The Teflon Teacher
I hate people who remember their first teacher in a smug, privileged manner. It's like first sex. What is memorable about bad sex? I do not remember my first teacher. Why should I? School was not, nor teachers my favourites. I was at my best when teacher was absent.
Teacher was a “paid parent” a cut below mom, but capable of inflicting equal damage. Primary school was a blur — a pleasant blur. Memories of Sunday school — the film shows, Sabbath school was a good day's fun lost; the Young sisters at Catholic school, Canon Clark, my Akela and her knots and Mr Bethune’s YMCA honed my vocal prowess. Primary school to me was English, reading, prizes for spelling and “Teacher”. I enjoyed the time, though.
A lot I remember of the school day took place outside class. By an early age I knew what teacher wanted and delivered. Mine was an accidental education, as by the time we got to the books I knew them from reading Classic comics, the Lone Ranger, Superman, Green Lantern, etc. Edith Dalton James was tall to a small boy and she said, “Call me teacher!” I fell in love with this hirsute lady with brown shoes who said I was “bright” and if I did not “form the fool” I could go on to a “good school”. I thought all schools were the same; I now know. To me schools were far or near and mine was far. I set about the Common Entrance, developed a high regard for Teacher and eventually became one. I was teacher. In a short career I told students they were bright; they loved me, I was happy and they got an education. I learnt a lot about teachers. Some were wise, some otherwise. At one time we thought them sufferers — not so. Parson christen him pickney first, so teachers’ kids never went to my school.
If you go to a restaurant and the staff don’t eat there, watch! The statistics may show that 90 per cent of teachers’ kids attend a handful of our best high schools. They know quality, so they know the slop the majority of kids get. In the past few months I spoke to many teachers. I saw them in their finery, in classrooms, at courses and one-on-one. They are strange and wonderful, ready of address, lips of truth, hearts of gold; young ones want a job which pays more as they prefer cash to the free time. Older ones called names of the great people they taught. Strangely, none claimed credit for the thousands of nameless students in their care who were illiterate. Teachers take the praise and avoid all blame “Teflon Teacher!” It is the only avocation where the paying customer gets the blame and keeps quiet. Do you hear parents on talk shows parading their dunce son as the product of teacher X? If teaching was JPS, schools would not survive the onslaught.
Some teachers are fabulous, a few selfish and self-absorbed. Many understand why their benefits were not sustainable. No job matched theirs in benefits and free time. Their perquisites are an affront to the nation as education has underperformed. If doctors performed as badly in the last 30 years, 53 per cent of our kids would have died, 36 per cent would have one arm or leg; doctors would be held accountable, not the tools, patients, poor hospitals. If the wounds inflicted by poor teaching were visible, teachers would be in hock for legal claims. The emotional and other wounds inflicted are not less egregious because they are unseen. At base, education is interaction of teacher and students. But teacher is respected and not called to account. Teachers are Teflon. Nothing sticks. It wasn't me. It is the school, student, books. The police officer is pilloried, sued, tried, convicted; despite failure the school, principal, teacher are treated differently. Students failed by teacher are very forgiving or silenced by their inadequacy. Parents pay up and shut up; society demands no account. No human rights advocate or the public defender sees this. The mother asked, “Den why dem neva tel me seh ’im brain can’t tek teachin’ tel me pay de money?” Have you ever heard an illiterate cuss his teacher for doing a bad job on him? When a boy of 14 emerges illiterate, it's nobody's fault. Our exam results show that most students fail or were not fit to sit the exam. Parents accept this; teachers, the nation accept the unacceptable. Is it the books, schools, teachers, students, ministry? For the first time someone is trying to assess causality. Life is changing.The teachers may say it's the curriculum? The books cannot accuse “No, it's the teacher!” Historically, we respond by throwing money at failure and never identify causes. Teachers must help Ronnie do the right thing by parents, students, the nation, and teachers will benefit too. Together we can make renaissance.
Teaching is a privileged, wellcompensated but unaccountable job. Good pay is a good thing. No blame to them who approved it? What of the hidden perquisites? Do teachers' kids still get 50 per cent off high school fees? Myths of “overworked and underpaid” teachers still persist. Do you get an automatic increment every year? Even when on study leave? If you and I do well and the firm makes a profit, we may get a “tups”. If teachers get automatic increases, what is the incentive to do well? We cannot continue to reward failure. I am gratified at the number of UWI and UTech students scurrying for transport at night. Hundreds of professionals and nearprofessionals in law, accounting, computing, marketing, etc study part-time — ambitious people with day jobs. You will find no teachers among them. Teaching affords years of leave on full pay on our taxes to study, even to get degrees unrelated to teaching. Do teachers still get the cost of the course reimbursed? How many automatic increments for the Master’s in stargazing? Some teachers said they took leave because it is there, but that they could live without it. Some felt the school year might be longer as the system was “broke” and more “face time” for students might fix it. More teaching days are lost than meets the eye — personal days, rain days, private firm days — some felt as much as 10 per cent of teaching days were unaccounted for in this miscellany.
Contact hours were similarly affected. The class periods, even when the teacher was present, include pedagogy, discipline and banter. Imagine the little teaching in a 30-minute period in a shift school? Many felt a quantum leap in good results could come just by increasing school days and contact time. Study leave was raised. They agreed they could do their degrees part-time as many lawyers, accountants, etc. If boarding schools for kids who need habilitation are not sustainable, how can residential campuses for hard-back adults exist? What of UWI and UTech distance learning as “correspondence courses” from the University of London or UWI Extra Mural of the past? Now we have new media, WiFi, broadband; does every university need a billion-dollar campus in every parish? Schools are using internet; can’t adults use computers? Teachers will eschew three years’ study leave, if asked nicely. A lady from out of town felt she would not have to leave her family to be institutionalised in Kingston in term time.
There are many oversubscribed degrees and teaching is one. Show me a profitable export policy for teachers and lawyers, or show me the jobs. Who will serve Kingston Logistics Centre? We need a TVET and STEM system, the size of the present academy. Does each university need its own ICT backbone? Why can’t UWI or UTech be the common carrier for all academia? I argued cell towers should be owned by one firm and serve all broadcasters so as not to scar the landscape, waste FX and energy. This also wastes our taxes. Tertiary institutions have so much money they don’t share services. Do you know how many are developing courses and projects in the same area and not talking to each other? I welcome the IMF. Even competing brands of mackerel, ketchup, etc, are made by the same factory for all firms? Who will tell all these wankers to stop faffin’ around with our taxes? These are IMF times. I expected strong opposition from teachers, but they were balanced. Their benefits were unsustainable, but no one had put the matter to them sensibly before now. They appreciated their benefits but knew they had to rejoin the real world. Ronnie must progress the buy-out talks. Stay conscious, my friend!
Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education.