Public school teachers driven by passion, not market forces, educator writes

This column is an opinion by Matt Henderson, assistant superintendent, curriculum and programs, of the Seven Oaks School Division. He has a master’s degree in education and ran for the NDP in the 2015 federal election. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The provincial government took some heat when it introduced a tax rebate for teachers who use their own money to support learning in their classrooms. Premier Brian Pallister supported the initiative, claiming the rebate will stimulate innovative ideas through a free market.

I have always said that powerful teachers exude three values: they fundamentally love kids, they are always honing their technique and never satisfied, and they have what I call the “bring it” factor. 

They come to work every day ready to blow the minds of their learners. They leap out of bed fired up — set to ignite the neural networks of all our learners.

These are the values that I bear witness to every day in schools.

The Education Modernization Act at first glance seeks to model education on the free market in order to create value — or, more accurately, a commodity. It appears to suggest the market will ensure our learners are learning and our teachers are teaching effectively, and at the end of the day, we can place a value or price on education.

We have witnessed this market-driven way of thinking in a number of different strategies proposed by the provincial government.

One example is the teacher idea fund — a $25-million fund designed to promote innovation in teaching. Through financial incentives, the government is placing a price on good practice, hoping to find a silver bullet to ameliorate the effects of poverty and colonialism that plague many of our learners. 

We know, however, that the most important lever in learning is formative assessment — the minute-by-minute, day-by-day feedback that learners give to us and that we give to them to move their thinking deeper. 

The impact of formative assessment is indisputable.

If we want learners to learn, all the cognitive research informs us that formative assessment is the best tool in our tool belt, not cash incentives, and certainly not cash incentives that common sense tells us will attract teachers least in need of professional development. 

Teachers have amazing ideas. I see it. I am in classes every day, from kindergarten to adult learning.

Yesterday I saw high school learners designing and 3D printing rocket parts and then launching them 500 metres into the air — learners going deep into concepts of STEM, being cognitively challenged while mentored by passionate adults who are centred on engaging kids in real work, standing right beside them and giving them feedback to drive thinking forward.

I see teachers working side-by-side with learners on powerful projects, reading and mathematics, providing them with the critical and immediate feedback they need. 

I see middle years learners devouring books THEY want to read and then wanting and being able to create their own books. 

It’s all fuelled by the passion, professionalism and powerful design of their teachers.

I see learners in studio environments designing video games in concert with educators and industry professionals — achieving outcomes across the curriculum, gaining university credits and creating something that hasn’t existed before.

I recently sat down with two educators who want to redesign how they teach. They want to co-design, co-teach and co-assess. They want to merge English language arts with global issues to create deeper learning experiences for their adult learners. They want their learners in the field, doing work that matters to them and the community. 

I urge all decision-makers to shadow a teacher for a day.

Relying on the notion of an all-powerful market that will create the conditions for better teaching and learning is problematic. 

Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of Canada, argues that commodifying or placing monetary value on education and health care is a dangerous path.

“These are approaches that make success personal and individualistic rather than the result of improving the happiness and welfare of others,” Carney wrote in his book Value(s): Building a Better World for All.

Treating public education as a commodity and creating a $25-million idea incubator and tax rebates will not address the needs of our teachers and learners across the system.

In lieu of one-time cash incentives, we need to create cultures where deeper learning stems from intentional professional development in formative assessment, a focus on powerful relationships, relevant and meaningful project work, and rigorous cognitive challenge for all learners.

In Seven Oaks, this has taken over four decades to cultivate. Our high graduation results, inclusionary practices, innovative school models and focus on inquiry have paid dividends for learners and for our community.

Quick fixes and silver bullets need to be set aside while we look at long-term investments that matter. 

While all educators would welcome $1,000 for books or field experiences, we know that real value is derived intrinsically, from the sheer joy of watching a learner transform. This is where our incentive rests.

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