Teachers must put a pep in their step for their students


Wednesday, September 05, 2018

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As the new school year begins, the challenge to build a sound education system for the country continues apace. Problems abound, especially in the area of the physical infrastructure of our schools, the need for new schools to be built, emoluments to teachers, and the development of requisite curricula to meet the demands of today's work environment.

But despite the problems that persist year after year, it can truly be said that we have also made progress in many significant ways. The urgent challenge remains to create an educated workforce that can meet the growing demands of a productive economy. These demands cannot be relegated to the tertiary level of the educational system but applies also to the most elementary levels where a solid foundation has to be built.

The Government has announced that it is moving ahead with its new policy for the transition of children from primary to secondary schools. It has named this transition the Primary Exit Profile. The idea is to inculcate in students critical and creative thinking skills. It is intended to improve their problem-solving skills in which they can be better equipped to meet the secondary school curriculum.

Not everyone in the teaching profession is in sync with this new policy. Prominent among the detractors is the new president of the nation's biggest union, the Jamaica Teachers' Association, Dr Garth Anderson. He has protested, saying that the educational system is not ready for this new programme, prophesying its failure if pursued. The argument is that teachers have not been adequately prepared to deal with the roll out of this programme and that more work needs to be done to get them up to speed. Some have described the policy as unworkable and decry how it is being poorly executed by the ministry.

The Ministry of Education is not persuaded by this protestation and is moving ahead with the programme. What is certain is that the process of transitioning students from primary to secondary schools in Jamaica has never been a smooth one. Neither has it been without controversy.

One recalls the difficulties that attended the Common Entrance Examination and latterly the Grade Six Achievement Test. Both endured for a considerable period, causing burden on teachers, students and parents alike and stretching the resources of Government for their maintenance.

A great deal of the burden was felt by the students who had to study hard and undergo great anxiety as the exams approached and when the results were to be announced. Did they pass the exam or did they get placed in the school of their choice? Those who were bright enough, studied harder than others, or who grasped the contents of the courses more readily were not denied their choices in one of the coveted schools. My understanding is that PEP should reduce this level of anxiety. If it should achieve this then one can live with a bumpy transition process. Bumps in a road can eventually be smoothed out.

Teachers should not resist too strongly this new initiative by the Government. Some have buried the programme, at least in their minds, even before it has been formally introduced. Although the concerns of the JTA must not be dismissed out of hand, it is unfortunate that the president should have drawn up PEP's funeral oration before it was introduced.

What the JTA and other interested stakeholders, including the Ministry of Education, should insist on is the development of the physical infrastructure of the new secondary schools which have been relegated to a more inferior position than have the traditional high schools. These schools must be given the resources they need to function well so that the anxiety of the placement of students can be eventually overcome.

Any programme that can stimulate students' minds, improve their critical and reasoning ability, and extend the power of their imagination cannot be sneered at. This is what leads to fun in learning and to what the creative educator Ivan Illich called the celebration of awareness. This concept rejects conventional and pedantic approaches to learning and places the fascination for learning and discovery into the hands of those wanting to learn the students. The most important function of the teacher is to encourage this fascination. Children must be helped to move away from rote learning and merely passing tests to thinking and solving problems. They will make mistakes along the way, but this is all part of what life is about.

A lot depends on teachers to promote this creativity. It has often been said that teaching is a noble profession and that it is a calling. There is a great deal of truth in this but are teachers always noble in the pursuit of their tasks in the schoolroom? Is teaching for them a mere stepping stone to something else? Is it simply about collecting a salary biweekly or at the end of the month?

It is true that those who dedicate themselves to the teaching profession must be well paid. It is the global cry that teachers are not, but our teachers will admit that their wages and conditions of service have significantly improved over the years. They should never bring themselves to think that the society does not value their work. Most well-thinking Jamaicans will agree that they perform an important and pivotal function in the very survival of society itself. That is why a good portion of the nation's budget is dedicated to education.

Many of us will recall outstanding teachers in our lives. They influenced us to think and to reach beyond ourselves. I remember with fondness and gratitude some of my primary and secondary school teachers and their sense of dedication. Many students of the United Theological College of the West Indies will remember with great admiration the late David Jelleyman, the white Baptist teacher of biblical studies and languages. His dedication and humility were beyond question. He may give you an “A” for a paper but you could expect about a page of red ink pointing out what you missed or failed to mention. He took a keen interest in his students and did not stand before us as a paragon of knowledge.

As the school year starts we should hope that despite the difficulties which still remain in the system, teachers will rededicate themselves to the task at hand. There must be something in the heart of a teacher that transcends money that love for the person who desires to learn and in whose life you can make a difference.

Let us have less of the acrimony between the teaching profession and the Government of the day. After all, they both say that they love and are dedicated to their main constituency their students. Show us that you do. This is not to dwarf advocacy for the things that are right and that can improve your work. But know who you serve, and promote in your students at every level an eagerness to learn, which can be fun. In other words, put a pep in your step for your students.

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