The Secretary Reports - A Future for the Profession

May 21, 2010
Gordon Thomas

With Education Minister Dave Hancock focused on transformative change to education, I believe our members would welcome transformative change to the teaching profession. From where I sit, transformative change to the teaching profession has several key elements, and they certainly fit the minister’s theme.

Given the mantra that the system must focus more on the learning needs of students and help students to be successful, it is essential to ensure that students have the most favourable learning conditions. The corollary to this is clear: students’ learning conditions are teachers’ teaching conditions. If we want students to succeed, we have to ensure that teachers succeed in meeting their learning needs. The teaching profession of the future will require teaching and learning conditions that allow optimum student learning, such as appropriate class size and composition and as well as learning supports for both teachers and students (for example, teachers’ assistants, social workers and school psychologists). If the system is to truly focus on meeting student learning needs, the Department of Education must also retool its functions to improve support. The provincial testing program would need to be reworked significantly, and provincial achievement tests would give way to a testing regimen that could help teachers and students (and produce data useful to the government’s legitimate accountability requirements).

Technology will continue to provide teachers with ways to adapt and improve their teaching.  And high school completion will be expected for the majority of students.

Teacher professional development will be even more important in the future. Keeping up with content and methodology will be crucial, and there will need to be much more time provided for teacher PD. There will also need to be an effective way to coordinate PD programs across the province. The profession could take on such a task, but PD is a shared responsibility of many providers. Major themes could be better coordinated. As for keynotes at teachers’ conventions, content specific programs at specialist council conferences, job-embedded PD at the school level—there is little or no coordination today. Action research will gain even more importance as teachers undertake research in their classrooms.

To advance the overall interests of the teaching profession, it’s also time to make the teaching profession fully self-governing. Alberta’s minister of health does not determine the professional practice standards to become a medical doctor—the medical profession does. The minister of justice does not set out the professional practice standards of lawyers—the legal profession does. However, the minister of education presently sets the requirements for a teaching certificate and also issues those certificates. This means that the professional practice standards for teachers are not established by the members of the profession. They should be. We would need to discharge these responsibilities carefully, and make sure that the public and the profession are well served. We already have the responsibility to monitor the professional conduct of our members and to deal with the few instances where there are issues about competence. It is not a huge step to assume responsibility for certification.

However, our desire for self-governance is not about the mechanics of teacher certification but about improving the teaching profession. Self-governance would reinforce the authoritative voice of teachers and raise the status of the profession. It’s possible to actively monitor practice and to make adjustments to the practice standards themselves to ensure that Alberta’s teachers hold the highest level of competence. After all, we want a competent teacher in every classroom—one who constantly upgrades and explores exactly how to improve practice.

This past December, during Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies at Oslo’s city hall honouring U.S. President Barack Obama, large balloons tethered outside the building and a billboard declared “Everything Starts with a Good Teacher.” The balloons and billboards were put up by the Lärarförbundet (the Swedish teachers’ union) to raise the status of the teaching profession and to emphasize the importance of investing in education. A good teacher, indeed. Good teachers are fundamental to our future, and the Alberta Teachers’ Association has good teachers.