The value of teaching is about more than money, methods or results

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Kids and teachers, as always, deserve this holiday break. It's been an especially rough season for marks fretters. The PISA international tests showed our schools slipping. An OECD report this week was disturbing re: literacy and math. TD bank's chief economist, who clearly cares, told the Star's Carol Goar that he's "bewildered by Canada's poor return on investment." He feels we must be missing something. We've kept spending up in bad times and tried a "plethora" of programs. He wonders if "curriculums and teaching methods need rethinking." In other words, more money on more programs. He's a sincere citizen, honestly perplexed. But I'd say he won't find what he seeks since he's looking in the wrong place. I don't think he gets what teaching is about.

Think about a teacher who influenced you: maybe just one, or a few. If no one comes to mind, you're truly unfortunate and deserve the sympathy of those who lucked out. What was it about that teacher? Not what they taught, though they surely taught something. Nor how they taught, whatever methods they employed. It was the way they made you feel significant, you occupied their focus, they believed enough in your value that they wanted to teach you. They made you feel you count and therefore were worth passing stuff on to. They weren't necessarily warm, didn't even need to like you a lot, but saw in you something worth caring about, which made you feel you were careworthy and should accordingly extend your efforts to develop your potential.

That's essentially what teaching is. It's not about money, methods or results. Why bother passing on knowledge or skills if you don't respect those you're passing those on to? Why would they care about gathering any of it in? So pedagogy doesn't matter much, but establishing a connection does. Once it's there, different methods will work for different teachers and students.

There are always new methodologies -- year after year, century after century -- especially now, when private businesses and consultants have learned to siphon off public money in the public system by promising techniques to fix those worrisome test results. The latest is "flipping the classroom." A basic lesson is fed to students online at home the night before. Next day in school, the "teacher" shuffles around adjusting misunderstandings kid by kid, like a tech. There's no reason it couldn't be done online too, or by a robot. Notice what's missing: the connection or relationship that motivates learning.

What's deceptive is that experts and consultants in education are adroit at denying exactly what they're doing: undermining and devaluing teachers. "We aren't undermining teachers," they say. "We're helping them." It's like when you hear: This isn't about money, or: This isn't about sex. That's when it is. There were a raft of these self-promoters on TVO's The Agenda recently, peddling their miracle cures while devoutly affirming their respect for teachers.

The only way to respect teachers -- or anyone -- is to let them do what they know and find their way. There's no easy road to curriculum or method; it's a mutual classroom process of figuring out what you're teaching regardless of the course title, a gradual discovery of what you're there to explore and the best route to it. Content and method are inseparable. If that sounds obscure, I'd bet teachers understand it. Nor is there one right approach. That's the hard fact the consultants and method hustlers try frantically to conceal. Either you respect teachers in this way or you don't. In Finland they do and they get the highest scores on international tests though they do no general testing themselves.

I don't mean there aren't bad teachers. I had some killers myself. But you can learn something even from bad teachers, as long as you've had some good ones who illuminated what it's all for. If there were a list of ugly, stupid phrases -- in this season of lists -- the top of mine would be: Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. Teaching is how a society passes on, formally and informally, what it has achieved to the future. It's the basic project of our species. It justifies our passing, individual existences.

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This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Bunches and Bits {Karina}/flickr

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