Monday, July 20, 2009

Identifying Potentially Effective Teachers

The following letter titled "Identifying Potentially Effective Teachers" was penned by Mr Eugene Wijeysingha, veteran educationist and former principal of Raffles Institution. He had intended the letter for publication when he sent it to Singapore's main English daily. However it was never published, much to his dismay. The Living Room on 938LIVE is therefore proud to be the first media to publish Mr Wijeysingha's letter regarding his concern for the identification of good teachers for our students today, who will be leaders of tomorrow.


We, retired teachers and principals, have never completely removed ourselves from the Singapore education scene. As my students reminded me when I took my retirement, old soldiers never die; they just fade away but never into oblivion. We track every new initiative. Whenever we gather, be it in the homes of colleagues or over coffee at “kopitiams”, while there might be some reminiscing, to begin with, invariably the talk turns to topical items in education. Of late, this has come to focus on the Education Ministry’s drive to draw in as many teachers, by the thousands, to shore up the number. This has to be sweet music for schools and education.

The initiative has drawn mixed reactions, some encouraging, some advising caution. Even the walls of parliament echoed concern, drawing a reassurance from the Minister that standards would not be compromised in the selection process. How does one ensure that only the sheep get through the net? Sandra Davie, in her commentary in The Straits Times of 18 February 2009, cited research findings on what constitutes a good teacher and then posed the all-important question, how does one spot a potentially good teacher when the traits of great teachers are so intangible and indefinable. She admits that all the traits identified would become evident only after one stands up in a classroom and faces 40 children. By then it may be too late. As a safeguard, she suggests that while casting the net wide, MOE take in as many, motivate them to make the cut but install the machinery to weed out the dead wood after a trial period. This might be one way of ensuring a supply of effective teachers for the long haul but it has its pitfalls.

Identifying a potentially productive employee at the point of entry is no easy task. The task becomes even more daunting when the anticipated intake is set to run into the thousands. What kind of a yardstick can be employed to identify one who is more likely to make the cut? Allow me to offer my own take on the matter. This would not be the product of systematic research but rather an analysis borne out of personal experience and close observation.

As long as a central recruiting agency did the hiring of teachers, the question of making a correct decision did not arise. This changed when schools were allowed to go independent and recruit their own teachers. It became a serious task taking a teacher on board. There was no one to blame if he or she did not measure up. Firing, we realised, would not be easy if a bad choice had been made. Hence, selection of a teacher became a serious matter.

Educating the child is a delicate, sensitive and multi faceted enterprise. One cannot assume that a child will learn simply by placing before him a teacher with a bagful of pedagogical tricks. One educator warned us when we were undergoing teacher training never to forget that as teachers we held the power to either distort, pervert or warp the minds of the young or set them on the path to self-actualisation. This underscores the seriousness of ensuring that the right person is placed before a class. There used to be a theory, known as the by-polar process. It underlined the fact that as there were two parties involved in the teaching-learning process, the teacher and the taught, nothing productive materialized unless the learner was willing and inclined to learn from the teacher. It pre-supposed that a bond based on mutual respect had to be cultivated first. The bond was more likely to arise from a conviction that the teacher was interested in the total welfare of the pupil and regarded him as a person and a human being. A pupil will switch off if he perceives the teacher as one with an agenda of his own, preoccupied with furthering his own advancement. I used to have pupils approach me for a change of class because they failed to take to a teacher who was in the habit of belittling and labeling them and passing disparaging comments about them.

Observing teachers at work, I used to wonder why some teachers were more effective in the classroom than others. Closely observing their behaviour and examining their profile, I drew conclusions. These provided me with an insight into what to look for in identifying a candidate who was more likely to gel with young people. I found that those who proved effective bore a certain personality and manifested some common traits. They were more effective in inspiring and motivating pupils to learn and make progress. These were teachers who relished the company of young people, held a positive view of them, engaged in activities like sports, hiking and camping, savoured the outdoors and were or had been actively involved in youth groups in the larger community. I found such teachers willing to spend more time with their pupils, engage in joint activities with them and go the extra mile. They invariably firmed up a close relationship with their pupils. They appeared to have gained the trust, confidence and friendship of their pupils. This then found its way into classroom interaction and influenced pupils’ motivation to learn from such teachers. Hence, in selecting teachers I would look out for those with such traits and probe their personalities to establish whether they were cast in such a mould, whether they had demonstrated a feeling for others and carried traits that were likely to prove appealing to young people.

I recall visiting University College School in London, a prominent independent school, with fellow principals in 1986. We asked the principal, a Mr. Slaughter, what he looked out for in recruiting his teachers. Let’s say, he was in need of someone to teach physics to his graduating class. He advertised for a graduate in physics. A number applied. Some held Masters Degrees. Others were from prestigious universities. He would narrow the field down and invite those shortlisted for interviews. A panel comprising the principal and some senior members of the staff conducted the interviews, after which they were asked to write an essay of a certain length as to why they wanted to teach. They were then let loose into the school community and closely observed to see how they interacted with pupils. At the end of the day, the panel members would meet with the principal and a decision was made based on their collective inputs. In adopting this vigorous and time-consuming process, he explained that the objective was to secure not just a teacher of physics, but a “master” as well, one who would be a good mentor to his pupils, one who was likely to take an interest in their total growth, had a way of drawing pupils to him and was a complete person himself. If the lot fell on one with a higher post-graduate qualification from a prestigious university, then it was a bonus. In my time, I found many non-graduate teachers who made excellent teachers because they had a way of working themselves into the lives of their pupils. Their pupils, invariably, did well in the subjects they taught. They bore a personality that appealed to youth and with whom their pupils were able to relate.

I will not discount the importance of effective pedagogic skills, a passion for the subject and mastery of content. These, however, can be acquired through training, upgrading, experience on the job and observation of good teachers. They come on the job and in time. In my assessment, what decides the quality of the final and pertinent outcome is the closeness, the extent of human warmth and the rapport between the teacher and his or her pupils. We have neighbourhood schools doing well, in some cases outdoing the more established ones. I dare say that the secret must lie in their paying equal attention to the pastoral and emotional needs of their charges, knowing fully well that this will serve to motivate them to learn, especially if they come from less-advantaged backgrounds. Evidence emerged from the studies of a number of effective and high-achieving schools in the United States and the United Kingdom that they all revealed correlates of a close rapport between teachers and pupils and a strong pupil welfare programme. Teachers believed that they could make a difference to their pupils and pupils believed that their teachers could do so.

In citing the University College School’s model, there was no suggestion that we adopt it. When thousands are likely to be involved, the interview process could become too tedious and long drawn out. It was to simply make the point that we need to have an image of the person we want to bring on board. If the number responding turns out to be large, we could have a number of panels, with each briefed on what to look out for.

No doubt, the net has to be cast wide in order to rein in the numbers but it is at the initial recruitment point that greater care must be taken to separate the sheep from the goats, so as to minimize errors in judgement. It may be easier to recruit than to dismiss later. Knowing what to look out for, even if the task proves tedious, will eliminate the heartache in releasing those who fail to make the cut and may be more cost-effective, in the long term.

The era of massive physical expansion and infrastructural investment are over. We are in the phase of enhancing quality. All schools are set to go single session. Independent and autonomous schools dot the landscape. Pedagogic innovation is encouraged and supported. Teacher recruitment is to be stepped-up. The base academic entry point is to be raised. The critical issue to achieve maximum quality, it has been acknowledged, lies with the quality of the teaching force. Taking on board those who can be identified with a real zest and passion for teaching, those who can inspire others and command respect will make a major difference. In this connection, it may pay to visit the address of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew when he spoke to principals in 1966, especially in the context of a nation-building Singapore. In it, he talks of teachers who cared, who took a personal interest in their charges and cited other traits of good teachers.

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