Columns

Retirement, professional impairment and teaching

Franklin JOHNSTON

Friday, June 06, 2014    

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A rumbling began when the IMF said "retire at the due date", but no one is indispensable, young people need jobs and what did this lot do anyway? People look forward to retirement, but not here; they need extra cash. Poverty is a bitch. Women retire earlier, live longer and, as we are now living 20 or more years than actuaries thought, some pension plans may go broke -- too few workers to support too many retirees. People are healthier, so without war or epidemic we may pay 25 per cent of wages for the privilege of retiring at 70. Keep fit and you pay dearly -- no good deed goes unpunished. We could be anarchist and promote smoking; unsafe sex so AIDS does its job; salty, greasy, sweet stuff so life expectancy falls to 55 and pension schemes might smile, but the problem of age-related impairment grows each year.

We need data so we can plan. Will the Universty of the West Indies, University of Technology, Planning Institute of Jamaica develop data to inform our labour strategy? We are a greying economy and Minister Philips might plan better with this data. We need national workplace and profession-based policies on impairment as we may lose (have we lost?) production, lives and not even know. So what is impairment? I watched a music teacher shuffle through her scales like a drunken card dealer; a name-brand surgeon with the shakes; the manager, teacher who talks the talk but his head is gone. My data is intuitive...I have questions. When does impairment set in? Does it vary by job? Can it go into remission? If a mason is impaired, the impact is quick: "hey yuh caan lay di block dem strait, gimme de trowel an lef di wuk." If a physician is impaired his heirs may have the lawsuits, but if a teacher is impaired you may only know years after that your child has been "duncified".

We need metrics for human development jobs -- those who groom body, mind, emotions, values. A surgeon performs under the gaze of a team; they see the tremors. Impairment in teaching is not easy to spot as it is oral "busy work"; so we need metrics, tracer studies to link a wasted student to a teacher. Professions need data to come up to speed on impairment; some have gatekeepers -- partners, seniors, teams who review work to spot errors before damage is done. Teaching moulds minds, but has no gatekeeper -- the pedagogue reigns! Who blows the whistle? We embrace a culture of silence but someone knows, has strong suspicions or a basis for believing there is incompetence. How do we expose this and offer help? Which villain in the teacher baton-pass unwittingly turns a lively, creative, 4-year-old into a foul, antisocial, cretin by age 16?

On the weekend, I broke bread with a great man, a humble, globally known medical fellow and, as the Merlot flowed, we connected the dots on impairment -- involuntary loss of skill. He opined: "Jamaica is 50 and some in my field still practise; who will bell the cat?" I asked for his views on teaching. He said:

"Drug (prescription or illegal) dependency is a major cause of professional impairment. Some in law, medicine are into a ganja lifestyle; teaching too and not only the young. They don't have the respect of peers -- are never consultants or QCs -- but those who like that life like them. You can change your doctor, but students can't change teacher. Impairment may also be due to illness; it can happen to anyone, but you can exit practice with dignity. There is also age-related impairment, as we do not see ourselves, so we need data to aid self-analysis and create national policies, guidance and therapies."

We have two jobs on the cusp of becoming professions so I raised questions on one -- teaching. The Merlot was flowing and Prof's mind was incandescent as mosquitoes buzzed in the fading light.

"Young Johnston, I have two issues, not insurmountable, but pungent: teachers have a trade union; they saw themselves primarily as white-collar workers and Government is trying to make them professionals. We had professional Hippocratic codes before we had a union. Can they shift perspective? Yes! Then, too, you can't have a profession without a set qualification. My old MBBS is the same for today's doctor -- undergraduate degrees just like a lawyer, engineer. Perform and you may become a consultant, QC or fellow not by a degree. A profession is licence to practise. A PhD in accounting is academic; an ACCA is the professional mark. Teaching is all over the place. In my day a Mico certificate, then a diploma, now a BA; a MA in five years? Where will it end? In a profession the designation is constant, so you beef-up its content as necessary, you do not skip from one academic degree to another."

I quietly, maybe surreptitiously, topped-up his glass of Merlot so as not to halt his flow:

"In my profession I am duty-bound to my young charge regardless of employer or union. I groom his body as a teacher grooms his mind. But is she accountable for her results as I am for mine? In an hour's visit I practise, take note,s and if you compile mine with other doctor's files we know his body cradle to grave. Will teachers do the same for their vast contact hours so that from records on John Brown, murderer, age 22, we may deduce what went wrong? I may be employed, self-employed, unionised or not, even retired, but my accountability for his bodily health stands. Is teacher accountable for his healthy mind? I need no study leave, as I am a fully trained professional and it would breach my duty of care to him; so I fit CPD around my work -- I am educated, so I self study, what of teacher? Study leave was created when schools had 90 per cent untrained teachers; now they have 90 per cent trained, what now?"

He sipped Merlot: "None of the 'pedestal professions' are postgraduate; so does a teacher with a MA teach better than one with a diploma? Does he/she get better exam results? The young lawyer has the same certificate as le éminence grise, as professional distinction is by performance not degrees. A profession works by its code and you live, are rewarded (a QC), or disbarred by it. I am self-employed, but when employed I also abide by my contract. It may have rewards (a bonus) and sanctions. This is not double jeopardy. I am a professional first and always, an employee second; a normal worker is an employee only. Is the Ministry of Education pushing? Do teachers want to be professionals? When the umbilicus is cut, will they see themselves and act as such?"

I drained the bottle of Merlot into his glass -- I should have bought a Jeroboam. He then said:

"Professional impairment is not misconduct, but we need data on all jobs to ID the problem, develop evidence-based therapies, peer or professional mentoring, and a dignified exit. Impaired business moguls play bridge; I often keep score for men who once stood astride this region like Colossi. Poor teaching may blight a child's life chances -- not obvious for years. In surgery the impact is in minutes and seen by the team. We need processes and metrics so we don't wait years to catch errors of impairment in teachers. Now there's a job for your Government."

His glass was now dry, and I properly sated. Stay conscious, my friend!

Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education. franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com

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