I spotted a story in the newspaper which noted that principals were concerned about the competencies of some teachers in literacy and numeracy. The article, which was opened up to reader comments, managed to gain 122 comments before midday. Most of the comments take quite a dismal view of the teaching profession in particular towards those who have recently graduated from university courses in the last few years. The old adage, those who can’t teach, seems alive and well in the New Zealand psyche.
So lets take apart some of the arguments.
Any idiot can become a teacher
In my case I have an Honours degree (that means I’ve completed one year of graduate study) and majored in Education during my undergraduate degree. I am now completing a graduate diploma in order to gain a teaching credential in primary school. One of the Teacher Education courses that I applied to had almost 4 applicants for every place. Following graduation junior teachers need to be supervised for at least 2 years before they can get a full practicing certificate without which they can’t teach in New Zealand schools. So not only do the Teacher Education providers need to say this person is a capable teacher, the profession also needs to say this person is competent. Out in the workforce my mother, who has decades of teaching experience, was recently turned down for a job because there were almost 100 applicants for 1 position. Clearly not any idiot can get into teacher education programmes and even if the student does qualify through the course and registration process, it isn’t always easy to find a position.
Incompetence is widespread through the teaching profession
According to the article approximately 174 teachers had been referred to the Teachers Council out of a workforce of approximately 52,000 teachers. My mental calculation suggests that this amounts to approximately 0.003 of the workforce (I rounded the number of incompetent teachers up to 200 then divided 2 by 5 to get 2.5 (which I rounded up 3) then divided 10,000 by 100 to find out how many places to put the the decimal point). So we are talking about a very small figure of incompetent teachers. Now lets use some literacy skills. What the principal’s council is actually concerned about is that from the group of 174 teachers who had been referred to the Teachers’ Council for serious competency issues, only 1 teacher was deregistered. It wasn’t a comment on the literacy and numeracy standards of the teaching profession as a whole.
But what really annoys me about the comments is that being a good teacher comes down purely to subject knowledge. We know that just be around someone who is an expert in a given subject doesn’t necessarily mean that effective learning is taking place. As I demonstrated in my Speaking in Tongues reflection, getting a learner to engage with the learning material in order to gain their own understanding is just as in important skill as knowledge of the subject.
Don’t get me wrong, I think subject matter is important. But a student getting one up over the teacher or a teacher making grammatical errors (which isn’t limited to the teaching profession) doesn’t necessarily mean that the teacher is incompetent. Effective communication, reflection and engagement with the learners are characteristics we should also be looking for in our teachers. Along with a view that a mistake is not a sign of personal failure, it’s a learning opportunity.