The Grumpy Giraffe

Critiques on social and education issues

Raising the Bar, But Lowering the Quality of Teachers

Todd Pettigrew, a professor unknown to me (but writes for Maclean’s OnCampus) asserts that teachers need to have a bar examination to be qualified. Obviously, Bachelor of Education degrees are insufficient to ensure the teacher’s quality of teaching.

Surely, he must not be part of the Faculty of Education at any post-secondary institution. His writing (both grammar and arguments) does not seem to prove otherwise.

His first argument states that there are too many ways to cheat the PSE system, such as taking easy courses/sections, or even “inventing dead relatives to get exemptions and extensions”. I won’t venture into the credibility of the quote, but I do need to clarify that this is an issue in all disciplines, not solely in Education. If we were to follow his argument, then all university degrees and college diplomas should be invalidated. After all, anyone could enrol into easy sections. It is too naïve to assume that this argument can have the strength to support such a backwards initiative.

He also assumes tests and exams will put off prospective teachers. The current model of Education programs is too easy to sail through, and he believes that Education programs are merely credit-filler programs, such as “Complete 120 credits in 4 years”.

Clearly he is mistaken to think that Education courses are merely lectures, or that you are free to take any course you want to fill up a quota. Education programs are very unlike a regular Bachelor’s program. There isn’t much room for electives, and some Ed programs do not have space for them. The electives are very limited in choice as well: they focus on skills teachers should have, such as assessment, inclusion, multicultural/anti-racist education, miscue analysis, and more. Ed students do not have the luxury of taking Astronomy 101 to fulfill the credit requirements for an Education program.

Many Education programs, U.S. included, have student teaching components that are already very tiring and exhausting for the teacher candidate. Not only is teaching a performance, it is also an emotional burden to communicate and care for ~30 children who look up to you as a role model. Moreover, teacher candidates (TCs) are required to create lesson plans. In my final month, I am required to create block plans to teach for a month, including planning field trips, guest speakers, activities, assignments and projects.

And then there is the emotional component of teaching, which constitutes 90% of a teacher’s job despite the fact that the job description does not entail helping a student work out personal problems. Students may feel more comfortable pouring their secrets to teachers because they see teachers for the longest duration of a day, and because teachers are at a safe distance away. Teachers don’t go home with the students, but the time they have spent together has fostered trust between the two parties, so seeking help from a teacher guarantees the ingenuity factor.

The intentions of this idea are good, but the plan of a bar exam is ridiculous. Pettigrew claims that such an idea can help “weed out” under-qualified teachers who are merely looking for a “nice vacation and a good pension”. Has Pettigrew talked to a real teacher before writing this article? A vacation? Good pension?

Teachers do receive 2 months of unpaid vacation, but not to go to the Bahamas. The 2 months are spent to formulate unit overviews, long range plans, and weekly plans for the upcoming school year of 8 months. If said slacker Education student does not realize that “vacation” is spent on planning, then surely their program has done them an injustice in showing an unrealistic side of teaching.

In addition, we must be careful not to isolate “good pension” by itself. Good pension at the expense of what? Many teachers’ voices become hoarse after several months for good, and come flu season, half the school staff are MIA. Aside from these staple issues, there is always a consistent breakout of certain illnesses in schools, particularly in the primary grades (although intermediate grades are not that much better in terms of hygiene). For example, Fifth’s Disease is contagious, and those who are pregnant (or are hoping to be pregnant soon) should not be in contact with children who have this disease.

Pettigrew then tries to stealthily use the guilt card to convince teachers that the bar exam is a good idea. He says  that there are many good teachers, but also bad teachers who should never have been in the field in the first place. After all, wouldn’t you want a good colleague to work with?

Albeit true, is a test really the best idea that education researchers have come up with? Really? The vision of education is to learn for the sake of learning, and not for the sake of testing, and we have come up with a test to assess the quality of new teachers?

As any Education student would know, doing well on a test doesn’t ensure at all the quality of knowledge, or in this case, the quality of the practice of teaching. It does, however, assess how well you can regurgitate certain concepts. “What is the Zone of Proximal Development?” How can real teaching be assessed on tests when it is such a dynamic profession that is in a constant state of flux? It’s quite ironic, really.

He then uses the thorn of all teachers to drive his point home: teachers want to be better paid. Again, this is true, especially after Broten, our lovely Minister of Education, has decided to freeze wages for the sake of Ontario’s debt. But like I have mentioned earlier, tests are incapable of assessing genuine teaching. Nobody knows what real teaching looks like, but we all know when teaching works. And that’s the elusive beauty of the profession. Teachers can, and should, be subjective when using their teaching methods to accommodate to their class. Surely a bar exam does not account for classes that have students with a criminal record longer than your arm, or children whose family histories are more rugged than a mountainside.

Pettigrew refers to Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society’s bar exam for lawyers as a model and frame of reference. I’ve perused the samples, and I can see why some may think it is a good idea for teachers. The exam requires you to examine multiple factors, and to provide your rationale for the final decision you make. It seems legitimate.

But let’s remember that the profession and practice of teaching is dynamicNothing is the same as the last second. When you offer your rationale for your method of teaching a child, there’s too many things to consider. First off, are they hungry? Students who can’t eat breakfast or are near the poverty line have more things to worry about than your math lesson with polygon shapes. Do they have issues at home? Even a slight dispute with their father may upset them for the rest of the day. Children’s emotional lives are just as complex as those of adults, if not even more. It’s their first time encountering any emotional situation, so they do not have the tools to take it apart.

Every single child’s biography is so complex that half a page would not do it justice in describing the complexities. Whether a child is exceptional, or whether they had a dispute with their friends in recess, or anything else, these details would certainly be downplayed, and would be extremely unrealistically portrayed in test format.

Precedents don’t work in teaching. The classroom is not a courtroom.

And that’s the biggest problem with adopting a bar exam model for teachers. In law, there are precedents, and 95% of the time, judges go by the precedents. Precedents are past cases that are of similar nature to the current case, so to be more time-efficient, judges would usually use the same verdict and punishment as the precedent case for the current case. Sometimes it helps, but sometimes the victim is treated unfairly because their personal experiences are not valued as a separate entity.

Teachers cannot use precedents. They do exist, but they are usually modified so much that the solution is completely tailored to the student in question. This is because teachers need to see the bigger picture. Teachers cannot solely focus on “key words” and formulate a solution merely from those words. Teachers need to fill in the pieces, and they might not even be missing pieces. Teachers may need to add in extra puzzle pieces to understand the situation, and then formulate a solution.

The quality of teaching has always been a crux in society in every culture. This is quite logical: parents are giving away their child to a complete stranger (with other strangers) for 6 hours. Who knows how the child would be influenced?

Despite in teaching, we usually say that there is no wrong answer, I must contradict myself and say that a bar exam is indeed the wrong answer for this problem. To summarize, teaching is too dynamic to put in a test, so personal experiences are devalued, if not already stripped of any value. The arguments Pettigrew uses are weak, and are easily deconstructed to expose the flaws.

Instead of trying to work out the problem at the end of the process, why not start at the beginning? Education programs should have strict, but compassionate, standards. The professors and facilitators in the Education program (or any program) should be passionate about their field and genuinely care about those who are learning their way. This means that professors should be hired based on their experiences and professional qualifications, and not solely for the number of PhDs they have attained.

More importantly, there should be professors who know how to teach, and have a genuine passion for teaching. The reason why students may choose to “cheat the system” is because there are professors who are in the field, but do not know how to teach, or make it painfully evident that teaching others is as agonizing for them as it is for the students. Some professors cannot make strong arguments, and cower when students criticize their notes.

Perhaps the first cohort to have bar exams should be professors like Todd Pettigrew.

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7 comments on “Raising the Bar, But Lowering the Quality of Teachers

  1. Pingback: Why We Can’t, and Shouldn’t, Copy Finland | The Grumpy Giraffe

  2. http://Adrianart.com/
    March 5, 2013

    I actually blog too and I’m posting something alike to this specific blog, “Raising the Bar,
    But Lowering the Quality of Teachers | The Grumpy Giraffe”.
    Would you mind if perhaps I actuallywork with a little of your tips?
    Regards -Katlyn

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      March 7, 2013

      Hey, no problem. As long as you credit and link me, I’m fine with it. Good luck blogging!

  3. Suzanne
    February 28, 2013

    This blog post, Window Shades “Raising the Bar, But Lowering the Quality of Teachers | The Grumpy
    Giraffe” was superb. I am generating out a backup to present to my personal friends.
    Regards,Margie

  4. Malkire
    February 8, 2013

    Excellent post. As a fellow teacher I appreciate this so much.

  5. flamesofthoughts
    February 7, 2013

    Very nice, i have nominated your blog for ‘Liebster Award’, a gesture award for fellow bloggers. Details @ my blog. :)

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This entry was posted on February 7, 2013 by in education, politics, society, teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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