Thirty years ago this month, I began my career in education. With a group of Boston College (BC) graduates, I moved to Kingston, Jamaica to teach, for $90 a month, at Campion College. I was 22.
Like many teachers across the globe, I became a teacher by accident. I had never entertained the notion of teaching—I wanted to go into the foreign service, but an intense winter-break volunteer stint at a hospital and orphanage in Haiti compelled me toward what I would later realize was “development” work. When my university, on behalf of several Jamaican schools facing teaching shortages, advertised for graduates to teach in Jamaica, I applied.
“What are A-levels?”
On my first day I was given a box of chalk (to last the year) and an exercise book (I had a copy; my students did not). With no education training, save for a two-day BC retreat on learning objectives (whatever those were), I began my teaching career.
Given my lack of preparation, I did what every new teacher does—I taught the way my teachers taught me. I was very strict (I had Irish nuns—was there another way to teach?). I taught via rote instruction—writing French vocabulary words on the chalkboard with students repeating them in choral fashion. I was responsible for preparing a group of 6th formers (last year of secondary school) to pass their A-level French literature exam in 8 months.
“What are A-levels?” I asked on the first day of class (not surprisingly, no-one passed). At one point I introduced simple vocabulary games which my 2nd and 3rd formers (equivalent to grade 8 and 9 in the US) enjoyed. The head teacher told me to stop. With O-levels, results of which would determine their academic future, “only” 2-3 years away, students needed to focus on memorizing information. This was my first lesson that assessment drives instruction.
Untrained, unqualified, unsupported
On Wednesday afternoons, as part of a Big Brother/Big Sister program, I took my students to a nearby primary school. The principal would invariably ask me to fill in for an absent teacher in the afternoon shift, handing me the requisite teaching materials—chalk and a switch.
From 2 to 6 pm, I would try to teach 75 first graders—who were hungry, who had no books, who had all sorts of undiagnosed learning disabilities, and who sat atop one another—how to read. Not surprisingly, the class was out of control.
I would restore order, momentarily, as teachers often do minus classroom management training—by threatening my students, suddenly and forcefully snapping the switch on a desk. Seventy-five little bodies would freeze and fall silent, wide-eyed and frightened….for about 3 seconds. I am fairly certain no one learned to read under my watch.
Campion College now, from its website, seems to be a modern, well-equipped school, but in 1984, I had almost 300 students, taught in a noisy, hot, over-crowded classroom (45 students but far fewer desks), with no teaching and learning materials, no technology, and a territorial goat that I chased off each morning.
I wasn’t awful—in fact, given the incredibly low standards by which we were measured, I was hugely successful. I was one of the 50% of BC teachers who stayed past the first year. I was a popular teacher. My performance may have been best summarized by an ex-student whom I ran into years later on a plane to Barbados: “I don’t know how much we learned in your class, but we had fun.”
But, like many new teachers across the globe, I had no idea what I was doing, no knowledge of how children learn, and no real idea of how to teach them. There was no induction program, and in two years at Campion, not once did we receive anything resembling professional development.
Nor, if someone had told me what that term meant, would I have wanted it. I oscillated between the supreme self-confidence that youth and ignorance confer, and sudden, galvanizing awareness that I didn’t know what I was doing. I was terrified that someone would come into my classroom and tell me how badly I was doing. Even if I had gone to a “training” I would not have known how to even begin to implement what I learned. In short, I was not so different from so many of the teachers across the globe with whom many of us work.
I fell in love with Jamaica—a land of extraordinary beauty, as well as violence and poverty. The lilt of the Jamaican accent reminded me of the cadence of County Kerry, Ireland, where my father was from. I fell in love with the amazing sense of humor of Jamaicans and the richness of patois, which, when used in tandem, elevate the art of insults to an unparalleled level. “Yah face bright like stadium bulb!”— a student blurted out one day in response to a stern scolding—an obviously disparaging commentary on my complexion. I burst out laughing. Whatever moral lesson I had been trying to impart was trumped by the rich imagery and verbal brilliance of his put down.
Mainly, I fell in love with my students (like Katie and Rohan), with teaching, and with being a teacher. On my last day in Jamaica, a parade of students came by the house. “Thank you,” said one. “I learned so much from you—not just French.” When you are a teacher, these are words you live for.
Jamaica changed my life trajectory. I stayed in education. I finally learned how to teach and did so for a decade with students in US inner-city schools and at the Tec de Monterrey in Mexico City, and another 17 with teachers all over the world. I developed a strong professional identity as a teacher, which I retain to this day. I finally learned about education and what good teaching involves and what good teachers do.
Is it still 1984?
I write here of events and mindsets of 30 years—a generation—ago. I’m guessing that a school like Campion would be loath to take on another group of young, untrained foreign teachers, and in many places requirements to teach have become more stringent. But in many places they have not—in so much of the globe, it is still 1984. When I watch 14-year old girls in Baluchistan, with nothing more than a switch and a piece of chalk, try to instruct 60 first graders, I see myself at 22 in Jamaica.
When I witness a teacher in northern Ghana beat a child with a tree branch, I remember, with shame, that I too once hit a student, because in the absence of training in communication, classroom management, and conflict resolution, teachers often give in to our frustrations and take the lazy and damaging shortcut to physical coercion and violence.
When I read about states reducing teacher licensing requirements, I realize that the same doublethink (really, you had to expect at least one Orwell reference…) of 1984 still persists in 2014—that quality teaching is important, but that it is easy, that anyone can do it, and that little preparation is needed.
Beyond untrained and unqualified
Teacher shortages, as Jamaica faced in 1984, prevail still in many places. But placing untrained teachers in a class doesn't solve low educational quality; it exacerbates it. As one who was untrained and unqualified, I offer the following three reflections:
First, teaching is more than art; it is also science: I had the “art” part of teaching back in 1984—commitment, caring, charisma—in spades. These qualities are certainly important—I don’t know if they can be taught, but they certainly must be learned. But I lacked the “science” piece of teaching. I did not have mastery of my content or know how to teach it or understand how children learn. And ultimately it is this—the science of good teaching—that benefits students academically. I worry about the current mindset that art—youthful energetic, caring teachers—trumps the science of experienced, skilled (and often older) ones. This gives ministries of education, school districts, and schools cover for failing to carefully recruit teachers, for failing to pay them an attractive wage and pension, and for failing to provide them with ongoing professional learning and support.
Second, new teachers will fail—a lot. It is part of being new: Schools and school systems, even in the poorest places, can mitigate the poor or uneven practice of new teachers by offering novice teachers support, mentoring (through head teachers or experienced veterans), opportunities to see other teachers in action, and clinical supervision. Such interventions have been shown to improve the low instructional quality and reduce the high attrition rates so commonly associated with novice teachers. But when we place any new teachers in classrooms and then fail to help or support them, we create a cycle of failure among teachers and students. We communicate the message that good teaching doesn’t matter, that improvement doesn’t matter, that being a teacher is not an important profession, and that student learning really isn’t that important. Helping new teachers get better requires investments in educational leadership so that principals and education officials—not just teachers—are made accountable for quality instruction.
Finally, the world’s poorest children deserve the world’s best teachers: Birth and opportunity are often determined by some great cosmic roll of the dice. For children born to wealthy, educated parents, the stakes are lower—wealth and privilege confer choice and opportunity and, while a mediocre teacher hurts such students, it doesn’t debilitate them, because they have options and opportunities. Poor children have no such advantages. Education often represents the only opportunity these children will have to attain some kind of a better life. But unless poor children have access to the very best teachers, that wealth gap will only expand, not contract. The stakes could not be higher for these kids.
Jamaica taught me that when we teach students well we improve the lives of those students. Working with teachers taught me that when we teach teachers well we improve the lives of thousands of students.
To my students at Campion College who made me a better teacher, and who taught me so much about myself and about life, thank you, Cool Runnings, and Fortes in Fide et Opere.