Saturday, October 05, 2013

'Just teach'

When I hear calls for fixing the system so that teachers can 'just teach' and not have to juggle administration, CCA, committee work and a myriad other tasks that a modern day teacher is expected to perform, my impulse is to give the complainant a smack and a reality check.

If the teacher's only job was to 'just teach' we're limiting what a student can learn from our one-dimensional existence. In preparing our kids for life, we too have to experience life in all its facets, whether they are to our liking or not. The kids are eventually going out into the world where they are going to face a variety of demands and a job scope beyond 'just work'. So here's a steaming mug of fresh coffee for your somnolent state. Inhale deeply.

Then there are days like today when I'm buried under a host of other tasks besides my timetabled expectations. Feh. All one can do is priortize. Some people will just have to live with disappointment.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Give the girl an Oscar

If this dog were in the movies.... Here is Tasha after a scolding for trashing our bedroom by chewing on the stuffed toy display and upsetting the air-freshener thingy, spilling its contents over the carpet. After taking an earful of choice words from me, she sat here watching the pains I had to undertake cleaning up the mess. When I returned to her she was still immobile -- and she was looking at me with tears in her eyes! No joke, her bottom eyelids were puddling with moisture, though you can't see the detail from the pix. Such a little heartbreaker, this one.

This is Tasha immediately after I forgave her. A conciliatory pat on the head and a hug, and all is right with the world again. Naughty girl!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Managing exam stress

Here in S'pore, exam stress is stratospheric. It's evident in the teary eyes that received the graded prelim exam papers from me this morning. It's hard not to feel for them that didn't do well. They have been working themselves hard and are still not getting the results they are hoping for. Stress, according to one student, messes with the mind during the paper and while the question is worded one way, they read it in another. The result is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

I say again, exams are not a bad thing. However the way in which we prepare students to take exams is strategically ineffective. What we have done is to set up the year-end exam as the hardest thing a student will accomplish in the year. All the preparation, training, practice and revision programmes are engineered to give the students the impression that this is it, do or die. They may have been futzing around in the past but this one last hurdle is make-or-break, good luck and I hope to see you on the other side.

Although we believe that this is the way to motivate the kids to make that final push, for the majority of the kids, all we've accomplished is to develop a phobia for the final exam. Hence the stress, paralysis and everything else bad associated with final exams.

The person who can figure out how to make exams less stressful, yet maintain standards of academic rigour could stand to make some serious bucks. That would be me. However, I'll dispense my advice right here... which means no one will ever take it seriously. Regardless, here goes:

Never set the final exam up to be the hardest thing a student will accomplish in the year. Instead, make it the easiest thing they will ever do in your class for the year. If the kids are sitting for H1 GP make them submit undergraduate-level research papers on a regular (though less frequent) basis. Make them write 2000, 2500 word essays, with full and proper citations from the latest, most up-to-date sources. When they're used to that, sitting for H1 GP would be relatively chicken-feed. 500-800 words, argumentative, current affairs-type essay in 90 minutes? A comprehension paper on one or two short opinion pieces? Pffft. I've synthesized more demanding stuff in Mr X's classroom exercises.

If we set the exams up to only test the most rudimentary basics of what we teach in class instead of portraying them as the year-end Monster we make them out to be, no more exam stress. But it will be a new classroom dynamic to manage. I never said it was going to be easy for us teachers to make such a radical paradigm shift.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Education: how the Finns don't do it

We're still talking about Finland? There's no point, really, because we're not prepared to do (or not do) what works for them in education. We won't leave things alone; we won't stop trying to control everything; and we won't trust that the system works; and we will keep trying to fix what isn't broken.

First, who are the 'we'? 'We' are everybody who wants a say in the education process. The teachers, the management, and the officials represented under the Ministry (as a collective whole), the parents, the employers and the students themselves, all stakeholders, all wanting to put their fingers in the pie so that they can manipulate the system to their own benefit. Not that it's wrong to expect education to benefit society, which it does, but when it comes to specific stakeholder goals, we can't please everybody.

We who are in the education Ministry want to be trusted as competent professionals who are doing our best for our charges. We're not getting this trust when parents insist on sending their kids for after-school tuition classes to tip balances in their favour. The employers want a competent, smart, reliable pool of prospective employees, but what comes out of our system on the whole are grads who study all the time and haven't invested time and resources in developing themselves as self-motivated individuals with a variety of interests that are relevant to working adult life -- or even life in general. The kids themselves want a less stressful life and opportunities to express themselves and their interests in non-academic pursuits but sacrifice them all chasing after the almighty 'A' grade in every subject that could conceivably 'land them a good job'.

The only ones who benefit from this chaos are the agents who can offer the best strategies to game the system, and they're not even stakeholders: the side-industry of after-school tuition who see the opportunity to profit by being the only ones who offer the most stakeholders what they want: 'A' grades. And since 'A' grades seem to be the compromise position, that's all we ever aspire to achieve... while the employers go find employees elsewhere. Why else would we need a moratorium on foreign worker employment if it wasn't so highly in demand in the first place?

Our education landscape is nothing like Finland's. We believe in fast-tracking. The faster the train we can put our kids on, the better. The fastest trains are in our estimation the most successful, while the slower trains are to be avoided at all cost. It's almost as if we can't wait to get rid of our kids and send them out into the world as quickly as possible, while holding their hands the whole time. If we, heaven forbid, happen to catch a slow train, it's our kid's fault... or our own fault and we prefer to spend the journey berating everybody responsible instead of spending the extra time with our kid just enjoying the journey and each other's company.

I don't really know what it's like in the mythical land of the Finns, but I believe that they have two key advantages over us. Yes, their teachers are allegedly the best, but the 'best' teachers here don't last too long in the industry -- many of them prefer to step out and operate their own business instead. What the Finns have are what we will never have: Time and Trust. Time to learn, time to make mistakes, time to grow, time to play; and Trust that no matter what -- even without our meddling -- it'll be all right in the end.

Photo credit: Amy ('cos I couldn't find a non-subscription link to the article)