I had the pleasure, along with my colleague @Stephen_Hurley, to facilitate several teacher focus groups across Canada to understand the support they need to teach at their best. This was part of joint research project of CEA and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation called Teaching the Way You Aspire the Teach – Now and in the Future. It is a reflection of where the teacher psyche is today in our classrooms, and provides some ideas of what we need to do to improve the situation for both our teachers and their students.
Provincial/territorial and local teachers’ organizations from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Yukon, Manitoba, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec played a major role in the organization and the recruitment of focus group participants. As much as possible, the organizers attempted to ensure a mix of teachers for each focus group, (e.g. early and later career, elementary and secondary school, geographic, and gender mix). It’s important to note that these teachers were all volunteers lending their voices to this research.
Using an Appreciative Inquiry method we teased out their aspirations as teaching professionals. This was a different type of context than what they were used to. I first explained the research to ‘disarm’ them. As a fellow educator, Stephen quickly built their trust and what emerged after 15 minutes of skepticism and complaints about the way things were was a powerful unfiltered personal context that is reflected in the teacher comments inserted into the report.
What struck me by the time we got to the third focus group held in the Yukon – which included some very frustrated educators – was just how quickly the tension shifted once we focused on their best teachable moments, and teachers revealed such a profound sense of humility for the enormous impact they have on young people’s lives. They just thought it was a natural process that kids would work with them on a daily basis and simply took for granted that it was their caring personalities that have the kids gravitating to them. It brought me back to my own teaching days when kids would come and talk to me at the end of class because they saw characteristics in me that I couldn’t see in myself. These exchanges affected me deeply at the time, but sadly they were just an afterthought.
When you take time to reflect on your best teaching moments, you realize that the outcome of your teaching affects your soul. You’re in the process of transforming kids, and very few professionals on the planet have the opportunity to do this.
During the focus groups, this reflection brought the teachers full circle on why they got into teaching – and it wasn’t because they wanted to adhere to assessment rubrics and follow the board’s curriculum policies. The same goes for principals. They didn’t get into leading a school because they wanted to balance a budget, enact board policies, and handle complaints from parents. Educators want to make a difference in the lives of their students. So why does it seem that in our public education systems, we have lost our way; our path; and our organizational wisdom?
Our focus groups revealed just how much teachers work in such good faith and are trying their best, but they often feel powerless amid the barrage of provincial curricula and assessment policies, accountability regimes, and they had a general dissatisfaction with existing pre-service and in-service education.
Smart organizations are structured in such a way that allow for bright thoughtful caring people to do what they do in a very clear coherent way and have a strong voice for improvement. As far as I’m concerned, the structures of public education inhibit creativity for the sake of control and structure.
This is why I see Teachers’ Aspirations research as a platform to get educators to stop and reflect. Is this really what we want to do with our kids now that we know better? Maybe 20 to 30 years ago, we didn’t know better, but now we do, so let’s get on with it!
After 35 years in education, I can honestly say that the teacher voices I heard across the country have changed the way I think about teaching and how caring for students predominate their beliefs and actions. As a society, we tend to either forget or ignore this. Many teachers said that this was the best PD session they had ever had, so let’s do it again and again! The process for listening to teachers and validating their work can now be built to scale to broaden this discussion, and even expand it towards administrators.
So take few moments to share your thoughts on our report, and/or your best teachable moments with us.