I’m not who you think I am, I’m not who I think I am, but I am who I think you think I am.
We don’t have a teacher quality problem in this country. Canada is fortunate to be home to some of the most dedicated, energetic and highly educated professionals that you’re going to meet anywhere. Our faculties of education do an excellent job of preparing candidates to assume roles as thoughtful, reflective and well-trained professionals, nationally and internationally. Our teacher associations have a highly developed infrastructure dedicated to the ongoing development and support of their members.
No, I think it’s safe to say that the teaching profession in this country is of high quality and has contributed a great deal to Canada’s standing as one of the finest education systems in the world.
It’s not a teacher quality problem that concerns me. Instead, I’m concerned these days about self-efficacy among our teachers.
Psychologist Albert Bandura defines self-efficacy as a person’s belief that they can be successful in a particular situation. One’s level of self-efficacy will affect how they think about, and behave towards particular tasks.
According to Bandura’s thinking, people with high self-efficacy will
- see challenging problems as things to be explored and mastered
- develop a deeper sense of interest in the activities related to a particular role
- be more strongly committed to their interests and activities
- recover more easily from setbacks and disappointments
Although Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy is most often used to describe individual behaviour, I think that it also has some validity for talking about group and organizational behaviour as well.
I would argue that one of the casualties of the accountability movement in education has been the self-efficacy of teachers, both individually and collectively. In order to legitimize the centralization of power and control over schools that has characterized and, in a sense, defined this movement, it has been necessary to substantially alter the educational discourse and related messaging about teachers.
For the past 15 years or so, a constant stream of top down “school improvement” initiatives, data collection protocols, large-scale testing and teacher evaluation processes have been accompanied by the implicit message to professionals working at the school level: “You’re not really doing a good enough job. We’re going to have to fix that.”
And attempt to “fix” it they have. As it currently stands, teachers in many Canadian jurisdictions are not only required to follow a very prescriptive, grade-based set of expectations, but the strategies and day-to-day processes that were once controlled at the school level, often by individual teachers, are now handed down from above as best practice ready for universal implementation.
Now, while I don’t have any hard scientific evidence to prove it definitively, it is my sense that the shift that has occurred has had a huge impact on the way that teachers feel about themselves, talk about themselves, and carry out the work that they have been trained to do. And for many of my colleagues, this effect has been discouraging and more than a little demoralizing.
I, for one, think that it’s time for a change. In my last entry, I mused about how difficult it would be to recapture a sense of professionalism once it had been stripped away. Unfortunately, professionalism is not like a light switch: it’s not something that can be turned on and off at will. It takes a long time to devalue it and it takes even longer to restore it.
Yet, I firmly believe that true transformation in Canadian schools is only going to take place once we have begun the process of re-energizing and re-valuing our teaching profession. And I believe that one of the important effects of this process will be a greater sense of self-efficacy.
As usual, I don’t pretend to have all of the answers as to how this might happen. I’m not even sure whether I have all the right questions yet. But there are three dimensions of my life as a professional teacher that I think might be a good starting point for conversation.
First, a greater sense of freedom to make decisions about teaching strategies and approaches must be returned to the local school and classroom level. Classrooms and schools need to become a place of dynamic innovation and creativity. Educators at the grassroots level need to be invested with a sense of trust they are capable of planning and implementing programs that meet the needs of their particular students. They certainly need to know about the strategies and approaches that others have found to be successful, but they also need the freedom to adapt professional practice to local context. The language of the profession needs to be more steeped in the spirit of responsiveness than it is in the spirit of accountability. And that requires a type of on-the-ground flexibility and professional freedom.
Second, responsibility for personal and large-scale professional development needs to be given back to the profession. For too long, a great deal of teacher development has been appropriated by centralized priorities and initiatives. This has served to drastically alter the way that teachers engage in professional learning and the way that they enter into collegial and collaborative relationships. Teachers need to be given the opportunity to learn about and master new and effective approaches to their work, but more of the impetus and initiative for this learning needs to come from within the profession, and not mandated from outside.
Third, a two-way flow of knowledge and understanding about teaching and learning needs to be nurtured and supported. Instead of coming to teaching professionals with pre-developed ideas and initiatives, the process of curriculum and program development needs to be more dialogical in its approach. Teachers need to begin to see the insights and understandings that they develop as part of their practice as somehow contributing to the overall
It’s an interesting time to be a teacher. On the one hand, our efforts and successes are celebrated on the world stage; on the other hand, the gradual de-professionalization of teachers on the home front has left many feeling frustrated and unfulfilled.
Call it a perfect storm. Call it a tipping point. Call it what you will, but I think that we’ve reached a point in the story of education in this country where its time to engage in some serious conversation about self-control, self-efficacy and the future of our work in this place we call school.
Much more to explore here, but I would be interested in knowing how you perceive the level of self-efficacy among your own teaching colleagues. Have you noticed a change in teacher’s beliefs about their abilities to do the work that they are being asked to do. If so, what is at the root of that change? Is self-efficacy something about which we really need to be concerned?