To the carpenter with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. To an education bureaucrat, every difficulty manifests itself as a problem solved by more education.
In this light, it’s not surprising that Ontario’s initiative to raise the quality of teachers is based entirely on the unsubstantiated certainty that teachers become better educators by becoming, well, more educated. It’s the kind of simplistic, self-serving solution that governments, and certainly universities that train teachers, latch on to in order to appear progressive, generate tuition revenue or harvest votes in an election year. How could anyone be against furthering the education of such a critical profession? Aren’t our kids worth it?
The truth is that teachers don’t become better teachers by going to school longer; in fact, less formal education may lead to more compelling and grounded educators. A master’s degree in French Renaissance poetry, unobstructed by relevant life experience, won’t inspire kids to listen. And although the extra year spent studying the political impact of medieval animal husbandry on feudal society may pass for sophisticated banter at Starbucks, it won’t bring a class to order at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in February.
People who inspire the young to listen and, eventually, to learn are in short supply in faculties of education that are far more interested in a candidate’s undergraduate average than the wisdom and experience acquired by those who, in the words of Robert Service, have ranged the field and roved the flood. Intangible qualities such as presence, charisma and character aren’t easily measured quantitatively and, thus, not considered worthwhile by those in charge of choosing who gets to be a teacher.
In a wicked combination of irrelevant training, a narrow pool from which teachers are drawn and, more profoundly, the plethora of quality people who are either excluded or discouraged from pursuing a career in education, a mediocre outcome is assured.
It’s difficult to overestimate the damage that the extra year of teachers college, as proposed by Ontario, will have on future generations of prospective teachers. Since most universities no longer have the time or the inclination to actually assess the personalities of teacher candidates through what ought to be a rigorous interview process, the rarefied few who do achieve academic standing for admission will face one of the great paradoxes of our times: Teachers no longer teach but learn – in a postmodernist twist that only renowned educational philosopher Alfie Kohn could truly appreciate – that they are, instead, passengers on a voyage of self-discovery with their students.
And this is just the beginning.
Prospective teachers are inundated with such gems as the “history of education in Ontario,” forced to attend meetings with union representatives and assaulted with lengthy discussions on the legal liability of their profession. But they’re left to their own devices regarding classroom management, a skill deficit that causes many young teachers to withdraw, scarred and disillusioned, from the profession within five years.
Mixed in with this miasma are weeks of apprenticeship where candidates are paired with experienced teachers, most of whom are chosen solely on their endurance within the profession. Some of these people turn out to be excellent mentors, but it’s a roll of the dice. Paul Petzold, founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School, once said experience is more or less meaningless, even dangerous, if it isn’t critically reflected on. Twenty-five years entrenched in the unexamined life shouldn’t be the criteria for mentorship.
Kurt Hahn, founder of the Outward Bound movement, a pioneer in the field of education, and a man beloved, ironically, by a generation of teachers who never slept in a tent, believed that young people needed to be pushed into value-forming experiences. Through noble challenges, kids would develop character and cultivate compassion. It’s arguable that these kinds of traits are the only ones that matter and, in a system hell-bent on tearing down playgrounds and eliminating phys. ed., also the hardest to come by.
If we’re at all interested in developing young people of character, we need to find and train teachers of substance. Adding an extra year only exacerbates the problem.
Rory Gilfillan is a middle-school teacher in Ontario and a former Outward Board instructor.