Middle School

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Teacher Talkback: Are we nursing a culture of mediocrity?

Three reasons our classrooms are not what they should be.We’ve all heard the banter while standing in our child’s school yard. Someone says, “I’ve got an appointment to speak with Mrs. Principal to insist Missy is in Mr. Teacher’s class next year. He’s such a good teacher.” Says who? How can a parent evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher? How do we know a teacher is actually teaching and assessing? Generally, if the teacher is approachable and ‘nice’, that teacher is viewed as a great choice for Peter or Shameka. In fact, for most parents, nice equals effective. Because teachers have extensive job training and are governed by a professional organization, we are entitled to expect a culture of excellence. When we dare to drill down, though, we might actually discover a culture of mediocrity. How can that be? Three issues interfere with excellence:


Teachers belong to very powerful, action-oriented unions. Despite the media spin, unions are not in the business of helping student learning or assisting school boards in the learning agenda. Rather, unions exist to improve the working conditions of teachers. Plain and simple. Thus, there has been a movement to embed language in collective agreements which erodes management rights of principals to effectively run the school. Some collective agreements dictate the length of staff meetings, supervision minutes, and use of professional activity days. Mediocre teachers are protected in this structure. Where is the will to improve if at the end of the year the teacher will get a scheduled pay raise regardless of the quality of performance?


Schools are very busy places. There are extra-curriculars, pizza sales, fundraising envelopes, announcements, surveys to complete, meetings to prepare, more fundraising initiatives, and, oh, yes, the learning agenda! While the learning agenda is supposed to be the top priority, a lot of time is wasted on irrelevant activities. Take the simple task of lining up, for example. The teacher asks students to join her at the classroom door. Some do, many don’t. Those who don’t are redirected. It takes a minimum of five minutes to get everyone organized to move en masse. Half an hour later, this is repeated when the teacher organizes them to return to class. Lining up wastes 30 to 45 minutes a day. Of course, we can’t rid our schools of line-ups, but suffice to say the actual time spent teaching and learning is a fragment of what you might expect.


When I began my career in education, the principal was often referred to as the headmaster. Principals were in ‘charge’ of what occurred in their building. They organized schedules and attended meetings. While much of that remains, the role has morphed into one of instructional leader. So, beyond management, principals are viewed as experts on student learning. They must analyze data and with staff, develop plans to proactively address the learning gaps in their school while trying to achieve system and ministry goals. At the same time, they are supposed to hire excellent staff and assess teaching skills using appraisal tools developed by the Ministry of Education. In Ontario, the government created a passfail (satisfactory or unsatisfactory) teacher appraisal tool which is used twice during a teacher’s first year and once every five years after that. Where else would this mediocre approach be tolerated? The Ministry of Education and school boards in Ontario, for example, don’t even collect data on the number of teachers who ‘pass’ their teacher performance appraisal. The ‘window of satisfactory’ includes excellent, okay, mediocre and close-to-failing teachers. How does that approach push ahead the learning agenda? No conversations should have to happen in the principal’s office during which a parent ‘selects’ their child’s next teacher because that parent is fearful of their child getting a mediocre one. Every teacher should perform beyond ‘okay’. There needs to be a culture of excellence in which outstanding performance is the standard, is demanded, measured, critiqued and shared by all staff in a publicly funded educational institution.

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