This post was prompted by @C_Hendrick’s blog post about motivational posters and the notion that pop psychology is subtly infusing itself into classrooms around the world. As I digested Hendrick’s amusing yet relevant views on the issue, I started ruminating on how those bigger ideas (not just the posters, although them, too!) applied to educational philosophy in my neck of the woods. It got me thinking about teacher workload, inclusion, and the politics of education.
And so I started writing. Hopefully my point reveals itself . . .
International awareness has been brought to the issue of teacher workload, which has, at least in part, prompted a resurgence in the debate concerning the role of teachers, schools, and education, in general. While teacher workload is a complex issue involving seemingly endless factors, one of them is the notion that a teacher’s role is to support his or her students. We all know this to be true, but the waters begin to get quite murky in defining HOW we are to support our students.
In Alberta, Canada, the move toward inclusive education, in its current incarnation, began some fifteen years ago. It began with the closure and re-purposing of special schools for students with various disabilities, integrating them into mainstream classrooms. It continued with a trend toward the minimization of the value of pull-out and remediation programs for struggling students. Today, most students in Alberta attend the school of their choice, often the neighbourhood school, and all are integrated in an “inclusive learning environment.” The idea was that students learn differently, and at different rates, so teachers must differentiate instruction across the board, for all their students, including those with exceptional needs. With that, “personalized learning,” “individualized programming,” and various “accommodations” are made, regularly, by teachers. This has not come without a significant burden to the role and responsibilities of teachers.
For the most part, teachers are a compassionate and kindhearted lot. We care for the children of strangers and we want to help them succeed in order to, consciously or subconsciously, help build the future of humanity. I, myself, am quite the bleeding-heart. This may not be evident in this post, because I think the role of teachers, through the move toward an increasingly “progressive” ideological model of education, has become all too mythologized; this has served neither teachers nor students well. In our efforts to support student learning through identifying special needs, accommodating these special needs, differentiating instruction and assessment, as well as initiatives like “no-zero” policies, not only have we largely enabled students in their natural inclinations to avoid the hard work that is required to learn something new, we’ve created such a convoluted system that teachers have inevitably had to take on more.
One aspect of this, in Alberta, has been a trend toward a “teacher-as-counselor” model, through assigning teachers the additional role of “advisor.” Schools all over Alberta have implemented this in various forms, but it most commonly consists of core groups of approximately 20 students within a school who will have a single person (teacher) working for their best interests over the course of their time at that school. Students know where to go when they need help with anything from personal situations to planning for their futures. Schools in Alberta are adopting this model with the encouragement of Alberta Education, through its Inspiring Education vision for redesigning our system, where the teacher advisory model is named as part of the flexibility enhancement project (see my last post) as follows: “Teacher advisory – each teacher in the school takes on a role outside any subject content responsibility. The teacher-advisor role is one of guide, counselor and facilitator to a small group of students’ entire school program.”
There are a number of problems with this model, not the least of which is that the cohort, comprised of students selected across grade levels, is artificial; the idea that these students will magically and inevitably bond with their teacher advisor is wishful thinking, at best. Further, the TA group (teacher advisor-student advisees) is built around coursework that aims to teach everything from study skills to career planning to developing a growth mindset (incidentally, time is spent identifying students’ “learning styles,” an all but debunked theory). The coursework associated with TA time is overwhelming and is often viewed as “just another thing” about which students have to worry. While parents would surely love the idea that their child is receiving individualized attention from a single teacher who will be with that child throughout his school years, the actual raison d-être for a teacher advisor model lacks a clear vision or mission, and is not at all susceptible to any kind of measurement of effectiveness.
Intuitively, the notion of a teacher advisor group seems wonderful. It’s infused with a warm and fuzzy feel-good philosophy that teachers are there to support and guide and inspire students to achieve their full potential. But nothing comes without a cost. In this case, TA time is implemented in a manner that takes away from the already-reduced teaching hours in Alberta schools. In order to make time for TA groups to meet, minutes are reduced from the core curriculum. Google the timetables of various schools in Alberta who have implemented the TA model and you’ll see that anywhere from 30 to 120 minutes per week are allotted to TA group time or individual advisor-advisee time. This time is taken from the school day, thereby reducing instructional minutes for Physics, Math, English, and all the rest. For those of you who have read my previous posts, you know that I take SERIOUS issue with this. I know where I can make the greatest difference, and it’s in the English classroom. Take those minutes away, and no good can come of it.
Why risk reducing instructional time in core subject areas in order to make room for TA time? The idea is that TA time is valuable because in that time, students learn “skills” that can be applied to a range of academic and non-academic situations. That’s another debate entirely, but much has been written about the lack of evidence to support the teaching and transferability of “skills.” For some erudite explanations, see here, here, and here, because Daniel Willingham, David Didau, and Harry Webb, respectively, can explain it better than I can. Further, proponents of this model argue that the relationship between the teacher advisor and his or her advisees creates a supportive and nurturing learning environment where each student has a single person with whom he or she can connect. Teacher advisors have a variety of responsibilities, including to track, monitor, and address progress in their advisees’ classes, to track, monitor, and address their advisees’ attendance, to deliver and assess TA related “coursework,” to follow up on the completion of any online courses their advisees may be taking, to track their advisees’ graduation progress, and to build relationships with advisees despite often only seeing them through this artificial and superficial construct known as teacher advisor groups. Sometimes a teacher will have his or advisee as a student, or may coach the student on a school team, making a more authentic relationship more likely, but this isn’t always the case. From this list of teacher advisor responsibilities, it’s clear that the issue here is the lack of time to ensure that these procedures and philosophies are effectively implemented. They are not. In speaking with numerous teachers in Alberta who have experienced this model, and having experienced it myself, it becomes just another duty on the list that we try to “get through.” The overarching ideology that drives this philosophically-based model is never fully realized, if that’s even possible, because of the inordinate levels of increased workload on the part of teachers (and students, for that matter).
But if adequate time is not being allotted, doesn’t that say something about the actual value of the philosophy of the TA model? Here’s my little conspiracy theory about this: the TA group model creates the illusion that students are getting “personalized” attention and that their “individual” needs are being met. These are big buzzwords in Alberta’s Inspiring Education movement. The truth is, teachers are doing their best, under significant constraints, but this model provides no more personal attention or individualized responsiveness than a traditional model where each teacher takes responsibility for his or her own students. Further, teachers are not trained in this model; the duties and responsibilities are simply added to the pile, often without adequate support. Why? So the duties associated with career counselors, guidance counselors, and academic and behaviour support from administration can be divided among teaching staff and the aforementioned roles can be either eliminated or reduced in efforts to reduce costs. Be reasonable: how can one person, even for a small group of 20, be expected to track, monitor, and support all these things? This is simply another example of paying lip-service to an idealistic philosophy that cannot be manifested in reality.
So, if adequate time were allotted for the actual workload associated with being a Teacher Advisor, are the advantages of this worth the cost? As I mentioned, there is little research to either support or disprove the overall “effectiveness” of the teacher advisor model. If one were to Google it, one would find all kinds of airy-fairy testaments to schools who use this model to attend to the needs of the whole child, and other such ideologically-driven anecdotal support of a system whose effectiveness cannot really be measured, because its goals, if stated at all, are so fuzzy in the first place. However, there is a reasonable study from Arizona State University that took place quite recently in California, which sought to identify whether there was a link between advisory programs, personalized education, and student achievement. The study involved more than 10 000 high school students and tracked them over three years. The researchers found that personalization, which they largely defined as small-school environments, did seem to have a relational, though not causal, benefit on student achievement, but that teacher advisory systems did not. In fact, they “discovered an inverse relationship existed between students’ perceptions of advisory programs and student academic outcomes. The more students, in general, reported satisfaction with advisory, the worse they performed academically.” This evidence is obviously limited, and the reasons for these conclusions are not clear-cut. However, I would suggest that it goes back to my aforementioned musings on the fact that we’ve created so many systems in order to provide support for students, that they’ve begun to see their academic success as an external function. “The teacher didn’t instruct in my learning style” or “I didn’t have enough opportunities for collaboration” or “There wasn’t enough formative assessment” or “I perform better using tech-based assessment.” These are all phrases I’ve heard; students have internalized the “progressive” mantra of this system and it’s manifesting itself in a tendency to look outside of themselves for solutions to the bumps in the road that inevitably appear when we undertake the difficult proposition of learning something new. It’s one thing to provide encouragement and support as a teacher; good teachers have always done that with their students. But creating a system wherein teachers must now take on these additional roles benefits no one.
I feel confident in my abilities as a teacher of English literature. My students are largely interested in our endeavors, they respect me, and, for the most part, I help each of them achieve what they’re willing or able to achieve in their time with me. But I didn’t enter this profession because I have some need to nurture and guide young people in their journey into adulthood. I’m an expert in my field and I’m able to pass my knowledge along effectively. I care whether or not my students succeed and I do what I can in an effort to ensure that they do. I feel terrible when I see graphics like the one at the beginning of this post. I can’t help but dwell on the fact that some of my students are hurting in a number of different ways and I wish that were not the case. But I’m not the person to address those issues. I am neither trained nor equipped to be a therapist, psychologist, or counselor.