching is a job that most days doesn’t feel like a job at all, I have never seen it as a calling.  I didn’t know from a young age that teaching was where I would end up, and I probably reflected some of the societal disdain for teachers common among the young – especially during the New Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s.  But now having spent some years doing it, I am rankled at the idea of teaching-as-calling.  To me, teaching is a job – one that I want to do well, that I work hard at, that I meditate on and that I think has social value.  But it is a job, not a calling.

People will say I miss the subtlety here.  They will say that what is really meant is that teaching is a kind of service, a stewardship, or some such.  And I still bristle.  Teaching is a career, a profession, one of great importance that ought to be done first and foremost by professionals.

I fear that when we turn teaching into the Lord’s work, or use the words of missionaries and charities, we demean teaching.  Great teachers and principals will laugh and say, ‘you don’t do it for the money!’  But what kind of system education can we expect when we have the mentality of 19th century social reformers?  When we describe it as a calling, we absolve the practitioner of a weighty responsibility to do it as well as possible.  When it is a calling, we rely on the kindness of charity-types to ‘do their best,’ whatever that might be.  When it is a profession, we can insist on a greater quality – education is important enough to be kept away from the (possibly-untalented) do-gooder.

(And anyway, those who protest the salaries as motivation can prove me wrong by taking a pay cut.  A salary that is about twice the national average shouldn’t be sneered at.)

I wonder how other essential professions would fare with the same attitude.  Imagine medicine – a profession with a more obvious sense of caring than teaching, owing to the distress of the ill – relying on the kindness of its practitioners.  Without a comfortable salary, strict protocols, and a sense of detached professionalism, our medicine would resemble that of a previous age.  However we sentimentalize that era, more people would die of illness.

We can build the best system of education, I think, when we view teaching as a profession, not unlike medicine or law.   It goes without saying that teaching is a human action, practiced best as humanely as possible.  But humane shouldn’t mean amateur.  And our language often belies our deeper belief, that educating is a kind of selfless endeavor, done for the betterment of the world.

Good teachers should be praised and paid well; bad teachers should be let free of the job.  Being sentimental doesn’t help students learn.

The Dismal Pursuit of Immediacy

I can recall my modern British history professor explaining that until the 20th century, science was not commonly part of the curriculum in the elite British schools like Eton and Rugby.  It was seen as too common to study practical matters, I imagine, and students of such rarefied institutions continued in the medieval tradition of classical languages and ancient texts.  A learned man, it held, was less interested in the immediate than in the eternal.

Our 21st century mindset is a millennium away, and while the Victorians might seem out of touch, we might have overzealously replaced the ancient ills with new ones.  In an inversion of the old days, the halls of the modern school are filled with demands for immediacy.  Students, either by training or natural disposition, increasingly demand to know the relevance of the subjects studied, asking ‘Why do I need to know this?’ – as though knowing is a burden.  And teachers, especially younger ones, keen to appeal to the ego of their charges, owing to the natural ease in teaching happy students, reinforce the idea that the immediately relevant trumps the sometimes ambiguous and complex.  Guidance counselors will tell students that while the humanities are engaging and ‘fun’ (or worse, ‘easy’) they aren’t as practical as enrolling in a mostly math and science timetable – or, even better, business courses.

In the time before business schools, captains of industry studied literature, history, and even poetry.  Even today, many Canadian banking executives, where an intellectual tradition runs deep, often pursued academic degrees over bachelors of commerce – before perhaps entering the business world finishing school, the MBA program.  TD Canada Trust, one of Canada’s biggest banks, is run by Ed Clark, a man with a Ph.D. in economics called on routinely by government to weigh in on policy matters.  (It is no surprise that TD was the best-capitalized bank in Canada during the latest bank crisis, and one of the most solid banks in the world.  The demands for critical thinking are everywhere, especially in the business world.  The cost of turning our backs on wisdom is apparently quite great.)

A recent article in the Globe and Mail profiles Martha Nussbaum, University of Chicago philosopher, who has argued in her recent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, that in our demand for business and practical courses, we are losing an essential role of education: producing wise, learned, critical minds.

Here is an excerpt of her interview with John Allemang of the Globe.

John Allemang: How can the study of the humanities improve our political system?Martha Nussbaum: The first thing you get from the humanities, when they’re well taught, is critical thinking.Philosophy in particular can play that role, not just in universities but in schools as well. Thinking about the logical structure of an argument is something we know children can do quite young.The second thing you get from the humanities is a greater understanding of the world, its different groups of people, their histories, the way they interact.The third thing you get is the training of the imagination.You can’t have a democracy when people don’t learn to put themselves in the shoes of another person, who can’t think what their policies mean for others.

JA: Yet the governments prefer to fund technical education – which tells me that practical, marketable skills are considered more valuable in our democracies.MN: People may believe that, but they haven’t thought hard enough.First of all, we badly need people who can think critically about authority and tradition.And that’s what democracy has always required, ever since the time of Socrates – not just accepting what’s passed down from some kind of authority, but thinking critically about it, examining yourself and figuring out what you really want to stand for. And then having debates in that spirit of respectful critical inquiry with other people – you can’t have a democracy that’s run simply by sound bites and cultural authorities. And I’m afraid that’s what we’re increasingly slipping into.Yes, we call our governments democracies, but I think they’re functioning badly now. The atmosphere of vilification is so bad that good people steer clear of the political process. And if they get in, their lives are made miserable.

JA: Do you think there’s something inherently anti-democratic about the study of science, technology, engineering?
MN: Not at all, if they’re taught well with an attention to the basic structures of thought and inquiry.But what we’re getting now is the demand for a quick fix for economic problems using highly applied technical skills but without the focus on basic scientific education – learning about argument, scientific method. So it’s that debased version of science that’s particularly dangerous.

I think Socrates – executed by the Athenian democracy for his spirit of inquiry – might quibble with some of what Nussbaum says here, but the point remains: our Western democratic tradition requires intelligent discourse, critical thought, and the possibility of informed dissent.  Our rush for the exits within places of contemplative thought into places of technical absorption is to be lamented.  There will always be those who pursue the beautiful and the philosophical – but as a culture, we would be wise to guard against the temptations of an unambiguous, technical world, where the rewards go solely to the immediately practical.

I emphasize immediate because the humanities produce structures with greater practicality than many of the arms of science.  Is our democracy not practical?  Is our legal system not practical?  Did the Anglo-American Enlightenment, the fruits of which – including the US Constitution and Bill of Rights – not increase human happiness more than most engineering projects?  Are we not people, first and foremost, who require historical insight and philosophical leanings, to organize ourselves for our own betterment and equality?  And if those things are not done, what hope do science and commerce have?

It seems obvious that the humanities and science are cross-pollinating organisms.  Surely it is not coincidental that the United States, the nation of Jefferson and Franklin, of Lincoln and Whitman, is both the most scientifically and commercially productive land on earth.  Nussbaum argues that even those of us not actively part of the production of the humanities, those of us without the title professor, can still lead imaginative, rich intellectual lives: ‘You just have to figure out how you in your particular situation are going to do it. It might be through being a critical voice in your law firm. It might be by writing short stories if you can carve out a space. It might be through being a productive alum of your university. Or it might be by bringing up children who can think critically.’

Abc: Always Be Closing

When I went to teacher’s college, one of the assignments involved developing a metaphor for our teaching practice.  We were to develop a comparison between teaching and something else, and in doing so, we were to refine our own ideas on the profession and our ‘role as teacher.’  It was these affective activities that seemed to define the year.

The examples around the room were all suitably reflective of general ideas on education.  One of my colleagues said that teaching is like being a gardener, for teachers prepare the soil, tend to the plants with water and nourishment, and protect them from anything that will mar their development.  Another said that teaching was like being an electrician, because electricians run conduit and wires, but that the electricity, being out of their strict control and possessing its own life, is like our students’ imaginations.  A guest of the class, a grad student from the curriculum department, said that to her, it was both butterflies and bricks, since teachers need to be a mix of foundation and whimsy, of structure and flexibility.  She had prepared an Escher-esque poster to illustrate her point with the bricks of a wall flying away.

I wasn’t the best student.  I tended to see the year as a bit of a waste – my cohort of 32 had 28 master’s degrees and 10 Ph.D.s.  Some of my colleagues had just finished a term teaching university students as sessional instructors and were looking for more steady employment after missing out on tenure-track university jobs.  I saw ‘reflections’ like this as largely beside the point – and I still do.  I don’t think they helped me be a better teacher because while they did ask us to ponder some interesting questions, there were no answers more correct than others; the speculation involved generally didn’t move past the level of good dinner discussion.  As Doug Lemov points out, it didn’t help me know what to do when the students entered the room on my first day of class.

But students like I was, and am, still desire graduation so I completed the task.  In doing so I decided to go once more to the well of my contrarian’s disposition, I hope still as deep and abiding as it once was, and write something decidedly less idealistic.  I wrote that teachers are like salesmen (pardon the unreconstructed singular gender), because teachers, like salesmen, need to inspire sometimes reluctant customers, to get their attention, and metaphorically, grab them by the lapels and close the deal.  Sometimes we use humor, sometimes ferocity, and, like a good salesman, it takes a wise teacher to know the time and place for each. The best salesmen don’t let personality get in the way of a sale. As teachers, we need to be able to play the crowd, to silence the heckler as we hawk our goods – knowledge – and make our customers feel like better people for having bought in.  It is a good salesman that makes you feel happier for having spent your money; teachers can do likewise with a teenager’s more prized possession – time.

And I think the metaphor holds.  In the David Mamet movie Glengarry Glenross, based on Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer-prize winning play, Alec Baldwin, a dynamic if abusive real estate salesman, confronts a group of under-performing salesmen.  His powerful speech is as darkly comic as it comes, and while the language is spicy, we teachers would do well to heed at least some of his advice: always be closing.

Sadder by the Mile

I came across a wonderful piece in the Atlantic Monthly a while back, ‘In The Basement of the Ivory Tower.’ Written under a pseudonym, it describes the life of a part-time English literature instructor at a ‘college of last resort.’ Professor X teaches ‘young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work.’

And he finds himself within the tension that exists between helping earnest, if incapable, students achieve their course-breadth requirements while maintaining the semblance of academic integrity he knew himself as a student in college. In the end, ‘Remarkably few of (his) students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.’

The article participates in the best category of American magazine writing – it confronts a difficult dilemma and does not shy away from bold, if disquieting to many and offensive to some, commentary on, in this case, the state of education and its place and purpose in society. (I say American because I doubt that a Canadian publication of similar stature would allow the same kind of fearlessness of opinion Professor X is allowed.) It would be easy to dismiss the author as the same old kind of crank common to university; rarefied, esoteric types who have old and outdated notions of what constitutes teaching and learning. I can almost hear those at teaching faculties, often metaphorically miles away from the other academic departments, cry that teaching, even at the post-secondary level, ought to be about transforming lives, not sorting students by ability.

But Professor X isn’t esoteric or stodgy. He obviously cares about his students, for starters; his sympathy bleeds on the page. And his demand for integrity is noble. While a lot of criticism has been written about the artificiality of grades, and much of it is warranted, does there not exist some point at which we deem a student’s work not worthy of the institution’s seal of approval? And on the subjectivity of the judgment, well, it has always been that way and by definition must be. It is necessity not laziness that defines instructors as final arbiters of quality, and the judgment can only be found in their experience and depth of scholarship. It is imperfect, but can hardly be otherwise.

He leaves behind a good deal of good questions: is post-secondary education for all? Why do we insist it should be? What role should the academy fulfill in society? How can we stop the rampant inflation of necessary credentials for even non-intellectual jobs?

Professor X is ambivalent about his work. He regards his career as having ‘sputtered,’ and his employers as less-than-innocent for participating in what might be seen as an elaborate ruse. ‘Adult education, nontraditional education, education for returning students—whatever you want to call it—is a substantial profit center for many colleges. Like factory owners, school administrators are delighted with this idea of mounting a second shift of learning in their classrooms, in the evenings, when the full-time students are busy with such regular extracurricular pursuits of higher education as reading Facebook and playing beer pong. If colleges could find a way to mount a third, graveyard shift, as Henry Ford’s Willow Run did at the height of the Second World War, I believe that they would.’

He argues that he and his students are two sides of the same tragedy, the over-enrolment in colleges, pushed ideals noble and otherwise. And once there, find little of meaning to say to one another, but nonetheless go through the motions, stumbling through the underside of the American dream: ‘I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile.’

Owning the Room

Despite all their myriad differences, there is one thing that nearly all teachers share: nightmares of failure in front of a class.  In some dreams, there are discipline problems, with students out of any sense of control, hurling books, or defying all authority.  In others, students are bored beyond belief by the pedantry of the dreaming teacher.  These dreams are the equivalent of showing up naked to work.  We teachers have a fear of public speaking. (Doubt me? Look at the faces of fellow staff members before they are up to speak at a staff meeting or assembly.)

There are many self-help books on public speaking, but one released recently, Own the Room, echoes some of what charter-school founder and pedagogical consultant Doug Lemov calls “getting and holding the floor” – a concept integral to successful teaching.  The authors, two former actors and a psychologist specializing in stage fright, write mostly for a business audience, and there is lots of talk about landing clients.  But there are also a few helpful meditations on what it means to interact with an audience.

The authors provide a primer on effective speech, albeit with the patina of modern business jargon. They stress the notion of authenticity (a trendy but important concept we used to call “being ourselves”); the use of narratives (what we used to call “stories”); employing novelty and surprise and wit in our speech; creating clarity and intention in our words; crafting powerful transitions between ideas; how to avoid PowerPoint pitfalls; using your authority as the speaker; and generally being memorable to the audience.

I often think that we have lost much of our ability to speak and speak well.  Teacher education tends to assume that oration is inborn, or at least learned by osmosis in the classroom.  I recall in teacher’s college not one lesson on how to hold an audience while speaking, and yet I imagine more teachers fall back on lecture than any other – including the more complicated “brain-research approved” methods advocated in those Ivory Towers.

I recall, too, what Jaques Barzun said about lecturing: that, although it was true that it can be (and often is) overused, the principal problem is most speakers aren’t doing it well.  I can remember passionate, insightful speakers vividly, but I cannot for the life of me remember nearly anything from the more popular co-operative learning strategies.  Which isn’t to say that all teaching should be lecturing; but when a speaker does it well, it can be a revelation.  We shouldn’t ignore the techniques of the most ancient form of teaching – the spoken word.

Whither the School Board?

The Globe and Mail recently reported on a move on the part of provincial governments in Canada to reduce or eliminate the local school board.  The article quotes many who feel the age of the board has passed, and that the money saved by doing away with that level of school governance would free up more dollars for the classroom.  They draw on US examples where the mayor takes on responsibility for local control of education.

While efficiency is sorely needed in education, I am skeptical of the logic here.  If the plan has any hope of real savings, positions would need to be reduced or eliminated.  But the article acknowledges that leading option is to merely transfer the duties (and staff?) to the budgets of local governments – despite the dismal fortunes of cities. While we can all find examples of wasted administration in school boards, can we not find equally galling examples of waste in local or federal politics?

One question not explored in the article is the possible fate of boards as administrative centers.  And here I can see a powerful case in favour of boards and their initiatives.  While the provinces have been taking a larger role in salary bargaining, provinces like Ontario have moved towards a standard provincial funding model, and educational standards have always been provincial, there are still many school boards who, besides taking democratic input from the public, spearhead new initiatives, lead educational change, and generally push towards educational reform – in addition to providing the general oversight of the operations of local schools.

In a board-less world, would there exist local directors of education, and their staff of superintendents and administrative support?  If so, where are the savings coming from?  The actual trustee costs are quite tiny compared to the overall education budget, and certainly smaller than the board administrators.  If not, if the current drive means to reduce or eliminate not just trustees but also board staff, how would the province administer education, its second-largest funding commitment?  Simply transferring the costs to a different level of government, the city, hardly saves tax dollars, and more centralization hardly seems merited in an already highly-centralized system.

The only likely reduction is local democratic input, and given the (relatively) small cost of maintaining that local democracy, it is hard to see the pressing case for reform. When we compare the role of education in our lives to the roles of other government services, say, medicine, it becomes obvious that there is no government service that so dominates the lives of families.  If we are to insist that parents send their children to school, we ought to provide them a simple chance to have their voices heard.

Building a Better Teacher

How can teachers teach better?  Though the question is simple, the answer is elusive. Elizabeth Green tackles the topic in her superbly written, thoroughly researched, and thoughtful article in the New York Times Magazine from earlier this year.

Green’s piece reads as a who’s who of educational powerbrokers, prominent theorists, and rabble-rousers, touching on many of the common educational debates but weighing in on the central question: how do we build the best teachers?

Is teaching, like the guitar, something that can be learned through careful study and practice, or is it innate? Is quality teaching something that can be bought with better incentives? Should teacher education stress subject knowledge of teachers, or pedagogical savvy? (And another question raised by Green – but not fully dealt with – involves the most basic of questions in the debate: what criteria should we use in establishing which teachers are better than others?)

Doug Lemov serves as one of the central characters in the story. An educational consultant, founder of charter schools, former teacher and principal, he describes an experience common to many educational administrators:

As (Lemov) went from school to school… he was getting the sinking feeling that there was something deeper he wasn’t reaching. On that particular day, he made a depressing visit to a school in Syracuse, N.Y., that was like so many he’d seen before: “a dispiriting exercise in good people failing,” as he described it to me recently. Sometimes Lemov could diagnose problems as soon as he walked in the door. But not here. Student test scores had dipped so low that administrators worried the state might close down the school. But the teachers seemed to care about their students. They sat down with them on the floor to read and picked activities that should have engaged them. The classes were small. The school had rigorous academic standards and state-of-the-art curriculums and used a software program to analyze test results for each student, pinpointing which skills she still needed to work on.But when it came to actual teaching, the daily task of getting students to learn, the school floundered. Students disobeyed teachers’ instructions, and class discussions veered away from the lesson plans. In one class Lemov observed, the teacher spent several minutes debating a student about why he didn’t have a pencil. Another divided her students into two groups to practice multiplication together, only to watch them turn to the more interesting work of chatting. A single quiet student soldiered on with the problems. As Lemov drove from Syracuse back to his home in Albany, he tried to figure out what he could do to help. He knew how to advise schools to adopt a better curriculum or raise standards or develop better communication channels between teachers and principals. But he realized that he had no clue how to advise schools about their main event: how to teach.

He set out to discover why some teachers’ students succeeded and others’ did not – at least, not in the same measure. His observations were collected in an underground book called Lemov’s Taxonomy, only recently available for purchase, Teach Like a Champion – a book that, like Strunk’s Elements of Style, seeks to put into words something ethereal, mystical, but unmistakable when you see it. For Strunk, it was composition; for Lemov, it is teaching.

Lemov argues that by collecting mountains of data – some quantitative from standardized tests, some qualitative from classroom visits and videotaped lessons from ‘star’ teachers – we can determine a list of the best kinds of teaching methods. Most center around ‘getting and holding the floor.’ A skill that, argues Lemov and others, is nearly entirely absent from the curricula of teaching faculties – but one so central to successful teaching it will resonate with anyone who has ever stood in front of a class.

The article is, like many that have appeared in the NYT over the past few years and beyond, highly critical of teacher education – and the often pointless exercise that seems to be so many of our schools and classes. Many practicing teachers will feel slighted by it and probably more than a little angry. But there is little denying that it raises some commonsense questions – the dismay should not be in the asking, but in realizing we often lack consistent and cogent answers.