Teachers matters so much

A teacher locked me in a cupboard when I was thirteen, so that my evil spirits wouldn’t get out and infect other students. It was safe and dark in the cupboard, the smell of wood polish reassuring, and I remember thinking it was such a good idea – I didn’t want my evil spirits to infect others either. The teacher forgot about me, but she left the key in the door and my friends came at lunch and let me out.

I mention the cupboard because a while back I wrote about the best teacher I had, but people responded mostly by telling me about their worst teachers. Then I read that Education Queensland was offering $50,000 each to up to 500 state primary school teachers who could demonstrate a lack of contemporary skills, so long as they left the state system and promised never to come back. While I’m tempted to have some fun (imagine the interview questions – Tell us what you know about teaching reading… Not much), I’m guessing it’s an attempt to remove those unsuited to teaching from a system that can’t deal with them in any other way. In another life, I could easily be among them. Perhaps we all could.

I certainly think the teacher who locked me in the cupboard would have qualified as having a lack of contemporary skills, even in those days – if only she’d known it could one day earn her $50000. And in case you’re thinking we’ve come a long way since then, I’m not sure we have. I ran a workshop with a class of young children a few years back and watched the teacher compel one child to say the words “good morning”. It sounds innocuous, but having spent the afternoon before in the classroom, I already knew there would be nothing “good” about a school morning for this child. The teacher hated the child, and communicated her hatred in every look she gave and every word she spoke. She spat good morning three times before the child – desperate to assert herself in an impossible situation – caved in and said good morning back. Frankly, my cupboard was better. When I was leaving the campus, I told the principal they needed to do something about the teacher. I don’t know what happened, or even what’s possible in a system where both teachers and principals can’t easily improve their skills, get performance feedback or be held to account for their actions except at the broadest level.

Universities have done a mighty job to improve teaching in recent decades. Rather than introducing tests like NAPLAN that hit schools and teachers over the head, and national curricula that take responsibility away from teachers, universities have given teachers more responsibility and placed more value on their teaching. Most importantly in universities, student feedback is used to help teachers improve.

I don’t know why schools don’t collect student feedback as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s because we tend to think of children as empty vessels we can fill with beliefs and facts. But they’re not empty vessels. They have opinions, and they know when they’re happily learning, and when they’re not. I’m pretty sure that if someone had thought to ask, I’d have been able to say I didn’t much like it in the cupboard. I’m pretty sure the child forced to  say “good morning” knew she was unhappy. I’m very confident neither of us was learning anything positive about the world.  

As my teacher was closing the cupboard door, I saw her chin quiver with what I’m now sure was upset – she was upset to put me in the cupboard and that was a good thing, a redeeming thing, I think now. It said she was aware something wasn’t quite right. Perhaps if she’d had the chance, she’d have sought help or left teaching. As far as I could glean, the “good morning” teacher had no such sense of the impact she was having, but you never know; perhaps she had an inkling. I think a scheme that gives teachers like these a chance to get out and do something else is good, and I only hope the ones who most need it can recognise themselves and move on.

First published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  23 March 2013. You can Get in touch with Mary-Rose,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter