Address the ills in the education system
Minister of Education Fayval Williams speaks with student Collettia Christian, of Dunoon Technial HighSchool, after addressing her year group of candidates sitting Caribbean Examinations Council papers.Looking on is Shawn Aaron, principal of the school. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

It is often said that an attack on the police force is an attack on the State. What, then, do we call an attack on teachers? Since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, teachers have experienced both commendations and criticisms from parents, colleagues, the education ministry, and the Government, etc. However, in recent times, the country's educators seem to be receiving a lot of blame from the minister of education and the prime minister, and this does not sit well with them.

During his address at the ceremony to rename the Denham Town Primary School in honour of former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, Andrew Holness attributed some of the ills in the society to the poor quality of education being delivered in schools.

We are often the product of our education; so, in essence, the prime minister was not entirely wrong in his assessment. However, given the poor working conditions in which teachers operate on a daily basis, with the majority doing their best nonetheless, it sometimes comes off as though those in authority are unappreciative of the work they do.

Teachers are expected to work miracles; balancing lesson preparation, teaching, evaluating, oversized classrooms, limited resources, diverse needs demonstrated by students (financial, emotional, special, etc), a hand-to-mouth stipend, ministry-imposed trainings, and the list goes on.

Fix the foundation

We cannot expect a magical shift in the secondary and tertiary systems if we fail to reform the early childhood level. Of course, it starts with proper parenting and positive socialisation. Then, when the children come to school they should have the necessary equipment and human resources to help construct themselves cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically during these important years of formative learning.

Instead, we find that many children are promoted to higher levels of the education system without meeting the requirements. They simply become of age and there is no other option but to just usher them out.

Although efforts have been made to have more trained teachers at the early childhood level, we are still far from attaining the ideal. For one, several of these teachers, though having a bachelor's degree, are not deemed worthy of being equally paid like their counterparts at the higher primary or secondary level. Yet, they pay the same amount of exorbitant fees to obtain tertiary education.

Additionally, we have a deficit concerning specialist teachers. Our institutions need to be equipped with reading, special needs, and intervention specialists. At present, the system mainly caters to those who are quick learners. Given the workload of classroom teachers, they do not have the time to spend with children with learning disabilities. Another issue is that many teachers are not adequately trained to identify some of the learning difficulties that their students may have. Instead, these learners are often categorised as being rude or uninterested in their education.

The issue with limited specialists is also connected to this idea of elitism and exclusivism in some of the institutions that offer these trainings. We need to have a special education unit in all the teachers' colleges. The more access we have to this training, the more specialists the country will produce.

Curriculum development

Curricula must be revised and updated periodically to adjust to the times and the skills that are important to develop in students for them to become well-rounded glocal (global and local) citizens. For too long we have had exam-based curricula, instead of those focusing on nurturing critical, creative, innovative, and problem-solving skills.

Teachers have equally contributed to this problem, whether wilfully or due to limited time. Many of them focus primarily on what is going to be on an examination paper. Another issue is how test papers are designed.

How can students develop intellectually if they are only given basic matching, multiple choice, and gap-fill exercises? If the students do not develop cognitive skills from early they will encounter grave difficulties navigating through high school and university. Then, again, there are also educators at these two levels who give these same types of easy assessments to their students.

It is equally important for us to stop teaching obsolete content to our students, as well as using outdated methodologies. Teachers are to be critical, reflective practitioners who, though difficult it may be, should try to keep abreast of the latest trends in their discipline. Au contraire, some use the same content and activities that they were given years ago while they were in training. Evidently, the times have evolved, thus there is new information to exploit.

Teacher-training

If we are concerned about the quality of education in our schools we have to also examine the training that our pre-service teachers are getting, as well as those who train them.

One of the reasons the teaching profession is often criticised and degraded is simply because it does not require much to gain access, as opposed to other fields like law and medicine. In fact, the minimum requirement to access a teachers' college is five Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) subjects, including mathematics and English language, and one or two other subjects obtained with a grade one or two, depending on the domain of specialisation. It is for this reason, too, that some students and academic staff at particular local universities believe that the products of the teachers' colleges are substandard.

Similarly, a lot of the faculty members do not possess the necessary qualifications and experience to be teaching content-area courses. Having the minimum master's degree and at least five years of experience teaching at the secondary level does not necessarily mean that a teacher can manage the content taught at the tertiary level. Consequently, the colleges need to be more rigorous in their recruitment in employing staff with at least a master's degree in their area of expertise. Dare I say that lecturers should also be encouraged to pursue doctoral studies and be supported financially in this regard? If we check the statistics of teachers' colleges' lecturers with a doctorate we will realise that it is an unsatisfactory number. The better equipped our lecturers are the better prepared our trainee teachers will be enter the school system.

Research

Research informs practice; however, there are very few college lecturers who engage in research. Jamaica has some of the oldest teacher-training institutions in the western hemisphere, yet they have failed miserably in terms of action research on educational practices. We rely heavily on developed countries to pursue research on our behalf, and the realities are not always identifiable.

In case you want to challenge this narrative being put forward, ask yourself how many colleagues are currently engaged in any type of research related to teaching and learning in this pandemic. This is an opportune time to engage in some studies to create new knowledge or add to the current but limited literature that exists.

Some sort of structure must be established in these institutions, whereby lecturers are encouraged to engage in research and produce articles, if it is even once per academic year. Most of them supervise trainee teachers for teaching practicum and the applied research course. This could be a starting point, as they have first-hand experience of what happens within the schools.

Leadership

Lastly, let us focus on leadership in the education system. For the system to work better, it will require leadership that will bring about results. This means that the education minister and other officials under this agency must be intimate with the education system. Too often teachers are left to take directives from people who have no idea of the realities of the classroom. Let us admit it, there is sometimes a disconnect.

Additionally, we need competent people to lead our educational institutions. These include presidents, principals, vice-principals, heads of departments, etc. It should no longer be the case in which people are promoted to leadership simply because of their years of service in an institution, political affiliation, or any other type of interest. By the way, having a doctorate does not automatically mean that an individual has the requisite leadership skills to lead an organisation.

It is clear that there are serious issues facing the education sector; the ones addressed here are just brushing the surface. Nonetheless, we must give careful attention to these ills if we want to transform the system. Let us stop blaming teachers alone. Many of them have taken offence to the utterances being made by politicians and are contemplating taking up teaching opportunities in more developed economies.

Oneil Madden is a PhD candidate in didactics and linguistics at the Université Clermont Auvergne, France, and president of the Association of Jamaican Nationals in France (JAMINFRANCE). Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or oneil.madden@uca.fr.

Teacher training must now include the new technologies availablein the sector.
Oneil Madden
Oneil Madden

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