Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Blowing a horn loudly for teachers

Shelley, my first practicum teacher told me, if you don't blow your own horn, someone will use it as a spittoon. For years I thought that my difficulty with self-praise was in part due to the way I was raised ("bragging" was the ultimate sin), in part because I am Canadian (we are defined by our unassuming nature) and in part because I am a woman (as Clay Shirky argues, "not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks"). However, lately I've been thinking that it is also because I am a teacher. Those of us who are drawn to teaching are more modest, less self-aggrandizing. Teachers are "behind-the-scenes" people, coaching, prompting, encouraging, pushing, carrying, cheering. The focus is not on the teacher, but on the student.

The danger, of course, is that we become the spittoon of society. Kids can't read? Blame teachers. Kids can't write? Blame teachers. Kids can't solve math problems? Blame teachers. Kids aren't motivated? Blame teachers. Kids are overweight? Blame teachers. Kids aren't responsible? Blame teachers. And because we are modest, we think, yes, we could do better. And we go back to the drawing board and add more things to our plate: literacy initiatives, numeracy initiatives, healthy schools initiatives, social responsibility initiatives and spend our professional development learning how to "engage" students.

The result? Tired teachers. Discouraged teachers. And teachers who don't feel valued. Yet the teachers I meet daily should be sung about in the streets and have their pictures hung on Olympic-sized billboards. But who will blow their horn?

I've decided to take it up - my Olympic series. Here is my first snapshot. Last week was exam week for secondary schools on a semester system. That means that teachers wrap up their semester, mark final assignments and exams, write report cards, put away the books, files, and materials of one set of courses and start to fill their rooms with a new set. It is, as you can imagine, a very busy week. And if they are teaching Socials 11 or English 10, they also have to mark the provincial exams. There is no requirement to mark them in a certain way. They could mark the papers in their classroom by themselves quickly. But teachers in our district decided to mark the exams in a district-wide process that takes a full day to complete. It begins, actually, the day before when a half dozen teachers volunteer - during this madly busy week - to create anchor papers from the stacks and stacks of written exams. The next day the whole group reads the anchor papers together and agree on how the papers should be marked and why. Then each paper is "blind marked" (neither the school nor the student is identified) and "double-marked" (two teachers agree on the mark). Throughout the day and more formally at the end of the day, teachers reflect on the student work, note areas of weakness, and consider approaches and ideas to tackle those challenges.

This heroic work done during a busy time by exhausted teachers isn't just a good day's work. It's work meant to change the future for children, to improve their life chances, to make success for each child a reality. Three cheers for our teacher heroes. I wish we had a podium and medals to hand out.

Image: Nick-K.'s photostream on Flickr

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