How to have great teachers in school

How to have great teachers in school

REAL teachers share an overarching goal of seeing their students succeed in school and life. To them, teaching is a vocation. That is why it is doubly disappointing when teachers display mediocrity. For example, reports in South Africa show that many matriculation (equivalent to our LGCSE) examination markers fail the examinations they are supposed to mark. Researchers recently administered a past mathematics matric examination to a sample of 253 KwaZulu-Natal teachers. The average score was 57 percent, with a quarter getting below the 40 percent pass mark.

This testing is necessary because it indicates the level of mathematics teaching in South African schools. It would be interesting to see how local teachers and markers would perform in LGCSE examinations.
On 18 July, 2021, Sekhulumi Ntsoaole, the Lesotho Ambassador to Ireland, had a bilateral meeting with his Finnish counterpart to discuss bilateral cooperation in higher education, including teacher education and student exchange.

The cooperation provides an opportune moment for Lesotho to revisit its teacher education programmes. It can do so with the help of Finland which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks high, together with Canada, and Singapore, in teachers’ education and schooling.
South Africa’s predicament is not farfetched in the context of Lesotho teacher education. The Multi-Site Teacher Education Research Project (MUSTER) raised questions about the quality of teacher education in Lesotho.

For instance, the studies revealed that primary education students performed poorly at LGCSE examinations. Yet the Diploma in Primary Education (DEP) did not provide a structured upgrading programme for the deficit.
Meaningful learning occurs when students anchor new knowledge to their existing one. In other words, the knowledge that students bring into their programmes of study is essential to their education.
But in DEP, the new student-teachers do not have the knowledge on which to hook new knowledge. Parents and the government are therefore entrusting their children’s future in the hands of underprepared teachers.
Basotho must heed their proverb saying: ‘Thebe e sehelloa holima engoe’, meaning that one builds on an existing structure.

Lesotho must, therefore, not waste time and resources by reinventing the wheel. At the same time, we cannot simply adopt a foreign system designed by another country.
I contrast the Lesotho teacher education system with the Finnish model to identify lessons that Lesotho can learn to improve the teacher education quality. Admission into primary teacher education courses in Finland is very competitive. Consequently, Finland recruits only the best candidates into primary teacher education. Successful students hold good high school as well as excellent interpersonal skills and a strong commitment to teaching.

After a written examination the institution would observe the applicants engaging in clinical activity replicating a school situation, assessing their social interactions and communication skills. Finally, there are rigorous interviews where one of the key assessment areas is how the student explains why they want to be a teacher.
Our MUSTER suggests that raising entry requirements might help attack students with good grades. But evidence suggests that students with ‘impressive’ academic results go to more ‘lucrative’ courses. Teaching is not their profession of choice.
This naturally means we must explore ways to make teaching an attractive career.

On-the-job training and skills retention should be a priority.
Teachers in Finland usually stay in schools for life, with only 10 to 15 percent leaving the profession during their careers.
However, MUSTER’s suggestion to increase the admission requirements comes with a new challenge. Many present college students would fall through the cracks because they do not meet the entry requirements. In other words, this route excludes potential teachers who are bruised and battered by Lesotho education brutalities.

One other option remains. The colleges may maintain the current entry requirements but aggressively do two things. First, they must have a structured upgrading plan to improve the students’ content knowledge required for the qualification level.
Second, and even more importantly, the colleges must aggressively market their courses to make them attractive. Competition for places must be stiff, irrespective of the low admission requirements. They will achieve this goal by providing a high-quality programme. The highly competitive programme will market itself as prestigious, becoming highly attractive to potential candidates.

These go hand in glove with providing incentives to qualified teachers.
However, the incentives must go beyond a mere increase of remuneration but the whole set of working conditions, including clear prospects for upward mobility.
MUSTER noted that the DEP curriculum, teaching staff, and students exhibited several disconnections. For example, the lecturers were unaware of their students’ profiles and the Lesotho primary schooling context. As a result, there was a mismatch between students’ experiences at the college and Lesotho primary school environments for which the DEP curriculum prepared them.

Professor Sahlberg says the Finnish education revolution began in the 1960s when Finland decided to reform the country’s education and economy. The Finnish miracle, however, happened in the 1980s when a country with an undistinguished education system shot into global limelight.
Finland publicly values and trusts the professional judgment of its teachers. The Finns are reaping the fruits of their toil. Sahlberg illustrates the success, pointing out that 99 percent of students complete compulsory basic education at 16. Three out of five young Finns enrol in state-funded higher education after upper secondary school.
Unlike most education systems, including Lesotho, where external examinations, LGCSE, drive the education systems, the Finnish system relies on teachers’ accountability and expertise. They do not rely on external standardised student examinations.

Teachers are knowledgeable and committed to their students and communities.
Teachers take full authority of classroom teaching and assessment. More critical than salaries are such factors as high social prestige, professional autonomy in schools, and the ethos of teaching as a service to society and the public good.
Finland uses research related to teachers, teacher education and training to plan education policy and quantify teacher education and training.
The research is conducted in their full context by Finns. Educational theories, research methodologies and practice, are crucial to teacher preparation programmes.

The system strives to develop teaching professionals who continuously improve themselves and the working community. As a result, they produce excellent teachers and leaders who are wholly committed to teaching.
MUSTER studies reveal similar dedication and commitment by the primary teachers to their vocation. Few DEP students indicated a wish to leave the teaching profession altogether. A challenge that remains for Lesotho is how to anchor on this commitment.
DEP student teachers displayed idealistic teaching views: teachers as role models, serving their country and improving education. But the dedication and commitment do not translate into quality teaching and improved teaching outcomes. So, there must be something that Lesotho is not doing right.

The Finnish teacher education system has an edge on two things. Firstly, they do not grade their student-teachers during teaching practice. They prioritise actual learning over grading and marks. Teacher educators push students to develop their skills with critical self-assessment and support. They reflect upon their performance in the narrative feedback they receive from their teachers during teaching practice. Secondly, the teachers strongly encourage independent planning, assessment and expanding ideas for future classes. Teachers have freedom and autonomy of flexibility and creativity.

They try out new things. Teacher educators value their students’ insight and intellect. They encourage students to explore different ways of teaching. In this way, they make good teachers great. The education system recognises that creativity leads to innovation.
All school teachers hold Master’s degrees, with lower primary teachers majoring in education. Preschool teachers have Bachelor’s degrees. Upper primary and secondary school teachers concentrate on at least one subject, curriculum studies and pedagogy. Subject-focused pedagogy and research are advanced in Finnish universities. Teachers possess balanced knowledge and skills in theory and practice in pedagogy. They have deep professional insight into education from several perspectives, including educational psychology, sociology, philosophy, curriculum theory, assessment, pedagogical content knowledge in selected subject areas.

High school teachers complete their Masters thesis on a topic relevant to educational practice. The initial teacher education takes between five to seven and half years to complete.
Cooperative and problem-based learning, reflective practice, and computer-supported education are integral to teacher education. In addition, the higher education evaluation system rewards effective, innovative university teaching practices. Consequently, the students are well prepared when they join the teaching profession. This is because they had solid teacher education.

Departments design curricula to create systematics pathways from foundational thinking to educational research methodologies to more advanced fields of educational knowledge. Simply put, students learn how to design, conduct and present original research on practical aspects of education.
Lastly, but equally crucial, teacher education programmes include school-based teaching practice or practicum where trainees spend 15 – 25 percent under supervising teachers in schools. Supervising teachers have to prove that they are competent to work with student teachers.
Teacher training schools are expected to pursue research and collaborate with universities’ teacher education departments. As a result, the schools have teachers who are well prepared in supervision, teacher development and assessment.

Lesotho has a long way to go in making good teachers great. But, first, the country must complete its impending bilateral relation with Finland. Without a good education foundation, the government will not attain its millennium development goals.
Teacher education, especially primary teacher education, must transform students with ‘unimpressive’ grades at LGCSE into great teachers, not ordinary rookies.

Dr Tholang Maqutu

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