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Reimagining the teaching profession

Reimagining the teaching profession

Anyone flying into Abu Dhabi or Dubai is amazed at how the United Arab Emirates has been able to transform its natural resources into spectacular buildings and a bustling economy. But more recently, the country is discovering that far greater wealth than all the oil and gas together lies hidden among its people.

The trouble is that the Emirates have been slow to invest in the people who can tap into and develop that new wealth: highly effective and creative teachers. But the country is committed to change that.

In October 2017, the country brought together over 800 teachers from around the world to the Qudwa Global Teachers’ Forum to reimagine the profession. In what was dubbed the ‘ask’ track of the Forum, teachers explored the future of teaching and the design of innovative learning environments. The ‘advance’ track featured amazing role models for tomorrow’s teachers. And in the ‘share’ track, teachers exchanged views on innovative practices. What the Forum provided was a space where teachers talked about how they can prepare today’s students for their future, rather than for our past.

A job description for the profession

For a start, teachers drew up a job description for the profession far bolder than what governments typically come up with. Of course, teachers need to have a deep understanding of what they teach and whom they teach, because what teachers know and care about makes such a difference to student learning. But the Qudwa Forum also expected teachers to be passionate and compassionate; to encourage students’ engagement and responsibility; to respond effectively to students of different needs, backgrounds and languages; to provide continual assessments of students and meaningful feedback; to promote collaborative learning, tolerance and social cohesion; and to ensure that students feel valued and included. And it expected teachers themselves to collaborate and work in teams, and with other schools and the wider community, to advance their profession.

Most of the teachers at the Qudwa Forum acknowledged there was even more involved in excellent teaching than this. Successful people generally had a teacher who was a mentor and took a real interest in their life and aspirations, who helped them understand who they were, and revealed their passions and how to build on their strengths. These were teachers who instilled a love of learning and taught them how to develop effective learning strategies, and who helped them discover where they can make a difference for social progress.

Put all of this together and it seems teachers would have every reason to ask for much better pay to meet these expectations. But I heard no one at the Forum saying they need more money before they can make a start. That is quite remarkable, because that’s usually the killer argument with which we pass responsibility on to someone else. Instead, the event offered many promising answers for how teachers advance their transformational role around the world.

A commitment to equity

What impressed me most was the participants’ deep commitment to equity, to do whatever it takes to leverage the talent of every learner. That came across in many ways. First, in the belief that every student can learn, and the importance of embracing diversity in learning with differentiated approaches to teaching. This means building instruction from students’ passions and capacities, helping students personalise their learning and assessments in ways that foster engagement and talents, and encouraging students to be ingenious. As Aggeliki Pappa, the Chief Executive Officer and founder of the non-governmental organisation I Love Dyslexia put it: ‘We need to break down the belief that some students cannot learn or are disabled. Students are just differently abled.’

It also came through in the way in which so many of these teachers are addressing social disadvantage, even in the most difficult circumstances. Children from privileged backgrounds will always find open doors in life, but those from disadvantaged backgrounds have only one card to play, and that is to meet a great teacher and get a good education. If they miss that boat, often there will be no second chance for them. And how we treat the most vulnerable students reflects who we are. Manil Maharjan, a teacher from Nepal said: ‘When students can see a positive future, that’s when they can concentrate on their present.’ And Jacque Kahura, from Kenya, noted: ‘If we understand these students and their life and their background, then we can fill the multiple roles they need.’ At the global level too, the world is no longer divided between countries that are rich and well-educated and those that are poor and badly educated. Countries can choose to develop a superior education system, and if they succeed it will yield huge rewards.

Teachers’ commitment to equity also came through in how Forum participants embraced learning-science and pedagogical innovation. This includes how teachers and schools can better recognise that students learn differently, and give students more ownership over the time, place, path and pace of learning. As Niall McGonigle, from the UAE, put it: ‘No matter what you're teaching, there's always a way to involve children in the process.’ Parveen Jaleel, another teacher from the UAE, added: ‘Just put the child in the centre and ignore everything else.’

Teachers as learners

I was also impressed by teachers’ commitment to their profession beyond the role they play in the classroom. These teachers saw themselves as learners with a growth mindset, and as contributing collaboratively to system leadership. As Richard Spencer, a teacher from the United Kingdom, noted: ‘Great teachers are great learners and students need to see their teachers learning.’ The heart of this is working with a high degree of professional autonomy and in a collaborative culture. As Souad Belcaid, from Morocco, said: ‘Don’t be afraid of feedback,’ and Eldijana Bjelcic, from the United States, added pointedly ‘all feedback requires trust between providers and recipients.’

We heard how teacher development must be viewed in terms of lifelong learning, with initial teacher education conceived as providing the foundation for ongoing learning, rather than producing ready-made professionals. And teachers explained how many of them are already engaged in research as an integral part of what it means to be a professional teacher.

The sharing sessions also exposed many examples of how digital technology can leverage great teaching, even if it will never make up for poor teaching. What if we could get teachers around the globe working on curated crowdsourcing of the best educational practices? Technology could help create a giant open-source community of teachers and unlock the creative skills and initiative of all teachers, simply by tapping into the desire of the full community to contribute, collaborate and be recognised for it. Paul Solarz explained: ‘I've been teaching for 19 years. I was one of the most reluctant technology users. But now my students are my partners in bringing technology into the classroom.’

But the heart of this is not technology; it is ownership. As Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan mentioned at the opening of the Forum, while learning will become more digital, teaching remains a deeply human activity, based on trust and passion. As I could see at the Forum, when teachers feel a sense of ownership over their classrooms, when students feel a sense of ownership over their learning, that is when productive learning takes place. So, the answer is to strengthen trust, transparency, professional autonomy and the collaborative culture of the profession, all at the same time.

Involving teachers in decision-making

But the most central reason why teachers’ ownership of the profession is a must-have rather than an optional extra, lies in the pace of change in school systems. Even the most effective attempts to push a government-established curriculum into classroom practice will drag out over a decade, because it just takes so much time to communicate the goals and methods through the different layers of the system, and to build them into traditional methods of teacher education. In this age of accelerations, such a slow process is no longer good enough, and inevitably leads to a widening gap between what students need to learn and what teachers teach.

The only way to shorten that pipeline is for teachers themselves to be involved in the design of curricula and pedagogies, to enact and enable 21st Century learning. As many teachers said, subject-matter knowledge will be less and less the core and more and more the context of good teaching. Twenty-first century education is about helping students develop a reliable compass and the navigation tools to find their own way through our increasingly complex, uncertain, ambiguous and volatile world. While governments can establish directions and curricular goals for the instructional system, teachers need to be more involved in decision-making.

In the past, administrations emphasised school management; tomorrow the focus needs to be on instructional leadership, with leaders supporting, evaluating and developing high-quality teachers, and designing innovative learning environments. As Armand Doucet, from Canada, said: ‘We need administrators who are leaders and who understand that teachers need to do innovative things to get through to students.’

Bringing parents, students and teachers together

The Qudwa Forum showed how effective learning environments constantly create synergies and find new ways to enhance professional, social and cultural capital with others. They do this with families and communities, with higher education, with other schools and learning environments, and with businesses. Participants heard how building trust between teachers and parents requires regular and open communication. It also means creating places where parents, students and teachers don’t just talk, but do things together. This might be something as simple as having breakfast together, which happens in West Bank and Gaza strip, or more structured activities, like the innovative Maker Space in Bulgaria, where schools and communities work to design solutions to local challenges. As Anika Mir, from the UAE, put it: ‘Parents can be our assets and our allies as teachers,’ and Stephen Ritz, a teacher from the US, said ‘We need to push the walls of the classroom out and bring the community in.’

I was also struck by how deeply participants engaged in imagining the role of teachers for tomorrow. The past was constructed on divisions, with teachers and content divided by subjects and students separated by expectations of their future career prospects. The Forum showed how the future needs to be integrated, with an emphasis on merging subjects and combining students. It also needs to be connected, so that learning is open to the rich resources in the community. Those participants who joined Ger Graus from Kidzania in his ‘Meet the Mentor’ session, saw how we can raise and widen horizons if we can better integrate the world of schooling with real life. And Soonufat Supramaniam, a teacher from Malaysia, showed participants how much can be achieved by inviting people from different professions to come to schools and discuss their careers.

Scaling up and spreading innovation

The past was hierarchical; the future is collaborative, recognising both teachers and students as resources and co-creators. In the past, schools were technological islands, with technology often limited to supporting existing practices, and students always outpacing schools in their adoption of technology. Now schools need to harness the potential of technologies to liberate learning from past conventions and connect learners in new and powerful ways, with new sources of knowledge and with one another.

All this will have profound implications for the work organisations of schools. The past was about prescription; the future is about an informed profession, where professional and collaborative working norms replace the industrial work organisation, with its administrative control and accountability. Professionalism means emphasising the internal motivation of members and their ownership of professional practice. That demands public confidence in professionals and the profession, professional preparation and learning, and acceptance of professional responsibility in the name of the profession. With all of that, tomorrow’s teachers will enjoy deep professional knowledge, a high degree of professional autonomy and a collaborative culture.

The challenge is that such transformation cannot be mandated by government, which would lead to mere surface compliance, nor can it be built solely from the ground up. Education needs to become better at identifying and championing key agents of change, and better at finding more effective approaches for scaling up and spreading innovation. This is also about finding better ways to recognise, reward and celebrate success, to do whatever is possible to make it easier for innovators to take risks and encourage the emergence of new ideas. Education needs less virtual reform and more real change.

None of this is easy; none of it will be done overnight. And the status quo will always have many protectors. But that’s no reason to give up on education as the most powerful tool for building a fairer, more humane and more inclusive world.

At the start of the Forum, teachers drew up a job description for the profession. What skills and characteristics would you include?

UAE teacher Anika Mir told the Forum: ‘Parents can be our assets and our allies.’ How are you building effective partnerships with parents and families? 

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