'Destroying the teacher’ with paperwork!

By Vijaya Jayasuriya
  • Most children in school are scared most of the time - John Holt
  • Who needs the most practice talking in school? Who gets the most? John Holt
  • In the average classroom someone is talking for two-thirds of the time, two-thirds of the talk is teacher-talk, and two-thirds of the teacher-talk is direct influence - N.A. Flanders
  • If a teacher is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind-Khalil Gibran
  • He most honours my style who learns under it do destroy the teacher -Walt Whitman.

(Quoted from: McLean, A.C. English Teaching forum: July 1980)

A 'Young Disillusioned Teacher’ had vented her spleen (‘Sunday Times”, December 26,) on those who are responsible for making her career so unsatisfactory that even her private life is adversely affected. Many teachers are displeased about the sheer amount of clerical work they are called to do related to their lessons. That little headway has so far been made on this is clearly evident from the startling numbers of schoolchildren flunking public exams year in, year out, as was highlighted in the media recently.

Just as the test of the cake is in the eating of it, the success of a lesson depends on the actual teaching process within the four walls of the classroom. No amount of planning or records on paper would enhance the quality of teaching unless the methods adopted by the teacher in staging her lesson were effective in getting the students to learn the stuff taught.

There was this theory about 'destroying the teacher’ bandied about among applied linguists who introduced the concept of ‘Learner-centred class room’. Alan C. McLean wrote an article to the English Teaching Forum titled ‘Destroying the teacher: the Learner– Centred Teaching’. The idea was to do away with the teacher-dominance in the teaching style so that more active student participation is envisaged, while not imposing shackles on the teacher’s innovative freedom by tying him/her up to a drab routine of clerical work.

The propositions quoted at the beginning of this article which are taken from the aforesaid piece by Alan C. McLean signify the particular role generally assigned to the average student in a classroom situation. If we take them one by one it becomes clear that they all imply the insignificant position afforded the student vis-à-vis the teacher’s authority.

John Holt spells out the timid mentality with which students play their role in the classroom while his second statement implies the teacher’s domineering attitude. Flanders too emphasizes the clear domination of the teacher, also allocating a larger portion of the talk to her in an average classroom. In Kahlil Gibran’s statement, the most important word happens to be ‘lead’ which in fact provides a clue to the kind of teaching style that is badly needed to get the students to internalize whatever is taught by the teacher. Clinching the standpoint taken by all the above experts Walt Whitman takes the view of doing away with this domineering model of teaching altogether (‘destroying the teacher').

Thus we understand that it is not the impersonal process of page work that makes a good teacher but her liberal and creative behaviour that brings about the ambience conducive to effective learning by students. Yet how far is this mode of teaching available to our students? My experience in teacher education and supervision in the Western Province has provided me with adequate evidence to argue that the majority of teachers of ‘content” subjects (eg. Maths, Economics etc.) and a significant number of English teachers too have a faulty conception of ‘what is teaching’. Most teachers seem to imagine that teaching only consists of ‘talking’ – just lecturing on the topic assigned in the syllabus.

It is important here to make an analysis of the very act of teaching whether it is mere straightforward talking or anything more than it. If it were the former there would be no need to give ‘post-graduate’ courses for teacher recruits who pass out of universities with loads of subject knowledge in their heads. Most of our local universities run post-graduate courses for teachers because it is accepted as a principle that mere subject knowledge does not equip one with the skills required to become a teacher.

The problem, however, lies with how these courses are conducted and thus how much of the particular profession called ‘teaching’ is generally absorbed by individuals undergoing these programmes. However, much theoretical knowledge is instilled in participants, faulty assumptions about the ‘teaching act’ acquired in 'practice teaching’ in courses invariably militate against the moulding of good teachers.

‘Teaching’ is not just ‘talking of’ or explaining points in one’s own knowledge on a subject whether it is a language or anything else - It comprises many other acts like clarifying, stressing, demonstrating, acting out, miming, checking, questioning and appreciating answers, analyzing, completing or altering answers by students, adding and/or deleting parts of answers and a plethora of activities that come in handy for a teacher in ensuring her success in the act.

This is where the value of educational psychology comes in, a considerable knowledge of which is indispensable for a good teacher. What an effective teacher should in the first place know about teaching is that learner motivation is central for any type of learning to take place. Learner motivation is actually in a state of flux brought about by a concentration of developmental, personality and attitudinal factors. A good teacher should be consistently conscious of the attitude displayed by each and every student to the lesson she is conducting - his reaction stemming from this important factor called motivation. This has to do with what is in basic teacher education called ‘need-satisfaction’ of students in a classroom situation.

Students’ physical and emotional needs decisively affect their motivation towards what is being taught by the teacher. An experienced practitioner loses no time in recognizing any lack of motivation or worse still, distraction evinced by any student taking part in a lesson. It is only after providing a solution that such a teacher opts to proceed with the rest of the lesson.

A few decades ago a Director of the NIE known to me was working on a thesis of ‘lesson-based assessment’ aiming at students’ internalization of knowledge. (I hope the research report is available at the NIE).

His argument was that evaluation of students should happen not only at the end of three-monthly terms nor on other (monthly or weekly) basis, but should take place in each lesson taught. This is valid thinking when we consider how learning really takes place in the minds of students. Checking constantly whether what is being taught is absorbed by each and every student is a vital aspect of any teaching situation.

Though conversely it is argued (as in a statement quoted elsewhere in this article) that students generally get very little chance to speak out during lessons, the gamut of strategies available for a teacher in his repertoire of teaching skills is almost endless only if he is resourceful and has been exposed to a good training programme.

Without any sort of sophisticated teaching techniques known to today’s teachers, our own teachers during the 1950’s used just their creative power to inculcate knowledge in us.

Creating an abiding interest in the lesson was a method used by our language teacher in the primary school. His forte was acting out whatever he taught - for example he used to read out the whole novel ‘Rohini’ by Martin Wickramasinghe in parts every day and entertained us immensely by demonstrating every action by the characters.

The major fault of present day models of teaching is providing loads of knowledge in lessons and waiting till monthly or term tests to evaluate whether what has been taught was digested by the students. Though each and every student cannot be questioned on each and every point taught, they can be kept on the alert by asking questions in random order so that each student is kept on the alert. No good teacher can proceed any further until and unless she makes sure that what is already taught is well-grasped by her charges.

The pathetic lack of this valuable feature in a lesson is what makes particularly the ‘seminar type’ mass scale classes held for public exams mostly fail to produce an even average number of passes. In such a situation just one way communication exists with not even a little room for evaluation.

All training courses for teachers should be revamped so as to incorporate a module of practice teaching that takes into account the necessity for ‘in-built’ evaluation of student attainment during each and every lesson taught. Also the supervision staff attached to education offices should be trained to evaluate lessons they observe strictly on these lines.

(The writer is a retired Deputy Director of Education and former lecturer in English at Pasdun Rata College of Education.)

High costs herald new school year

By Megara Tegal and Vimukthinie Nonis

With the dawn of the New Year, came the beginning of a new school year for children. As children looked forward to the excitement of entering a new grade, for parents along with that came the strain of having to meet the expenses of all it entailed- new school books, stationery, school bag, water bottle, uniform and shoes- all of which add up to a considerable sum.

Schools reopened on Monday (January 3) and for parents it was a hectic time of rushing to meet the booklist requirements of government schools for the first term. These range from exercise books, a variety of stationery, at least two uniform kits which include shoes, backpacks and bottles.

Surdharmika Bandara, a mother of two says that the school her children are enrolled in has strict rules about their study material. Explaining how the financial strain has intensified she says “the school has rules about exercise books being covered in papers of different colours for each subject. This is an extra cost.”

Working mother, Priyanka Atthanayake shares Surdharmika’s sentiments. Describing her situation she says, “My daughter is in Grade 4 and attends a school that has adopted the 5S concept. So the school requirements also include that all students use shoes, bags and bottles of the same brand. So we have no alternative of buying a cheaper brand.”

Providing a rough account of how much she spent to equip her daughter for the first school term she says her daughter's pair of shoes costs Rs. 890, the entire booklist Rs 3000, uniforms had to be bought as the school only provides one uniform and that too is of low quality material; so the uniform cost becomes Rs. 1000. In addition she says that the school has specified the type of food the students should bring for their lunch break, which can be costly.

That brings the cost up to almost Rs. 5000. What’s more she is expected to pay facilities fees of Rs. 1176 which brings the total to a whopping Rs. 6066. According to statistics by the Department of Labour, in 2009 the average wage rates for an employee in the agricultural sector was about Rs. 7,055 per month, manufacturing sector Rs. 7,411 and construction sector Rs. 8, 775. Thus, the cost of the school requirements are about 90 percent of an average employee’s wages.

Education Minister, Bandula Gunewardena explains that “The price of books has increased as the price of paper has gone up” and goes on to say uniforms too have gone up in price as material has shot up as well. When asked what the Ministry plans to do about it, he responded that they will take measures regarding the high prices in the near future.

The Merchandising Manager of Bata said that the price of raw materials has increased and so they are compelled to increase prices of their products.

However, the Senior Marketing Manager of M.D. Gunasena said the prices of exercise books sold at their stores have not undergone a significant change. “In fact, last year an exercise book cost Rs. 30 and this year it’s been reduced to Rs. 28,” he said.

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