I have visited the Times Educational Supplement at www.tes.com/news (which I highly commend to you, by the way) twice this week and have been struck by the contrast.
On the first occasion, they were leading with a profile of the winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2017. Maggie MacDonnell teaches in one of the most remote schools in the world, in a tiny outpost of barely 1,000 people in the Canadian Arctic. She lives and works in Salluit, an Inuit community in the far north of Quebec. There are no roads to the village, which is only reachable by air.
Ms MacDonnell is a Canadian from Nova Scotia and has a background in youth work overseas, including several years working in sub-Saharan Africa. She has helped support several suicidal pupils, set up a life-skills programme for girls, secured funding for hot meals in the community, established a fitness centre and even been a foster parent to some of her own pupils…..and all this by the grand young age of 36!
I found the TES interview with her both inspiring and affirming because of the way in which she talks so passionately about the fundamental importance to her of the relationships she built with her students. Here are a few extracts in which I have highlighted some of what I found most striking:
Why and how did you get into teaching?
“I have always loved working with youth and children. I spent five years working and volunteering on youth development projects in East Africa. When I was planning to return to Canada, I was searching for a way to stay connected with young people, and also learn and contribute towards community development within my home country. Teaching in an indigenous [Inuit] community brought all of those things together.”
Has anything surprised you about teaching?
“I did come into the profession worried that working within an institution could come with certain challenges, and that it might be more difficult to build real human connections. “There are a lot of valid reasons for Inuit to distrust me as an outsider within their present-day education system. I am surprised in the ways that they continue to trust me and extend the arm of friendship, so we can build those connections that make the most enriching work possible.”
What’s the biggest myth about teaching?
“Hmm…maybe some people think that it is just about the ‘3Rs’ – reading, writing and arithmetic. But in my context, education is much deeper than that. It is about youth development, citizenship, cultural preservation and suicide prevention, just to name a few pressing areas.
“A second myth might be that the school days end at 3pm. I think, as a teacher in a small Arctic community, your day never ends. The school doors may close, but the relationship with your students is continuous, as you share the community with them.”
What’s the best thing about the profession?
“On a daily basis, to have the privilege of witnessing and supporting young people through their highs and lows is so meaningful. Being in touch and feeding off the energy and the spirit that is so strong in young people is energising for me.
“There is also an unlimited amount of opportunity and creativity. With each new student that walks into your class, it is a whole new story to write, as you help them unlock their talents and explore their interests. As a teacher, you become this absorbent bystander to your students’ growth and development – and you get to acquire so much knowledge and skills along the way.”
Notice also the way she recognizes that the experience of being a teacher is a reciprocal one in which the teacher learns from, and is enriched by, her students…
But then this morning I open the same website to read headlines like:
“Teachers are overworked, underpaid and fleeing the profession in their droves”
“Recruitment fears increase as number of teacher trainees drops by almost 7 per cent”
“To retain our best teachers we need to stop killing them with planning, marking and meetings”
“Teachers work a 54-hour week, DfE (Department for Education) survey finds”
Teachers in the UK have been beset by: ill-conceived and precipitous curriculum change; draconian monitoring and oversight; an obsession with data and statistics; increasing class sizes; and dwindling pay in real terms. As a result, good graduates are discouraged from entering our worthy profession and those who are in it already are demotivated and have had their connection with their vocations stretched to breaking point and in many case, sadly, beyond. Many teachers in UK will tell you that, in the face of all the bureaucracy and scrutiny they just don’t have the capacity, in terms of both time and energy, to do what they entered the profession for which is to care for, nurture and develop young people.
There may be a looming crisis in UK in recruiting and retaining excellent teachers- people with a passion and sense of vocation for working with young people- but I have had no trouble in finding plenty of such people to remain with, or join, KISU next academic year. Why? Because I suspect they can sense that we that have our priorities right and, like Maggie MacDonnell, know the fundamental importance of, and indeed joy in, our relationships with each child in our care.