Friday, October 10, 2008

Teachers Matter

I am humbled, if a bit mystified, that you have given me the honour of speaking to you on the theme for this year's World Teachers' Day.  I have been a teacher for barely one year.  Probably, every one of you in the room today is more qualified to speak on the subject than I am.  However, I am willing to accept the challenge, if you don't mind taking the risk of being bored.
First, I ask myself who is a teacher?  One answer that I like is that a teacher is a person whose profession it is to make a difference to children, to move student achievement forward, and to bring students to their highest potential.
If our teachers are to meet this definition, they have to be of the highest quality.  We must be both talented and motivated.  It would seem to me that quality is at risk when:
The profession is not competitive with other occupations in attracting such persons; or
There is a shortage of qualified teachers; or
The profession is not held in high regard by the society; or
There are fewer applicants than there are teaching vacancies.
The obvious solutions would appear to be to:
Improve teaching's general status; and to
Heighten teachers' competitive position in the job market; and to
Broaden the source of teacher supply to include well qualified people from other careers; and to
Provide special incentives for teachers whose skills are in short supply; and to
Give extra encouragement and support for teachers working in difficult locations
Teachers, like any other professional, need to have our knowledge and skills constantly developed.
Teacher education, induction, and professional development, are all essential techniques and tools.
Teachers require a lifelong learning framework.
As an aside, I do regret that I have never been offered any form of induction programme before I started teaching.  I have heard a rumour that such a programme exists.  Perhaps, someone thought I was too old to learn?
Teachers will matter when only the best candidates among us are selected for employment.  Teachers will not matter when there is no policy for recruiting, selecting and employing teachers.
There are questions that must be asked.
Is the tenured employment of a teacher in the public service, and the permanency this entails, conducive to encouraging professional development? 
Is there any incentive for continuously reviewing our skills and improving our practice? 
Are there in Anguilla any mechanisms for teacher evaluation and accountability?
Let it not be said of us, as George Bernard Shaw did, “He who can, does.  He who cannot, teaches”.
I want to tell you about Mr Rais.  He was my arithmetic teacher when I went to boarding school in Trinidad at 9 years of age.  This was a long time ago.  The main teaching tool then was the chalk board and a wood-backed duster to wipe it clean from time to time.  Mr Rais made me learn my tables.  He taught additions, subtractions and multiplications.  It must have been very boring for him.  He used to pace up and down the spaces between the desks as we did our class assignments.  He would peer over my shoulder at my exercise book. Every time he noticed an error, he would rap me on the top of my head with the wooden back of the duster.
As a result, to this day, I cannot multiply beyond 5.  The 10 times table was easy.  You just had to add a zero to the figure.  If I have to work out 8 times 8, I can only do it by adding 3 times 8 to 5 times 8.  Or, for variety, I might subtract 2 times 8 from 10 times 8.  I failed mathematics at O-Level twice.
I loved physics and chemistry from Form 1.  I asked for a chemistry set as a Christmas gift every year.  I did well in those subjects right up to Form 5.  Then, mathematics entered the picture.  I failed both physics and chemistry at O-Level.  When I think of that teacher, a special loathing rises in me.
Probably, if he were still living, and you asked him about those days, he would tell you that what he remembers is that, “For every person who wants to teach, there are 30 not wanting to learn.”
I am sure none of you makes a similar mistake with your students.  Unlike Mr Rais, you know that teachers matter.
A speech given, as a High School teacher myself, at a workshop organised by the Anguilla Teachers’ Union at the Rodney McArthur Rey Auditorium on Friday, 11 October 2008