Old-timer and Proud

Year 27 of my teaching career feels good so far, though I say so myself. But how can I be sure, given that Hong Kong, like all other locations rated tops by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)[1], does without “value”-“added” “metrics”? A modicum of assurance is provided by the “exercise book inspections” mandated by the local education department, as well as by the inspections that department conducts of local schools.

But Finland has no school inspection system. Indeed, one of its mottos about its teachers can be expressed in five words: “train them; then trust them.” And the training is both rigorous and highly sought after: the University of Helsinki has twenty applicants for every place in its teacher-training program, about the same selectivity as Harvard. This even though thirty years ago Finland’s schools had many of the problems reported for American schools. The trust is shown in teachers’ working conditions, which include two hours of professional development a week as well as extensive meetings with colleagues. This plan for professional development continues throughout a teacher’s career. Whether by inspection or by collegiality, it seems that two top systems assume life-long learning in its teachers as well as in its students.

The International Baccalaureate program has a self-study requirement that encourages schools to reflect on what they do well. I meet with colleagues regularly to discuss the courses I teach. My school’s I.B. division has started a formal program of visitations of classrooms by colleagues. This goes for highly experienced teachers as well as the less experienced ones, and it takes place in addition to informal visits we make to see our colleagues in action.

And of course, maybe most important, I can think of what I know now that I didn’t know during the beginning years of my teaching career. It took me a number of years to feel that I had an eye for students who might have special needs or had organic problems not apparent to most people. It was not till my tenth year of teaching that I met colleagues who got me started at turning my classroom into a “class of a thousand spaces.” And I was bound to be more experienced with the varieties of humanity by having years of contact with students of all kinds.

I studied Yeats with Professor Koch in university, but now, when I in turn teach his poetry to my Grade 12s, I have more than Michael Rosenthal’s anthology to go with, having carefully examined Roy Foster’s biography and Richard Ellmann’s study of him in my “spare time.” I am a better reader of Shakespeare now than I was twenty-five years ago: when Harold Bloom says that Antony and Cleopatra is the one play that shows everything Shakespeare can do, I feel more confident now than at the start of my career that I understand what he means and can convey some of the Bard’s opulent creativity when I share the play with my Higher Level students.

When I started teaching Theory of Knowledge (ToK), I felt as overwhelmed as most teachers taking on that challenge for the first time. The course remains a challenge, but as an examiner of fourteen years’ experience I feel now that I can meet it adequately. In ToK as in the other courses I have taught for a long time, I have a deep bag of tricks. It is in the nature of maturation in a long career that this kind of capacity develops in those who want it to develop; and it can’t be rushed, or at least I never felt anyone could have poured expertise into me from a bottle or lined it into me from a program of software.

It is in light of this development over time, shared by experienced teachers everywhere, that I read with deep disapproval that charter schools tend to reject experience of this kind in the teachers they hire. Like hamburger stands, they are “led” by principals and “CEOs” [sic] who are still young enough to be scratching their pimples, and staffed by teachers in “foreshortened teaching careers” who run through on the way to their next destination like crap through a goose. If such places were actual junk food emporia instead of purveyors of pink slime education, we could say at least the business model suits the business. But as I have argued in many prior postings, a school is not a business, and education is not a product, so teachers should not be transients, and their careers should not go out, out like brief candles. Bring on Year 28!


[1] The localities with the top five ranks in PISA’s score for “reflecting on and evaluating” reading are 1) Shanghai, 2) Korea, 3) Finland, 4) Hong Kong, and 5) Canada. This is not a score given for work by rote.

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