George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Guest Blog: Dealing with the Reform Bullies

February 1, 2010

Olaf Elch (@olafelch) is an ELT and intercultural competence consultant from Germany. A straight-talking and opinionated #edchat participant, he immediately emerged as a leader in the discussion of how teachers can play a part in educational reform.

--Betty Ray, Community Manager (@EdutopiaBetty) and Elana Leoni, Online Membership Coordinator (@elanaleoni)

To put it bluntly, teachers have a major image problem. Seen from the outside, teachers have excellent job security, long holidays, they aren't accountable for their performance and then to cap it all, they are constantly complaining about their pay and conditions.

It gets worse. Although teachers may be great at presenting information, they are not usually skilled at defending themselves against adversaries in the same way that politicians, journalists and business managers are. This means the teacher is holding a really bad hand when getting involved in emotive arguments like how to reform education.

Because reform is an emotive word. If you put it together with education, you have a heady mixture. At the same time reform is an elusive thing. It's like quality. Everyone wants it, but no-one can agree what it is. So when the #edchat discussion last Tuesday took on the issue of education reform and the role of the teacher in it, I knew it would be a dynamic discussion. Six-hundred ninety-one posts in an hour from 83 different contributors around the world confirmed my expectations.

The wisdom came thick and fast.

@franze98 opened up with: educational reform will require those in power to make the tough choice & do what's right 4 kids

@ShellTerrell wanted to know: Why does it have to fall on the teachers? Isn't edu reform more powerful if all stakeholders are involved?

@lblanken added a parent's view:...I'd love to work with teachers on education reform

So what is right for kids? Let's be honest, we are never going to agree on this. Employers want more "relevant" skills and knowledge. Politicians want higher grades (without the subsequent headlines that schools are dumbing down education). Parents want a whole range of things that can be grouped under having options when you leave school. And teachers?

What exactly do teachers want when they talk about reform? The only thing that's really clear is that they don't want what they've now got.

@rliberni asked: Are educators sometimes too close? Can they see the wood for the trees?

I do a lot of coaching in industry, and I often hear office workers and even senior managers claiming that the Board of Directors has no idea how to run the business. In my consultancy work in schools I hear daily from pupils who say that some teacher "can't teach." This is a standard gripe and has little to do with reality, and more to do with a worker's right to complain. By the same standard, a great, innovative and successful teacher does not automatically mean that this teacher is qualified to manage reform. The skills are very different.

The ideas in the #edchat discussion would form a great basis for a manifesto for education reform and I would recommend anyone to invest half an hour reading through the points made in the #edchat archive.

But the problem that has to be solved first is much harder. Teachers often show nothing short of revulsion for the idea that school should think more like businesses. The problem is that the rest of the world does think this way. It's no use playing by a set of rules when everyone else is ignoring them. Trying to take the moral high ground isn't going to work if you are not credible.

The debate about school reform is not taking place in schools or in pedagogical departments in universities. It is taking place in the court of public opinion. This is a hard, brutal place where people fight dirty and the decisions are often made in self-interest. Teachers are ill-equipped to fight in this environment, but it's where the fight has to be won. The weapons are measurable results, standards, simple policies, and image. Anything which damages the image of the teaching profession has to be ruthlessly rooted out, not hidden away, not fudged. It must be openly removed from the game. Anything less will mean that the teaching profession will continue to be bullied by politicians, the press, and the guys in the pub on Friday night.

And only when that's been achieved will teachers get the respect they deserve, and at that point the fantastic discussions on #edchat and in other places will start to be heard and respected.

Until then please remember this: Opposition sucks!

I studied industrial management and work as an ELT and intercultural competence consultant, both in industry and schools. I believe strongly that a school's function is to open the doors to opportunity and no-one should be restricted by the system in what they can achieve. I have introduced a teaching system in schools where children are taught English as a foreign language according to their ability, rather than in single year classes. My hobby is to make life difficult for people who are not prepared occasionally to do the extra five minutes to see that the job is done properly.I love red wine, and my daughter Lauren (but not in that order). My blog is called What's New in the World

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