Large Scale Individuality

Picture your favourite teacher. Everybody has/had one. Why were they your favourite? Were they funny, kind, eccentric, inspiring, wildly intelligent, inventive, passionate…?

I dare say that not one of teachers pictured in the multitude of heads that just read this question were a favourite because of their rigorous adherence to the curriculum. I could be wrong but I don’t think anyone said, “I loved Ms. Smith. She followed every directive given to her by the board with zeal.”

One of my favourite teachers was one of the laziest, most disorganized men I’ve ever met. He was my grade 12 Media teacher, Mr. Corin. He never got our assignments back in a timely manner, his lessons were haphazard and clearly improvised 90% of the time, he was often late to class, and he was not involved in any extra-curricular activities. But, he was brilliant, he spoke with intellectual passion about film and art, he showed us important works in all mediums and engaged us in lively arguments about them, and most importantly he forced me to see the world from a perspective that I had not previously considered. I am not exaggerating when I say, if it had not been for him, I would not be the person I am today.

Unfortunately, Mr. Corin would never be hired by any school board if he were looking for a job today. He does not fit criteria for what a ‘good’ teacher should be according to the ministry. To me, this is the real crisis in education.

It has become more important in the teaching world to know the latest buzz words and acronyms than it is to relate well to kids and be an expert in your field. This is not to say that the bulk of teachers out there aren’t fantastic; they are. But, talk to anyone who has gone through the teacher hiring process recently and they will tell you that in order to get the job, you have to memorize board directives and explain how you will implement them in the classroom. They are looking for every teacher to teach the same way, their way.

Where I live, in Ontario, teachers colleges have flooded the job market. There are simply not enough jobs for all the people that are graduating with a Bachelors of Education. For people who have spent the last five or more years of their lives and somewhere between $40,000 to $60,000 going to school to pursue a career in education, the highly competitive market presents them with a difficult choice when they are faced with finding a job: they can do their best to conform to the rigorous expectations of the board, lie about conforming to the rigorous expectations of the board, or give up on their chosen career path and find a different job.

At this point you may be saying to yourself, “So what? Any business can have whatever hiring practices they want. Why should it be different for teachers?” I would suggest that education is a different animal altogether. We cannot treat it like a business because it is not one (at least, I think it should not be one). It is complex, writhing, twisting thing that cannot be simplified in terms of product and profit. How do you quantify the impact that one crazy teacher had on your life?

The current overarching mandate of the Ministry of Education here in Ontario is to reach every student in the unique way that they learn. Their website currently has, “Support every child, reach every student” as their tagline. It’s a great idea; it respects the individuality of the students. But how do you put an idea like that into effect?

According to the Ministry of Education there were 4,897 schools with about 190,000 teachers teaching slightly more than 2 million students last year in Ontario. When I see these numbers, I admittedly sympathize with the Ministry. Being in charge of a system this huge is a crushing task. I can see how they would be grasping at any chance to simplify their job. If I were them, I would start by trying to control the 190,000 individuals over which I had some influence. Because you can’t treat that many people as individuals effectively, I would try to make them more uniform, less unique, in order to streamline the system. I would give them clear guidelines and expect them to follow them. I would flood the teaching pool in order to ensure that we could pick those that adhere to our mandate. I would do all of these things with the best of intentions and in the process destroy what makes education dynamic and meaningful.

Allowing giant masses of people that are under a central control to be individuals is terrifying. It is messy and sometimes causes the system to fall apart. But, it is also what allows for meaningful connections between teachers, the material they teach, and students. In my experience kids respond less to the variety of ways in which you present information and more to the variety of personalities at the front of the room.

And that’s where Mr. Corin comes in. He sucked at just about every aspect of his job except the one that was most important to a scrawny, sheltered teenager. He showed me how to find meaning in the things around me and he did it in the best way that he knew how — without anchor charts, kinetic aides, manipulatives, KWL charts, or venn diagrams. He may not have reached every student in that class, but he reached me because he was an individual with unique passions of his own.

As we strive to honour the individuality of each student by implementing strict guidelines on how teachers teach, we strip the individuality of the teacher, losing the best chance to actually impact individuals.

Think smaller.

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