WHY GOOD TEACHERS DON’T “TEACH” ANY MORE
“Sit down. Memorize. And be quiet”—that’s how teachers used to teach. Many still do. But classroom revolutionaries like Helen Bumphrey, at left, are changing all that. And school will never be the same again—if we’re lucky
CENTENNIAL YEAR, as it turns out, is the Year of the Teacher. It’s the year of teacher unrest, teacher demands, teacher strikes and teacher resignations.
It is also the year of teacher introspection. Teachers are aware that too many of them are unskilled, the products of quickie how-to-teach courses on summer campuses or a dulling year in an 1890-oriented teachers’ college. Too many teachers drifted into the profession because they were inferior students or because working in an adult world was alarming. Too many teachers are distracted women waiting impatiently for the arrival of Mr. Right.
Teachers yearn for the high, hard ground of elite professionalism, which is what the uproar over salaries is all about. Teaching lately has attracted the idealistic youth that wondrously is springing out of the middle class. In every province young teachers form a core of rebellious Turks who rage that their income is inferior to that of friends in easier and less consequential professions. They fume that teacher education is inappropriate for today’s child and yesterday’s insights, that their time is wasted by chores that could be done by clerks, that teachers should have a voice in what is taught and how it is taught.
The priority is more money, which the teachers say will slow down the appalling exodus from the profession every June: some school systems lose a third of all their teachers annually. But the teachers also are preparing to give the taxpayer more for his money: they anticipate that every teacher in the land some day will be graduated from a four-year university course of unimaginable usefulness. To design such an education, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation last autumn appointed a jovial band of abstruse intellectuals, the match in incomprehensibility of eggheads anywhere. The task: to outline how that saintly marvel, a good teacher, can be mass produced.
The problem is a philosopher’s delight, easily supporting 10 rounds of coffee per session, since it is both insoluble and urgently in need of solution. Good teachers, whenever they are found and examined, do not resemble one another in any obvious way. They have neither background, education, age nor even fondness for children in common. They usually have a measure of empathy; most of them, even the clownish ones, have innate dignity; they tend to be truthful and fair; they are likable; they are readily intrigued; they don’t wound easily; they enjoy themselves. If any of that could be taught at a university, it would be beautiful.
The good teachers of a generation ago earned affection not so much for how well they taught, but for themselves, the uniqueness of their vitality or compassion or humor. The lessons from the grubby textbooks of the day have vanished, but most adults can remember one outstanding teacher with astonishing clarity, in a memory pungent with the smell of geraniums and chalk, the smooth feel of mutilated desktops, dust motes skimming in the air, the heady sense of being fully alert.
Sometimes the good teachers are remembered by having schools named for them, but rarely. A few are feted: Molly Cannon, a French teacher for 30 years in Brandon, Man., passed through Toronto casually last summer and was startled by a reception spontaneously arranged for her by 70 former pupils, who informed her unabashedly that they loved her.
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TEACHERS continued from page 34
The ideal teacher is
a spectator. Students teach themselves
Today's teachers are slightly more complicated: they work in the midst of an education revolution that as yet has established no guidelines and no limits. It’s pioneer time, inventors’ w'eek, do-it-yourself day, w'ith additional lyrics by John Dewey, P. T. Barnum and William Lyon Mackenzie.
Some of the consequences of teacher experiments are the equivalent of a small-scale theatrical production. For instance, Mrs. Dorothy Jones, a Toronto teacher faced with a lesson on slavery for her grade-seven class, began by closing the drapes to blacken the room, then lit a candle in front of an African carving and put a Bob Dylan song on the record player, the one called Blowing In The Wind which comments on man’s indifference to a brother’s agony. It wouldn’t be easy for 12-year-olds to forget that lesson, or miss the point.
But the highest development in modern teaching techniques is the Socratic gimmick, the appearance of not teaching at all. At a few college education courses, Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, for instance. and the University of Illinois, teachers videotape themselves in action and squirm when they discover that they talk too much. (In a U.S. experiment of this kind, teachers were aghast to note that they showed clear preference for about five or eight children in the room, w'hile 30 or 40 percent of the others never heard the teacher say anything to them but, "Sit down,” and, "Keep quiet.")
The ideal classroom now is one in which the teacher is a friendly, helpful spectator while the students are absorbed in teaching themselves. In the main, it is the result of the sound, observable concept that people remember best what they find out for themselves and least what they are told about. Educators call it the discovery method.
In practice, the discovery method is a teacher-killer. There are few blueprints, so the teachers who do it are, by necessity, frontiersmen. The classroom may resemble a section of a midway crowd, full of purposeful meandering and easy chat. In a room of 35 students. 14 different projects may be going on simultaneously, in groups or by solitary exploration. The teacher moves about, masterfully unobtrusive. observing, listening, guiding. evaluating, praising.
The latter is important because congratulations have become a primary teaching tool, ever since Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner’s exhaustive work wnich revealed that nothing reinforces learning so well as a crisp "Right!” immediately after a child does something correctly. He also determined that negative reinforcement. as he calls it. which is punishing children for wrong answers by giving low marks, assigning extra work or shaming them, is of dubious value in the learning process and usually proves downright harmful.
(Behavioral psychologists are the salt of the earth, devoting their lives to proving that what sympathetic people do naturally is scientifically sound. )
Dr. Skinner’s experiments are beginning to have a benign effect on ever> aspect ot education. A few' teachers are trying out a scheme of positive marking, which entails marking only the right answers on a student's test and ignoring the wrong. They report that children seem to learn better and, possibly because they aren't as tense about exams, get a higher proportion of right answers.
Also, many teachers are trying to frame their questions differently: rather than. "Give the date the Hudson's Bay Company was founded.” they ask. "What do you know about early fur trading in Canada?”
To return to the aforementioned teachers who try to provide a classroom environment in which children teach themselves, the relentless pressure they endure during a teaching day in which they must be charming, relaxed, loving and watchful as squirrels is only (he tip of the iceberg. Below, in the cold water of night drudgery, are the desperate hours of inventing the fascinating and challenging projects for the next day.
Helen Bumphrey’s method: throw out the old curriculum
It is understandable that so many teachers are hostile to the education revolution. Under the circumstances, their resistance is sanity-protective.
The old-style system, which still prevails everywhere, is a comparative snap: it goes by the book, opening at page one on the day after Labor Day and ending without fail on the last page a measured three weeks before the June exams. The audiovisual tools employed are the blackboard and larynx; neat workbooks are
next to godliness; slow learners get more homework, quick learners who are restless write, “I must sit still in class,” 500 times. A few fail and everyone hates school. Set ’em up in the next alley.
“Before the revolution,” writes the dynamic Winnipeg principal Sybil Shack in teachers teaching, “a teacher
did not have to worry about his position with relation to his pupils. He was then the teacher, and so the fountainhead of authority.” A teacher today, Miss Shack notes, is a “first among equals,” but “the freer the organization and the atmosphere of a classroom, the heavier is the responsibility of the teacher.” Life is more difficult now for a teacher, she concludes, but it is all to the good for education.
The ethic now creeping into classrooms all over North America is that it’s probably not beneficial to society for schools to maim the self-respect and discourage the curiosity of children. Hence, the discovery method, individualized teaching, continuous progress, uncensored discussion periods, teacher evaluation rather than term-end exams. Teachers who like the premise and accept the burden need toughness, flexibility, ingenuity, courage, warmth, zeal and the constitution of a Tour dc France champion.
So meet Helen Bumphrey, who teaches grade two in Holliston Public School in Saskatoon, Sask., and who just might be the best teacher in Canada. She’s 25, she’s been teaching for seven years and she has invented a method of conducting a class that is on its way to becoming a model for the rest of the country.
Last November she was invited to Winnipeg to tell the Manitoba Teachers’ Society how she teaches, in January she appeared on the cover of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation journal Arhos, with seven pages of pictures and description inside, and in February she was in Vancouver outlining her method to the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. Her classroom is the most frequently visited one in the province. To ensure a wide circulation of her experiment, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation last winter commissioned the first film in its history, putting a documentary film unit at Mrs. Bumphrey’s el how for two weeks.
Mrs. Bumphrey doesn’t look like your average, conventional anarchist. She’s totally pretty, in the first place, with fluffy hair and the soft, rushy voice of a shy girl. She refers to her pupils as “little persons,” as in. “This little person came up to me and . . .” About the only thing that distinguishes her from those sw-eet young teachers who quail before inspectors is that she thinks schools are illogical and deceiving institutions, detrimental to children and not much good at educating, and she keeps saying so. in her gentle, fluttering way. And people listen, because Helen Bumphrey is Tomorrow; she wasn't expected for at least another 10 years.
Her method is simple, like the wheel. The first step is to throw out the entire curriculum, also timetables — the children will devise their own. Then get a lot of books, a lot of hooks: hundreds. Notify parents to lend all the children's books they’ve got, also spare sets of encyclopedias, and any extraneous items, like an empty beehive. Notify the library to be ready to loan about 80 books a month. Then let the childen in.
In Mrs. Bumphrey's case, that means 31 children, all approximately seven years old. Allegedly, all are cxactly ready for grade two which, as every teacher in the country knows, is the joke human nature plays on school administrators. A child or two will he ready for a grade-four reader, a child or two will read at the lowest grade-one level; the rest straggle between the extremes. The disparity is handled, in almost every school in the country, by giving them all the same grade-two reader anyway. It’s a further complication that good readers quite frequently are only average at doing arithmetic, while a slow reader may he a maths whiz. Schools solve this untidiness without taking breath: good readers are accelerated in all subjects, poor readers are decelerated in all subjects. Well, how else arc you going to do it?
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Back to Fielen Bumphrey. At the beginning of school in September, Mrs. Bumphrey tests her class thoroughly. She’s a consummate professional and she knows what she’s doing with batteries of achievement tests, informal and vocal readiness tests, phonics diagnostic tests and a few tests she thought up herself. When she knows her students, she begins to make suggestions — the advanced children are nudged toward hooks that will stimulate them, grumpy underachieving hoys to books such as The Curious World Of Snakes or Rough Ice, slow readers to the sort of illustrated hooks that educators call “highinterest, low-vocabulary.”
Is a shark a fish?
Then they read; lordy, hut they read. There’s no hook report or questions about what they’ve read, which would delight the cerebral mystic, Marshall McLuhan, who recently observed that if parents wanted to stop their children from reading comic books, they have only to insist on hook reports. Whatever interests the children — there are children-chairmen of children committees who design entertainments for the class, based on what they are reading — becomes the social-science curriculum. This year, it was dominated by bees, dinosaurs and sea life; Mrs. Bumphrey learned a lot in the process. “You’ve no idea how interesting bees are,” she kept telling her friends last winter.
“The children can study anything they want to,” Mrs. Bumphrey explains to teacher organizations. “The standard curriculum is really out of date for the sophisticated little people of today.”
When a child directs his own education, the results are awesome. For example, there is no formal spelling program in Mrs. Bumphrey’s room, but the children are following their teacher’s recommendation that they keep a list of all the words they find useful. One little girl admired the handsome words miscalculate and alphabetical, and taught herself to spell them. A hoy, then still six, discovered to his indignation that some books he read stated that the shark is not a true fish, while others said the opposite. He checked through encyclopedia and eventually gave the class his considered opinion: not a true fish, since it doesn't have a proper backbone. His next project was to assemble a list of authors who could be believed and a list of authors who could not.
Bumphreyism works—but sometimes it can come too late
At some time during the day, Mrs. Bumphrey puts an arithmetic problem on the board, teaches about it briefly and then invites all those with an inclination to meet her at the back of the room, where she'll discuss it further. Otherwise, arithmetic is sneaky, with number games, flash cards and such hilarious projects as measuring the school corridor to determine if a brachiosaurus would fit.
Though only an expert could detect it. there’s plenty of cool, skilled teaching going on. Each child, in rotation, has a fiveor 10-minute private chat with the teacher about three times a month. The children call it their conference time and adore it, scheduling their appointments in the timetables they plan for themselves every day. Mrs. Bumphrey calls it evaluation, and puts the results in her records. If remedial work is required, the child gets it right then, or later in a casually assembled small group with a similar problem.
It is significant to note what happened when another Holliston school teacher decided to pattern her class on Mrs. Bumphrey’s: it was a rout, and had to be abandoned. It was a grade-five class and the students were so adjusted to playing the school’s game of preparing for exams that they were unwilling to bother reading anything that didn’t count on the report card. It seemed it was too late for them to respond easily. “Isn’t that terrible?” says Mrs. Bumphrey.
Teachers always inquire what happens to Mrs. Bumphrey’s little persons when they leave her for the rigid world of the conventional classroom. A few. she admits, are upset and angry. "But usually these children are young enough and so responsive that they can change their attitude toward learning. They get down to the business of soaking up information in order to pass tests. I have sometimes been very disappointed.”
Educators are developing a conviction that children can accept a selldirected education program at two periods in their lives, the first and best in primary classes such as Mrs. Bumphrey’s and the second early in their adolescence, during their highschool years. Certainly there is plenty of hearty Bumphreyism being smuggled into Canadian high schools, mainly by English or history teachers who teach the curriculum when they must, but vastly prefer to turn the period into a forum for discussion.
A grade-10 class in Toronto last winter joyfully bounded off the track of some heavy-handed dissection of aery poetry and spent two weeks discussing the vagaries of justice through the ages, including the Steven Truscott case. One teenager arrived home late one day with an armful of library books. "Did you ever hear about the Dreyfus case?” he asked his parents. “This guy Zola was really wild.” In Edmonton, a grade-1 1 social-studies teacher distastefully eyed the assigned text book. "Here it is,” he informed his class. “Unfortunately, we have to write a test on it at the end of the year. I hope you know it.” Then he launched a noncurriculum, which the students dubbed Digressions 10; in no time they were writing essays about the Sino-Soviet split.
Digressions 10 is nationwide. The classroom door may read ENGLISH but inside there is a hubbub about the death of God, premarital sex, police brutality, mental illness, treatment of Indians. LSD and the gluey lava of propaganda that flows from all sides. The teacher seems idle, but lie’s full of suggestions about where more information can be located, or discussion starters such as. "Did you see that picture in yesterday's paper of a Viet Cong being tortured? How about that, eh?"
It doesn't always work: Socrates, presumably, never dealt with students who wouldn't talk to him. By the time they reach high school, many children are in a dangerous mood, a few are mentally ill to a discernible degree, a great many are blanked out by private despairs. The young idealistic teacher looks out at 37 faces registering contempt, derision, viciousness, or nothing. It will he 40 minutes before the hell rings, and the room has the smell ol wildness. I he young, idealistic teacher raises his voice and snaps, "Open your hooks at page 89 and memorize the first 20 lines.”
Elementary-school teachers see the beginnings of the process that turns children down the route of madness, delinquency and dullness. They can tell stories out of De Sade, about seven-year-olds beaten with table legs by lunatic fathers — "His brother went to hospital hut he was in school the next morning” — about unfed children of mentally defective mothers — "They sleep in class” — about heroic little girls who don’t do homework because they are protecting younger brothers and sisters — "Mother is a drunk.”
Teachers in a New Jersey county recently co-operated with the mentalhealth clinic hy estimating how many children in their classes were mentally disturbed. It came to I I percent, which some Canadian psychiatrists would say is low; I I percent, however, means that every classroom in the country has three or four disturbed children.
For this reason, most educators think teacher training in the future must contain a high proportion of psychology. A year ago, a brief from the Ontario Division of the Canadian Mental Health Association recommended this, noting, “The time is overdue when much more stress must he placed on the subject of child growth and development in the training of teachers.” This year Ottawa’s 1,100 public-school teachers undertook to educate themselves in mental health, with an in-service training course.
In addition, emotionally unstable teachers are a matter of growing concern. since they are in a position to inllict lasting harm in the younger grades. The same CMHA brief maintained that the "primary function” of school psychologists should he to help teachers gain insights into their own behavior in order to respond to children more healthily.
Others talk of screening teacher candidates, such as is done in California. The John Fisher Public School Home and School Association in Toronto composed a brief two years ago which commented, "Personality, attitude and motive are of prime importance in people working with children, and it appears to us that there is little or no attention paid to these qualities in applicants for teachers’ colleges. Ideally, a teacher teaches as much hy what he is as by what he says in the classroom.”
It's sound, hut the self-control of teachers is stretched taut hy conditions in modern classrooms. A mother of near-grown children last year decided to take advantage of the Ontario Department of Education's quickie teaching course for housewives. Of her first day in a classroom, she said, “I thought I'd drop dead. They ought to disband the Home and School and make every parent spend just one day in school. That would he an eyeopener.”
Among the serious complaints of teachers is the waste of their skills on nonteaching jobs that anyone could do, such as filling out reports, collecting money for bus trips, supervising the cafeteria. There is also the lack of time during the day to prepare the ingenious lessons required to meet the individualized teaching approach; they must work late at night, when enthusiasm and imagination are flagging. Canadian teachers look enviously at the newest high schools in the United States, which provide offices for teachers and an hour or two of free time to work in them.
Walls are coming down, teachers are learning from teachers
And there is the matter of the salary arrangement, which idiotically means that top, experienced teachers must stop teaching — the best money goes only to administrators. Educators want the best teachers to be able to stay in the classroom without financial sacrifice. With the new awareness of the significance of the first years in school, it is hoped that elementary teachers everywhere will be paid as well as high - school teachers, and grade-one teachers will be paid like princes.
(There is talk of an upheaval in the traditional pecking order in the schools, with business-oriented administrators handling the increasingly complex office work while teachers elect from among themselves a principal who will take care of education.)
The highest priority in change, however. is reserved for the problem of the solitariness of teachers. In the past, a poor teacher could work for 30 years in the classroom next door to that of a great, natural teacher and be totally untouched. Today, walls are rolling back and less able teachers can witness artists at work.
In British Columbia a team of four students from Simon Fraser University joins a teacher in a classroom for eight weeks at a stretch. They watch, and assist when directed. It’s a masterstroke of a solution to two problems: the poor preparation most new teachers have for the front lines of a real classroom and the impossibility of a lone teacher giving individualized instruction in a classroom of 30 to 40 children.
The student-team method was pioneered at Newton, Massachusetts, by Flarvard University and lovingly imported and refined for Canadians by Dr. Archie R. MacKinnon, Simon Fraser's brilliant young dean of education. When it began, teachers in British Columbia were less than delighted at the prospect of having four green hands loitering about all day. But now the demand for Simon Fraser teams exceeds the supply. “When we have our discussion afterward to get a report, it’s like a mutual-admiration society,” says Dr. MacKinnon.
There are about 200,000 teachers in Canadian elementary and high schools. Assessment of the proportion of the really able among them rises no higher than 15 percent: 10 percent is the usual guess. That makes it 20.000 teachers who are gifted at teaching, and 180,000 who aren't.
“It always comes back to team teaching,” remarks Dr. Cecil P. Collins, director of teacher training in Saskatchewan. “There aren’t enough people in the world like the superior teacher, so we have to make better use of the few we have. It means a team, with the teacher directing the others — let’s call them technicians — who will emulate and assist.”
“Anyone who gives the teacher hell always gets an ovation"
“By having the highly competent teacher relatively close to every child,” writes Dr. John H. Fischer, President of Teachers College, Columbia University, “perhaps on the basis of one such teacher to a group of four, five or six classrooms, it might he possible to protect more children from the gigantic lottery which every year de-
termines who shall have a good teacher, who shall have what is left.”
Observes Dr. John Mclnnes, of the University of Toronto’s Institute for Child Study, “It’s like having a kind and understanding mother only once in a while.”
There is some talk now of using para-professional help, trained on the
job like interns. In some schools, mothers already are supervising lunch hours and study periods. Eventually they may be accepted into classrooms, wdth other assistants such as qualified volunteers or unemployed artists, peace workers, the retired, almost anyone with a BA and common sense.
Dr. Paul Brandwein, a Ford Foundation scout who visits more than 200 schools a year, recently stated, "Teaching is not only a profession, it’s a mercy. Teachers are in the area of the ministry, medicine and nursing ... A community must nurture teachers. for actually they are amongst the saints of our civilization.”
But few communities regard teachers very highly; “Anyone who gives the teacher hell always gets a tremendous ovation,” Dr. William HawTe, a children’s psychiatrist in Toronto, once commented. And no community is yet indignant enough to insist that teachers be properly trained for the new humanistic education, what Dr. Brandwein calls “the innovative function of letting the child build his own armature to face civilization.”
'I hat’s what the Canadian Teachers’ Federation is up to. Last May it invited some 100 experts to Ottawa to list some of the faults of teacher training in Canada. When the CTF picked itself off the floor, “we realized w'e didn’t need a patch-up job, we needed a revolution,” admits Winnipeg principal Donald T. McKinnon, head of the Teacher Education and Certification Committee.
The CTF retained Dr. John Macdonald, a rumpled Scot who is professor of education at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, to be chief consultant and to prepare the credo for the revolution. Dr. Macdonald makes such remarks as, “Teachers must he prepared to operate in an atmosphere of increasing uncertainty,” hy which he means children exploring knowledge for themselves will produce unexpected situations; and. “One of the characteristics of the expert teacher is the maximizing of behavior,” w'hich seems to have something to do with children going full speed as they inquire on their own.
Dr. Macdonald is assisted in his ruminations by a panel of nine men, seven of them with PhDs. Their consensus is still evolving, hut the likeliest major recommendation is expected to be a masterpiece of a four-year university course for all teachers, with much of it loaded with practice-team teaching. “The university degree in itself isn’t a sign of anything in particular,” Dr. Macdonald notes, “but it’s the best w'ay to make judgments w'ith a large group of people.”
"He’s absolutely right, of course.” agrees the CTF executive Don McKinnon. “We’ve got to raise our standards for entry into the teaching profession. But what about Helen Bumphrey?”
Mrs. Bumphrey, who may be the country's greatest teacher, is an embarrassment to the pedagogues. She took a one-year course at a teacher’s college and ever since then has been taking quickie courses on summer campuses or by correspondence. She doesn't yet have her BA though she’s working on it.
Well, back to the drawing board. ★