10 Basic Principles of Our School System, Part 10: Teacher Focus

  1. homework
  2. class tests, tests and exams
  3. grades
  4. schoolbooks
  5. the curriculum
  6. 45/90-minute lessons
  7. class size
  8. age-based classes
  9. subjects
  10. teacher focus

Finally, after all those weeks (actually, it’s been almost 5 months!), we get to the last part of this series. And we finish with a major issue that dictates most conversations we have about school: teachers. Teachers seem to belong to schools as much as students and the way they act in school seems natural and inevitable. It is one of the biggest problems our school system because it puts the focus in the wrong place. The focus of course is on the teachers themselves. They are the node where everything comes together and where the fate of every student is decided. One of the most common expressions when talking about school is “Well, that depends on the teacher.” Let’s break down what exactly that means.

It depends on the teacher what grades you get, obviously. Students are told that it depends on them, how much they study and prepare for exams, how much they invest, but in the end the teacher writes a grade under your test, essay or exam. And I’m not telling you a secret that this grade is subjective. Different teachers will give different grades on the same text. It might not vary hugely, but in many cases it surely does. Grades might also vary depending on the time of day, the order in which texts and tests are corrected or the teacher’s mood. In a way that shows again how problematic grades are but it also illustrates that one problem of grades is that they depend on the teacher.

It depends on the teacher how you are perceived as a student. This ties in closely with the grades, but again it’s no secret that teachers prefer some students and dislike others. It’s almost impossible to avoid that. This often leads to jealousy and feelings of unfairness among students, rightly so, because in theory the teacher is supposed to treat everyone the same. But they don’t and in a way they can’t.

It depends on the teacher how the lessons go. You need really disciplined teachers to not let their mood affect the lesson in a negative way. We expect students to focus on the lessons and not bring their private problems into the classroom, but does that also count for teachers? Everyone knows the teacher where students never know how the lesson will turn out depending on the teacher’s state of mind. You know the focus on teachers is a problem when students think “Oh no, he has a bad day, we have to be careful today.”

It depends on the teacher how much students learn. If the teacher is lazy or unmotivated, it will result in less effective lessons. If the teacher relies too much on textbooks, their lessons become predictable and boring. If the teacher isn’t a good talker or explainer, the lessons become tiresome and confusing. In short: bad teacher = bad lesson, good teacher = good lesson. It’s as simple as that. Connected to that is of course how teachers take the students’ interests into account. If they follow the curriculum meticulously, the students will never get the feeling that they are heard. Spontaneity is one of the most important characteristics a teacher should have, but very few do.

It depends on the teacher what the students have to deliver. Often teachers have really high expectations that are not grounded in reality. Students struggle to follow and reach them, but few teachers adapt their expectations. Students suffer from that and teachers complain that students are getting more stupid. Because everything is focused on the teacher, it seems reasonable for most teachers to apply their point of view to every single student. It is so common to whine about decreasing standards that any counterargument remains unheard. Teachers have to expect certain things (for various reasons) and are often unwilling to change their expectations.

This all sounds very negative, but let me be clear that I think a teacher can have a very positive influence by teaching well, being interested in the students and listening to them. A teacher can be inspiring, motivating, influential. The problem is that if the teacher fails in some way, almost everything fails for her or his students. It’s not a minor thing they can ignore. They are forced to rely on the teacher at all times, most of the time too much. Teachers have an enormous responsibility, which can bring amazing results if it works, but which can ruin a lot if it doesn’t.

This would be my final lesson in this series, that I’m telling teachers and students for years (most notoriously at the end of my teacher’s training to a room full of teachers who reacted with silence): we can’t forget the students or, more precisely, the focus has to be on them. School is supposedly for the students, so they can learn something for their future. If we keep on insisting on the teacher’s interests, expectations and preferences, everything else I talked about has to fail. Teachers should be guides, mentors, advisors, instructors, but not queens and kings. Students are not our peasants. We, the teachers, are there for them, not the other way around. To some this might sound astoundingly obvious, but the truth is that most teachers would laugh about this statement. But this is a meme we need to introduce in our school system, if we insist on having such a system.

What do you think?

And that’s the end of this series where I spent about 8,500 words to talk about our school system. I’d be really happy to hear feedback on this and/or suggestions for another series (which I will do anyway, I just don’t know what about). Thanks for listening!