Learn to appreciate good teachers

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Learn to appreciate good teachers

Saturday, 23 May 2020 | sarah iype

A roadmap to improve teacher quality should include transparent and merit-based recruitment policies to ensure that only the most-deserving individuals get selected. Training should be rigorous and customised as opposed to standardised modules

With COVID-19 bringing the shutters down on schools and colleges in the country, over one crore teachers are adapting to new ways of instruction to ensure minimal disruptions to education. Schools are finding innovative ways to impart lessons, right from getting their teachers to use WhatsApp to correct assessments, recording classes or live-streaming lectures.

In every effort, be it home visits to check on students, travelling miles in search of internet connectivity to access online training material or contributions from retired faculty, the teachers truly remain the frontline warriors of education. Yet they are undervalued and unappreciated. The typical job description of a teacher involves expectations around strong content knowledge, 21st-century learning experiences, effective learning environment as well as the need to be life-long learners, growing and evolving in their professions.

But beyond what meets the eye, teachers also have to be passionate and thoughtful, encouraging student engagement. They have to be responsive and empathetic to the needs of students from myriad backgrounds; promote collaborative learning and teamwork; inculcate strong values and social cohesion; conduct assessments and continuously use insights to drive, modify and bolster instruction. Educators must collaborate and consistently engage with parents and the larger community; be role models, holding themselves to the highest professional standards and serve as mentors, bringing out the best in each student, facilitating their transition to higher levels of education or work. While expectations are galore, teachers function in a system that is crippled with challenges, including poor training and inadequate resources. Teachers in India are often burdened with administrative responsibilities — election duties, maintaining multiple student rosters and so on. Teacher distribution is also poor and consequently, a single teacher could be teaching students from different classes or at various learning levels, at the same time. Despite overarching challenges and constrained work environment, teachers are disproportionately faulted for poor learning outcomes and painted as culprits.

As standardised tests outweigh a teacher’s personal observation of a student’s progress; as people outside of education are more prized as teachers than those who have honed the craft;  as technology threatens to replace teachers; or as policies are set without factoring in the opinions of teachers, we witness a collective failure — a massive undermining of the profession. It marks a systemic failure to recognise and value teachers as experts in the field.

Standardised models of practice and training, evidence-based strategies that advocate a one-size-fits-all approach tend to overshadow the unimaginable unpredictability and ingenuity of working with and shaping young individuals. What makes a teacher’s work unique is that at the heart of it is emotional labour. It requires establishing connections with students first and teaching, after. For a teacher, the most joyous memories stem from seemingly little moments like a restless child settling down in the classroom, a slow-learner inculcating strong foundational skills, watching students embody values of sharing and kindness, witnessing the shy student ask questions or listening to first-generation school-goers teach their parents the alphabet. This kind of work seldom gets accurately captured in productivity or efficiency metrics.

Though the metrics can’t possibly account for it all, they do offer interesting insights. Today, with an increasing body of research, there is greater clarity and evidence on key drivers of learning. Teachers are paramount. No other initiative  — such as reducing class size, revamping curriculum, investing in technology and building better infrastructure comes close to having as much of an impact as a good teacher.

Drawing from a Harvard-Columbia Study, which tracked 2.5 million students over two decades, one can safely conclude that elementary and middle school teachers have a lasting impact beyond academics, including greater matriculation and higher adult earnings. Even students with good kindergarten teachers end up making more money in the long run. Another study from Stanford shows that an effective teacher can raise learning levels each year. These impacts attenuate over time and with 70 per cent of these gains retained in the long run, a student with a learning achievement, that is one standard deviation above average, can expect 10-15 per cent higher earnings each year. There is symmetry in these estimates, too.  The impact, as multiplied by the number of students taught, means that the economic value of a good teacher grows with larger classes.

While the majority of teachers may be effective and hard-working, the symmetry also suggests lower returns from ineffective or poor-quality teachers. Simply put, better teachers have greater potential.

A 2013 study estimated that replacing an ineffective teacher in the bottom five per cent with an average teacher could boost one student’s earnings in the US by $2,50,000. Extrapolating from this, a 2016 report from Washington anticipated an increase of more than $11 billion in earnings of students by improving teacher quality for a million public school students.

Implications for policy in the Indian context are clear — there must be concerted efforts to recognise the value of teachers and improve their quality/effectiveness. A roadmap to improve teacher quality should include transparent and merit-based recruitment policies to ensure that only the most-deserving individuals get selected. Training should be rigorous and customised, delivered to suit the needs of each teacher as opposed to cascaded standardised training workshops or modules. Performance-based evaluation and promotion mechanisms must be implemented to drive better learning outcomes. There must be a focus on reducing the administrative load on teachers; providing greater support and access to requisite resources; rationalising the distribution of teachers, and creating a fostering environment, which acknowledges their work and encourages professional growth.

It is time we valued teachers, perhaps as we did in the ancient days. So while we “reimagine” the education system post-COVID, let us begin by placing the teacher at the centre, for every child deserves a good educator.

(The writer is a young professional at the Niti Aayog. Views expressed are personal.)  

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