Empower the Teacher

(This is in continuation of my earlier post on how consumerisation of education can result in teacher disempowerment.)

If we look at schools in India carefully, we will find most teachers expending most of their available time and energy teaching their students prescribed academic content. We are familiar with what is commonly called ‘content-based learning’ where teachers teach prescribed texts and students try and retain related information, usually till the next test or examination. I say information because this is mostly all that students receive from their teachers. Transformation of information into knowledge takes cognitive stimulation marked by deliberate effort and appropriate methodologies that help students relate classroom learning to their life experiences. Unfortunately, these things seldom happen in most classrooms in India. So, let us be clear about what is generally going on: we are imparting children with increasing volumes of information which they are expected to retain till such time that they are tested for their ability and accuracy of recall. 

Most teachers know that this is not the best way for children to learn. After all, teacher-education courses such as the B. Ed programme provide in-depth insights into child psychology, pedagogy and related learning principles. So, why then do teachers go against conventional wisdom and work with their students in a manner that at best encourages rote learning? Why are teachers not sufficiently empowered to do what is right?

The entire system is partly to blame for this. The present content-based approach to education is a by-product of viewing education primarily as a tool for earning one’s livelihood and thus achieving material progress in life (see my earlier post on ‘Commercialization of Education’). The intense and uncontrolled spirit of competition that currently prevails in our education system is another fall-out of this same problem.

School leadership also needs to share part of the blame for failing to think differently and creating the conditions in which teachers can do what they know is right. In my 25 years of experience I am convinced that most teachers have the answers and know what empowering teachersthey need to do and how to do them. What they need is a little bit of institutional support and a great deal of encouragement, and soon we will begin to see some real change beginning to happen within the classroom setting without much fuss or furor. If not the teacher, who else is there who can change what goes on in the classroom? By virtue of being in actual contact with children they are the ones who need to quickly make the necessary changes. Or else, we can keep waiting forever for an agency, official or expert to do what it takes to change things!

What I am saying is that we need to empower teachers to bring about necessary change in their classroom teaching and learning. Let us face it: having to teach students entire portions of prescribed texts and perform related tasks like assigning homework and carrying out assessments in an unimaginative way over and over again are not exactly signs of empowered teachers!

Here is my recipe for empowering teachers to learn and do things differently and bring about much needed change in the teaching and learning that goes on within classrooms in India:

1. Vision and Mission Clarification

School management and leadership will need to invest the necessary time and effort for articulating a vision for their schools and clarifying theiempowering-schoolsr intended mission. Once done, the schools’ vision and mission need to be communicated to the entire body of staff ensuring that every little activity that goes on in the school is bound within the framework of their vision and missionClearly, a school that is not itself clear about the purpose of its existence is hardly ever going to be able to address the mounting problems that confront the education system. Teachers are not going to do things differently if the school’s ethos does not demand it of them. A school based on sound financial principles may grow big and boast of a sizeable student-body, but this should not make  the school complacent, content with dishing out more of the same.

2. Promoting Innovation and Creativity

Somebody once said, in jest of course, that if teachers are going to go into classrooms and teach the same content in exactly the same way day  in and day out, year after year, then they are best replaced by a set of audio-visuainnovationl aids and equipment that would do the same thing at a fraction of the cost! Reality is that a teacher can never be replaced. But their inability to adapt and do things differently is indeed a matter of concern. In my experience, I have found that many teachers are averse to change, and reluctant to innovate. But innovate they must!

Innovation is vital if the quality of classroom teaching-learning is to be raised significantly. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach just does not work considering the vast diversities that exist among any given group of students in terms of their learning, cognitive, emotional and social abilities.

Most teachers do not always feel encouraged to innovate and employ creativity in their work. The common refrain is that doing things differently takes time; they have to cover entire portions, give tests, mark students’ assignments and perform so many other things. This perception may be partly real. There is, after all, a great deal that teachers are expected to do. But the claim that doing things differently is time consuming is not entirely true. Actually, the whole idea of innovation is to help enhance productivity and efficiency. 

I believe the problem lies in the absence of innovation and creativity from the organizational culture of most schools. If innovation and creativity find centre-place in a school’s vision and mission narration, then these would gradually permeate the work culture of all involved. Everybody, including teachers, would feel amply encouraged, and indeed rewarded to try  out new things.

Teachers need to be incentivised to come up with new ideas and engage in innovation. I did this in the last school where I worked. Every month a teacher was recognized and awarded for trying out new things and producing a new idea or approach that was adjudged the best. This and other initiatives ensured that teachers gradually became more comfortable with trying out new ideas, and soon they were collaborating with one another for implementing their innovations. And their students were naturally better off for all this!  

It is, therefore, upto the school management and leadership to make a strong statement in favour of innovation and creativity for it to actually happen.

3. Ongoing Training and Orientation of Teachers

Empowerment of teachers cannot be imagined without a systematic programme for regularly updating their knowledge and skills. In my expeIMG_5423rience I have foundmost schools fall woefully short in meeting their responsibility for catering to the ongoing development of their teachers and other staff. The perception, again, is that there is insufficient time in the school’s annual calendar of activities to be able to fit in sessions for staff training.

Given the rapidly changing educational scenario teachers can ill afford not to keep refining their insights into related concepts and principles and adding to the repertoire of their teaching-learning skills.

Knowledge is not transferred from teacher to student as is conventionally thought. Knowledge is constructed in the minds of the students. Teachers need to develop and deploy insights and skills to help make this happen. Knowing how children learn and knowing how to use appropriate strategies are the valuable insights and skills that differentiate an expert teacher from a novice one.

Structuring a systematic programme of in-service training for teachers is not difficult as most of the resource input is often available in-house within schools. More experienced teachers can conduct sessions on elements of child psychology and development relating them to how classroom sessions and activities should be structured. In some cases schools may seek external assistance for imparting teachers with the knowledge and skills related to other key issues such as effective classroom management, productive teaching-learning methodologies, new approaches to classroom discipline, motivating students to become better learners, etc.

Ongoing in-service teacher training is actually much easier tIMG_5443o carry out than most schools wish to believe. But they need to muster an unwavering commitment towards the ongoing and systematic development of their staff. By doing so, school administrators will also be setting their teachers and staff on the path of self-learning and self-development. Let no teacher become complacent with what she or he has learned or achieved. The rewards of such a strong commitment towards staff development would be far reaching for schools and beyond.

4. Desist from Deploying Educational ‘Products’

I wrote about ‘consumerisation’ of education in my last post. This is a process marked by the buying and selling of educational ‘products’ for deployment in schools. Among its numerous hazards is the ongoing and gradual disempowerment of teachers.

Most such ‘products’ are externally driven, in the sense that they are created based on what can be marketed and sold to schools according to their perceived needs. The more such ‘products’ are introduced in a school, the less involved and engaged teachers become!

Instead of falling back on such externally sourced ‘products’, I would rather have teachers devise solutions to problems or challenges themselves as they arise. For example, if students have trouble learning math, instead of buying one of the numerous ‘products’ that claim to impart students with mathematart-of-teaching-van-doren-quote1ical proficiency in a jiffy, the teachers concerned would be better served to dwell upon the full measure of the problem and find in-house solutions by trying out different approaches. See the point about innovation and creativity now? This approach inevitably results in the empowerment of teachers who become more fully engaged in the teaching-learning process as opposed to having to fulfill mere supervisory roles. 

Empowerment means different things to different people. Simply put, an empowered person is one whose actions are consistent with the beliefs, convictions, values and principles that she or he upholds. In this sense, unfortunately many teachers are not sufficiently empowered today to do what they know and believe is right. It is the responsibility of one and all to create the conditions where teachers can work with their students based on educationally sound principles. 

Schools that succeed in achieving this today will be the successful schools of the future.

Wish you a very happy New Year.

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