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My toaster doesn’t make coffee either

It’s a national holiday in Canada, Canada Day, and I am working at the university.  Despite this, I wanted to share with you a post by Danika Barker, an Ontario teacher at my former high school, entitled My Toaster is Broken: An Analogy about the Current State of Education.  Danika is witty, insightful (check out these analogies) and integrates blogs, nings and other tech tools with her classes.  Plus, she’s been “putting the racy in literacy since 2008”–with this paragon of characteristics, who could resist a new follow?

Most of my teaching career has not been in the public sector, so I cannot truthfully comment too much on the current state of elementary or secondary education, but in the private sector, what I can suggest are two broken toaster parts:  first, teachers are often in a popularity contest by vacation English students.  Student evaluations of teachers often occur on a monthly basis, and those that are younger, cooler and have the trendy personality do quite well usually.  Sure, without being prepared and knowledgeable too, students will complain, but in any case, responsibility is solely placed on the teacher to rectify the situation.  For this reason, employers can be quite selective with regards to age, appearance and personality, and less so about experience.  This perpetuates the edutainment business and our lack of respect as a profession.

Beyond this, many schools still design their syllabi from a grammar-based, prescribed course-book, PPP-style approach.  When teachers do what they’re told and follow the book (in part to justify its purchase), students can be left feeling a lack of improvement, especially with regards to communication.  Consequently, employers prematurely open an optional course, attractively titled something like Focus on Speaking, not knowing much about how to administer this course except that students should  speak a lot and leave grammar out so as not to overlap.  Both are fundamental issues that need addressing without the bandaid fixes.  The bottom line is that the private sector is a business first, which does not bode entirely well for academics.

Currently, I collaboratively teach in a content-driven EAP model at University of Toronto, which for the most part, I’m very proud of.  Without going into too much detail for this blog post (I’ll write a proper post on it sometime soon), our department has had primary freedom to design the courses the way we feel will most benefit students towards their future academic success.  Still early on, we continue to work out kinks noticed in the previous year and modify the program accordingly.  Having said this, we are confined by the university grading system and their pass/fail cut offs.  Students continue to be driven by marks as their emphasis continues to be proven by credits and subsequent acceptance or rejection from succeeding years’ classes.  What I’ve noticed in the Arts & Science faculty, however, is that short of not completing a few assignments or missing the final exam entirely, it would take a certain effort to actually fail.

As much as anyone would like to abandon standardisation and rubric-based grading, it simply cannot be done until everyone  agrees to do so–something I don’t see happening, at least in higher education systems, anytime soon.  Wishing it will happen, tweeting repeatedly or constant blogging about it often is just preaching to the choir.  Yes, let’s keep the discussion open;  let’s keep the hope there; let’s show by example; let’s work with the systems we are given and find ways to motivate students, collaborate learning with students and create individual assignments that can manipulate the grading in a fair way.  By nature, teachers are inventive and it’s that inventiveness, that resourcefulness, that gives us power to move beyond the talk and into action.

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Vicky Loras

Hi Tyson!

Thanks for posting Danika’s super post as a #FF spinoff – I had not read it and am very happy I have just done so!

I have not worked much in the public sector either (neither in Greece nor here in Switzerland, so I cannot compare or comment), but I must say that in the private sector here things are pretty much okay. I mean that teachers are usually judged by their experience and qualifications, not by the way they look or if they are cheap to hire. “Backpacker” teachers are usually not preferred. (I do not mean it in a judgmental way, I mean people who are looking for temporary employment.)

It is a great disappointment though to hear people being hired for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately I have seen it happen many times in the past. I hope things do not change here and people are hired due to their experience and qualifications and not other irrelevant reasons.

It was great to see how things work at U of T and I am happy that teachers feel the way you do. I like that they allow you to adjust the material, improve it and that you are not restricted in the way you handle the material. You are right though in thinking that the grading system should probably change.

Thanks again Tyson – I liked reading your experience from U of T and Danika’s post!

Talk soon,

Vicky Loras

Hi again Tyson,

You are right – and you put it much better, that there are different needs and motivations. I guess the word “wrong” came out, because depending on the needs of the school, I believe that the quality of teaching is not always the same and the impact of teaching on the students is not the same either.

For instance, when a school hires temporary teachers all the time, even if the students are adults (because children get attached to teachers and it can bother them to change all the time), their whole learning process is upset – first they have to re-adjust to a different teaching style (when they get a new teacher every now and then), then they might feel that their previous teacher suited them better. Of course, this may not happen at all, but I have seen that very often it is troublesome for them when they have to change teachers all the time. (The students at our school often ask for teachers who are with the school for quite some time.)

I also believe that lots of private schools support their teachers. I am fortunate to work in an environment that is highly supportive – I have previously worked in others that were not like that, but it depends also on the employer and why they have the school – are they passionate about teaching as well? Is it just a way to supplement their income? Is it a personality matter?

You are also right in saying that if you are good, you can compete. And I do believe that there are really good educators in ELT. Thanks to Twitter and social media in general, we can now see lots of excellent teachers from many different countries and in many different contexts (that is why I love social media – but I am straying off again….ahem….)!

About universities, I know some young people like yourself who teach in various programs and I also agree that they can bring change and fresh ideas, which is great for the institutions and the students.

Thanks for everything, Ty!

Vicky Loras

Of course I would include you in that category : ) Plus the cool category ; )

Brad Patterson

Wow !

Anyone that lays down edutainment and syllabi within a sentence proximity gets my thumbs up and a subsequent follow. This was very well-written and described a business model I know well. It also leaves a lot of space to wonder “what what does she do in class”. Now heading over to Danika’s blog to check out more. Merci a lot a lot for the #ff, ty ! Cheers, b

Brad Patterson

well, then can i redudantly follow you ? Yes, i thought it was Danika… maybe because her photo was right there and then I thought it was the 1st paragraph intro. Or maybe I just wasn’t reading carefully enough.

Nice 2 know that we still see pretty-eye-to-eye, then 😉 Cheers, b

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