A class of their own: a report on Canada’s teaching professionals who really make the grade

A class of their own: a report on Canada’s teaching professionals who really make the grade

Canadian Living, March 2004

By John Schofield

In Room 219 at Vancouver’s General Gordon Elementary School, a mysterious wizard has seized the attention of 23 spellbound six-year-olds. Brought to life by the inspired hands of Grade 1 teacher Robert Heidbreder, the foot-high puppet, clad in top hat and multicoloured cape, is urging the children to explore the wonders of water in a quest for three tiny elves—Hydraqua (representing liquid), Glacium (for ice), and Vaporia (symbolizing steam). Heidbreder, a veteran teacher who has written five poetry books for kids, uses puppets almost every morning to introduce his lessons. In a daily letter to the class, his colourful characters chart a course for that day’s adventure. As the weeks unfold, the children become part of an intricate tale that traces a journey of wonder. “I love the response of children, the way the world is magical for them,” says Heidbreder, one of 16 teachers to receive the national Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence last year. “It’s hard to express the kind of satisfaction and joy I get each day.”
Even after 27 years in the classroom, the 56-year-old ex-pat American has a hard time hiding his enthusiasm. It’s a passion that radiates from every great teacher, and leaves a lasting mark on the children they inspire. Less competent instructors also leave a mark—in dashed dreams, crushed confidence, or, at best, mind-numbing boredom. But great teachers help students soar, and can literally change lives. And they have never been needed more. In an age of technology and global competition, education has become the key to individual success and the welfare of nations. That’s one reason for the widespread anxiety about the state of our schools, which have been battered in recent years by budget cuts and labour strife. With tax dollars stretched to the max, accountability is the word of the day. Teachers are under scrutiny. And more than ever, researchers are shining a light on what makes great teachers tick.
Studies show that effective teachers have a significant impact on a child’s academic success. Even in poorly performing schools, a student with an effective teacher who enters the class with grades at the 50th percentile finishes the year with marks as high as the 63rd percentile, according to one U.S. study. Given the combination of both an effective teacher and a strong school, that same child’s marks astoundingly jump from the 50th percentile to as high as the 96th percentile. But the influence of a skilful teacher goes far beyond marks. “For some youngsters, it makes the difference between life and death,” says Charles Ungerleider, a former deputy minister of education in British Columbia and the author of the 2003 book Failing Our Kids: How We Are Ruining Our Public Schools. “Quite frankly, it’s the most important, socially useful work a person can do.”

Great teaching is both an art and a science. And those who do it well come to the table with certain innate qualities. At the top of the list is a profound love for learning. Compassion is important. And for those at the elementary and secondary levels, a fondness and respect for children is essential. Most teachers will tell you that a sense of humour helps, too.

But those qualities alone are not enough. “I wouldn’t want a doctor who just really loves working with people,” says Carol Rolheiser, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), part of the University of Toronto. “I want to make sure that a teacher is using the latest techniques that have the greatest impact on student learning. That, to me, is where the science comes in.”

Canada’s 35 university faculties of education are charged with the task of teaching that science. Unlike some U.S. jurisdictions, teachers in Canada must graduate from an accredited teachers’ college to be certified and qualify for employment. Certified teachers are significantly more effective, say experts like respected U.S. education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond.

Still, the duration of teacher training programs varies widely across Canada, including eight to ten months in Ontario, 12 months in British Columbia, and two years in Alberta, Manitoba and New Brunswick. While Canadian teachers are regarded as among the best trained in the world, improved preparation programs could make them even stronger. In Ontario, for example, “I don’t think anybody believes that eight months is long enough,” says Tom Russell, a professor in the faculty of education at Queen’s University in Kingston. Lack of provincial funding is the biggest impediment to extending programs. “We want to do as much as we can,” adds Russell, “to give these people a strong start.”

The most effective teachers arrive in class with an in-depth knowledge of their subject area. That translates into greater student achievement, especially in science and math. High school teachers in Canada must have university credits in their teaching subject, or may achieve specialist status through subsequent study. The same rule does not apply to elementary teachers, who are considered generalists. In 2002, Ontario became the only province to implement the controversial practice of testing new teachers to ensure basic skills and knowledge of the curriculum. The tests are widely used in the United States. The Ontario College of Teachers, the profession’s provincial governing body, also requires teachers to take regular courses to maintain their teaching certificates.

Teachers who do not know their subject deeply are more likely to follow the old, sleep-inducing “sage on the stage” model, lecturing from the front of the class, textbook in hand. They emphasize memorization, and the facts are usually forgotten days after the exam is written.

Teachers with a true command of their subject, and who keep on top of current trends, are more confident about being “guides on the side,” letting students discover knowledge for themselves. They stress true understanding, and, as a result, students are much more likely to remember and build on that knowledge. “There’s been a shift from telling students things to engaging them in genuine research and questions that matter to them,” says Penny Milton, chief executive officer of the Canadian Education Association, a Toronto-based organization dedicated to improving education in Canada.. “Knowledge is not something that simply resides at the school anymore.”

That makes a teacher’s job today more challenging than ever. Add to the mix increasing student diversity and kids’ diminishing attention spans. To make knowledge really come alive, great teachers today must be aware of how different children learn, and they need to know a variety of strategies to engage them. Their repertoire might include cooperative learning in small groups, the use of visual organizers, role-playing, and methods of questioning that reach past the habitual hand-raisers to less-eager class members. “Many of these strategies,” says OISE’s Rolheiser, “push at higher level thinking, and that’s what we want to get at.”

The crowing glory for great teachers is effective classroom management. Without it, subject expertise and command of classroom strategies are useless. A master teacher wins students over and creates a safe, affirming environment by establishing sets of norms and rules in the classroom. It’s a reality of school life: sooner or later, children will misbehave. “The really effective teacher knows the art of invisible discipline,” says Rolheiser, who has spent most of her 28-year career in education helping teachers to be better at what they do. “Really effective teachers know when to give kids a choice and how to diffuse a power situation.”

No university in the world can fully prepare budding educators for the rigours of the classroom. For many, it comes as a rude awakening. In both Canada and the United States, an alarming number of young teachers are choosing to pursue other careers, discouraged by starting salaries under $40,000, a lack of support, and, in some provinces, a hostile political climate. About 25 per cent of teachers in Canada leave the profession within their first five years, according to the Ottawa-based Canadian Teachers’ Federation. In some U.S. jurisdictions, the attrition rate is as high as 40 per cent. In both countries, “It’s rarely the teaching that makes them give up, it’s everything else around them,” says Los Angeles elementary-school teacher Rafe Esquith, a former American Teacher Award winner and author of the 2003 book There Are No Shortcuts. “You think, ‘I’m working so hard, and people aren’t even being nice to me. Who needs this?’”

It’s a disturbing trend considering the looming shortage of teachers. In Ontario alone, the College of Teachers estimates school boards will need to hire a total of 9,000 to 10,000 teachers a year for the next seven years just to replace those who are retiring. A study completed last year (NOTE: 2003) by the college found that, partly due to shortages, one in five new teachers surveyed had been asked to teach a subject they were not qualified to teach.

To reduce attrition and improve teaching skills, some school boards are providing formal mentoring programs for new teachers. So far, only New Brunswick offers a province-wide program. The Beginning Teachers’ Induction Program Run is jointly by the provincial Department of Education, the New Brunswick Teachers’ Federation and the University of New Brunswick.

Mentoring recognizes the fact that, for educators, experience is ultimately the best teacher. Research shows that seasoned teachers produce greater learning gains, although some studies show that the benefits of experience level off after the first five years. The very best teachers, however, never stop inquiring into their practice, says Ann Lieberman, a senior scholar at the California-based Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Principals can play a critical role in creating professional learning communities within their schools. But governments, universities, school boards and unions have been “notoriously unsuccessful” in supporting professional development, she says. As a result, important tools such as technology are not being maximized. In many jurisdictions, budgets for professional development have been cut. “The big problem in teaching,” says Lieberman, “is that teachers don’t have a lot of good opportunities to improve their craft.”

Great teachers are also hamstrung at times by structural problems. Many feel that the growing emphasis on standardized testing is forcing them to return to an emphasis on rote memorization, and gives them little flexibility to use the curriculum creatively. Class size is another issue. In a typical high school, a teacher may see more than 150 students in a day. In the United States, that fact is helping to fuel a growing movement toward smaller, innovative public schools.

In the end, even the greatest teachers must accept that some students will slip through the cracks. Education, after all, is a two-way street. Learners also have a responsibility to create a rewarding school experience, says Stewart Skinner, a student at Listowel District Secondary School in southwestern Ontario. “Students who complain expect the teacher to bring everything to them,” says the 19-year-old, “and it’s not fair to do that.”

In what can be a lonely profession, British Columbia’s Heidbreder says that effective teachers must learn to capitalize on their personal strengths. “To lock people into one way of teaching is wrong,” he says. “As in writing or art, you find your own voice, and when you find your voice in teaching, then you’re really successful.” Both in and out of the classroom, greatness comes in many forms.