Train Teachers for Skills

Special Focus : Building an Efficient, Creative Teaching Force
Designing an Effective Training Program September 20, 2014

Let teachers be learners too. Let them be supported in their teaching and learning journey. Teaching is a skill, so why not teach it as a skill, writes Meeta Sengupta. Ms Sengupta is a Moderator at the 2014 WISE Summit in Doha.

Every conversation about improving education comes to a stalemate when someone brings up the problem of teachers. There are not enough of them. We need better teachers. Teachers need to be motivated. Teachers are treated badly. Teachers treat their children badly. It is difficult to maintain teacher attendance levels in many schools. 

Teacher quality is the one factor that can improve learning outcomes. You cannot have a system of education that is better than the teachers you have – they determine the quality, they are the bottleneck.

Yes, teachers are important. They are at the forefront of this battle we call education. They stand in front of classrooms everyday – nudging, cajoling, pushing, motivating, bullying, entreating and using every trick in their toolkit to get to their goals. Some teachers do better – they have a smarter toolkit, they are more skilled. Others flounder, unhappily – often because they do not have enough in their kit.

What goes into this mysterious toolkit? It is an under researched area – especially in the Indian context but there are a few things that can be sure of – such as a teacher who knows the content of what they are teaching will be more confident and able to deal with a wider range of questions in the classroom. We also know from experience that a more knowledgeable person is not necessarily a better teacher. Yet, teaching experience counts – every success, every failure, every shared experience in teaching has added to the good teachers’ toolkit. We also know that trained teachers do better than untrained ones if, and only if they care to land up in class and want to teach. So training, per se – works. But only after much experience.

A newly, qualified teacher. Bright eyed, shiny faced. Facing their first class. Their lesson plans and resources in place. Tale after tale about how it had to be chucked aside in the first five minutes as the reality of the classroom hit them. Some of them were lucky – they had formal NQT support systems. Others luckier – they had someone take them under their wing and show them the ropes. Most are not so lucky. Worldwide a large proportion of teachers quit teaching within one to five years of joining the vocation with much enthusiasm. Clearly something is missing. We have the pieces of the puzzle – as evidenced by some excellent teachers who have managed to put it together. We just don’t know how to replicate it reliably.

Part of the reason is how teachers are taught. They are given the knowledge of teaching tools – not the skills of teaching. A classroom session – as most B.Ed (Bachelor of Education) classes are – cannot help a teacher visualize a real life classroom and cannot build on the skills that are required to apply this knowledge to the job they have to perform. The assumption we make is akin to saying – we have given you the key, now go and open the lock. All locks are not the same, nor is every student or student group. They do need to try it out, be shown how to get it right, to learn from their mistakes, to reflect on better ways and most importantly – to receive feedback from a master practitioner and course correct as they go along.

Yes, Teaching is a skill. One needs to be apprenticed to someone to learn it well, and we learn by doing. Supervised, and then gradually on our own. Then why don’t we teach it as a skill? Why do we continue to teach it as if it were predicated on academic knowledge alone?

Consider this a call for a rethink. We have enough evidence to support the change to a better way of training teachers – and this creates a supported pipeline that helps with the teacher shortage too. We already let untrained teachers into our classrooms as contract teachers – simultaneously – and dare I say it – compulsorily – enroll them as apprentice teachers in a program designed for them. It is a classic scalable apprenticeship model where vocational qualifications are achieved via learning, reading, application and demonstration. Let teachers be learners too; let them be supported in their teaching and learning journey. Let us not wait for perfect teachers to emerge from an imperfect teacher training system that will start being repaired some time in the future. While that happens, start an alternative pathway for skilling teachers. Support them through various levels, pay them on demonstrated abilities – not just on one off tests of rote learning. Let re-skilling and upgrading skills be essential to this pathway, and let the pace be determined by the learner-teacher. It is time we moved away from received traditions of teacher training to build ones that work for our contexts – with scale, flexibility and quality.

This article originally appeared on on July 31, 2014.