The Real Work
Are teachers, parents and school administrators in the private school circle distracted from their real work by shiny, superficial things?
At a recent professional development session in a reputed private school in Kathmandu, I asked primary school teachers to list the three most important aspects of their job. The response was mixed but, together, they were able to come up with some of the crucial tasks - being a role model, lesson planning, maintaining discipline, connecting with students, etc. Their answers were impressive but not surprising. This particular school has invested a lot of time and money in the last couple of years by reaching out to various progressive organizations and educators and inviting them to their school for long-term teacher training and coaching sessions.
After the initial small-group share, I proceeded to scaffold the teachers’ thinking by stretching their ideas some more. When Nepali teachers speak about being a role model, they often focus only on their physicality - the way they dress, walk, speak, etc. But I have emphasized the importance of going beyond physical appearance. For example, modeling how to think and act in the context of teaching reading and writing skills. When young students observe their teachers grappling with a difficult text, pretending to not understand a particular passage and going back a few pages to reread, that’s a powerful example for struggling students. They will understand that encountering difficult text is part of the reading process, even for adults. And one strategy they can use is to go back and reread.
I then elaborated the idea of ‘connecting with students’ in order to include the larger task of keeping students safe. Not just physical safety and discipline, but emotional and mental safety. How can teachers create a classroom environment where students feel safe to be who they are, express how they feel, and, more importantly, feel comfortable enough to take intellectual risks? This, too, the teachers understood.
My real goal for the session was to focus on what I consider to be the third most important job of a primary school teacher - researching and planning student-centered lessons. Over the months, these teachers have been exposed to this idea as well. They know that primary school students develop at different rates, they have different learning styles and they need to prepare teaching materials and lessons that target and engage the struggling ones as well as the high-achievers. In the context of reading instruction, teachers need to be mindful of text difficulty so that it matches the reading level of students. Easy texts might disengage students whereas texts that are too difficult will cause stress. On top of all this, teachers need to plan for small groups and one-on-one conference time so that individual needs can be addressed.
I wanted the teachers to consider whether they allocate enough time to the tasks that they consider to be important. As I anticipated, there was a disconnect. Even if they inherently understand the need for research and planning, they don’t have enough time to do it. So what do these teachers spend their time and energy on? This leads to the issue of external factors and unrealistic expectations from parents and administrators.
Most parents who send their kids to private schools have certain expectations - a well-disciplined class, homework that’s corrected thoroughly with red pens and regular extra-curricular activities like Sports Day, Cultural Programs, etc. While there is value in all of this, I wonder whether teachers and schools are spending much more time on these activities instead of creating time and space in their routines for what I consider to be far more important tasks.
Various research has shown that primary school students need to be immersed in reading and writing activities in order to achieve fluency and other higher-order skills such as comprehension and critical thinking. The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project based in Columbia University recommends a minimum of two-hour literacy block each day during school hours for primary school students. Additionally, parents need to ensure that young students spend about thirty minutes reading at home each evening and are exposed to read-alouds and conversation around books on a regular basis.
When I have emphasized the need to increase literacy blocks for students in schools, administrators can’t seem to find time. There’s math, social studies and science to teach. On top of that, there are exams to conduct, classwork and homework to correct. But research has shown that social studies and science doesn’t matter as much if your little ones are still struggling with word-decoding. What’s the point in elaborate Sports Day preparations when your children aren’t motivated to grab a good book and get immersed in a rich, imaginative world? Too often, exams and red pens discourage students from learning and hamper their self-esteem.
Are we taking valuable, quality time away from teachers by getting them entangled with tasks that don’t really foster a love of learning? Are teachers wasting their energies in order to meet expectations of parents who may not necessarily be informed with the most current educational research and practices?
Apart from this, as Kathmandu gets bigger and parents get busier, who is supervising children at home? Are little ones spending too much time in front of TVs? Are they easily distracted by their dads’ smart phones and tablets? Do parents read stories to children on a regular basis?
Recently a school principal asked me to design workshops that will improve their teachers’ spoken English because, understandably, parents expected teachers to have a certain level of command of the language. While the request was not entirely outrageous, there are problems associated with it. I am afraid that parents may judge a teacher’s capability based solely on her accent and ability to speak in English. Besides, adequate fluency in spoken English is usually achieved after spending a considerable time in an English-speaking country, not after three workshops.
We all need to find ways to make teaching, and specially primary school teaching, an attractive profession for talented Nepalis. Salaries need to be increased so that they are somewhat comparable to other professions.
Primary school is an extremely delicate period for young children where thoughtful, targeted instruction can profoundly shape their foundational skills in the areas of literacy and socio-emotional development. Keeping this in mind, we need to nurture and develop teachers so that they can joyfully focus on their real work.
Niranjan Kunwar is a writer and educator based in Kathmandu. He can be reached at email@example.com