A Reply to Olivier’s Comment on
If we were merely imparters of random knowledge from aging textbooks, Olivier, I might find your argument interesting; after all even you could drill children in exercises until they had memorised facts. The difference is that we prepare the students who will go into high school to learn more difficult subject matter. We equip them with the tools to learn: not just reading and writing and arithmetic, but also thought and imagination and questions.
Ages & Stages
Elementary teaching requires an understanding of the stage that the child is at for example between the ages of two and seven a child believes that a tall glass holds more water than a short glass regardless of their diameters. Thirteen year olds, on the other hand, go through a stage that lasts roughly a year in which they cannot process facts using the scientific method; in other words, once they have a theory, they have great difficulty accepting facts that disprove the theory. A teacher who is unaware of the pedagogical and psychological realities of the stages their students are in is going to have great difficulty teaching most subject material and especially any subject material which requires the children to do more than just memorise facts.
Critical Thinking: Not Just for High School Teachers
In fact, the Ontario Ministry for Education and Training requires that every subject from Grade One up be taught and assessed with a critical and creative thinking component as well as a knowledge and skill component. This makes sense, Olivier, when you realise that each discipline has its own way of thinking about the world. A scientist creates a hypothesis, a well-designed experiment to test the hypothesis (and anyone who has done this will tell you that experimental design is not simple), observes the results and draws conclusions from the results. On the other hand, an historian can’t do experiments to demonstrate truths about historical events; facts such as writing, artefacts and drawings are collected and the historian considers what conclusions can be most logically drawn from the evidence.
I could go on to discuss the other subjects we teach, but I am sure you see my point. The historian must, even more than the scientist, consider the biases of every one involved in contributing to the conclusions. Elementary teachers must understand and train their students in the kind of thinking experts do in each discipline. Facts can be found in books, videos and sometimes on the Internet but thinking about it cannot.
To teach thinking we use tools that aren’t always found in textbooks. You would not recognise an elementary math class today because students will often be using manipulatives to learn such things as algebra. We don’t just get them to memorise equations, we let them discover why they work, why they are helpful and why the rules of solving equations matter.
[For an fascinating and in depth discussion of thinking in different disciplines see World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence by Stephen C. Pepper]
It is not obvious where you live. The Math and Language Arts curriculum I am referring to is the one in Ontario, Canada; it was written in 2005 and 2006 respectively. It was supplemented with marking exemplars in math, reading and writing. Recent curriculum is no guarantee of good curriculum but it does demonstrate that the powers-that-be are paying attention.
Textbooks: Not for Every Grade or Every Subject and Never Enough for French Immersion
The Trillium List is a list of textbooks approved by the ministry for use in the schools. Although there are textbooks approved for almost every subject in every grade, the reality is, as one teacher wrote to me today, that there are seldom texts used for math in grade one and two. Subjects such as science and social studies in the primary grades do not have textbooks although there may be some teacher guides. These subjects are taught through hands on, carefully planned activities. And I have yet to see a text beyond an anthology for Language Arts for any elementary grade. If that sounds like enough, I should remind my readers that students in Language Arts learn grammar, spelling, composition (for a variety of audiences), participation in group discussions, public speaking, reading non-fiction, reading for information, to skim or scan and much more. French Immersion teachers have access to fewer texts than those teaching in English (see Does Choice in Education Divide our Children by Class?) and find themselves frequently translating materials for their students.
Elementary Teachers as Diagnosticians
You are right in one sense, Olivier, we do teach children first. Their well-being and safety is our first mandated concern but it requires an expertise beyond a normal caregiver’s. Elementary school is where a lot of diagnostic work happens. If by the end of grade eight a learning disability or behavioural problem has not been diagnosed, it is not likely to happen in high school, no matter what the severity. I speak from both experience and observation. Elementary school teachers use their knowledge of child development, the subjects they teach, their observational skills and finely honed abilities in multi-tasking to spot anomalies in student performance and investigate further. Should the child be diagnosed with a disability or any other kind of problem, it will be the teacher who carries out any suggested accommodations or modifications. She will also be the one who will continue to adjust the delivery of the curriculum to allow the child to learn it.
And Creative & Critical Thinkers
Notice I say adjust the delivery of the curriculum, not adjust the curriculum. Most children with learning disabilities are perfectly capable of learning the same material as their classmates. All they require is the ingenuity of their teacher in finding an alternate way of for them to learn or demonstrate their understanding of the topic. I should not really use the word “all” as sometimes this is quite a challenge and requires considerable negotiation with student, parents and experts and experimenting with methods until one is found that is effective.
Teaching Many in One Class, One Curriculum (Have You Ever Seen a One Man Band)
The elementary classroom includes students of a wide range of abilities. There may be a range as much as two grades below and two grades above intellectually. Some students may be barely functional in English. Some may have emotional and behavioural problems that require professional help, but may or may not be receiving it. We teach in a public school system and therefore we teach every child. Currently the default placement for any child with special needs is the regular classroom, so that is where most of them are being taught. The teacher has a curriculum to teach AND she must consider the nature of her students’ abilities as she plans how to deliver it. This is not usually the case for high school teachers.
For more information about the administrivia that a teacher deals with, I refer you to Rethinking “Education for All” Charts: Does Paperwork Improve Teaching? I have not outlined the rest of a teacher’s duties such as supervision and meetings. I will finish this incomplete summary with one additional expectation of all elementary teachers: no matter how weary, how sore, how ill she is, she smiles, speaks softly and puts the kids first.
For Even More Information about Elementary Teachers’ Working Conditions:
My astonishment is no longer that people believe that elementary teachers should be on a different pay scale from high school teachers but, meaning no disrespect to my secondary colleagues, that people aren’t agitating to have elementary teachers paid a great deal more to work fewer hours. Could it be that young children are considered women’s work and women’s work is not accorded much value? If men dominated elementary school teaching would the job still be valued less? Do we pay pediatricians less than urologists on the grounds that they deal with young children? Are people who make cribs paid less than those who make beds?
A Modest Proposal
Given that you think people who teach from a textbook that their students could probably read and learn from themselves should be paid less than high school teachers, Olivier, I have a modest proposal. University professors should have their salaries divided such that the part that represents the proportion of time spent teaching courses be reduced to less than that of an elementary teacher (as they don’t have to diagnose learning difficulties or supervise playgrounds). After all, if the high school teachers have done THEIR job, university students should be perfectly capable of reading the texts and learning the course work themselves. And we all know that either a computer or teaching assistants do their marking.
And a Chuckle
A few years ago I saw an amusing analysis of the comment that elementary teachers were just glorified babysitters. I don’t know if this is the same one, but it comes to the same conclusion:
Ok- to the people that say teachers are babysitters- and we know that during the school year the teachers probably see the children more than their own parents…soooooooooo if teachers are babysitters….then teachers should be paid as babysitters…back when I was 12 (oh…say 23 years ago) I charged $5.00 per child per hour, and I am sure the price has gone up, but you know what…..so let’s pay these babysitters $5.00 per child per hour, for every day they have the children. No holiday pay, nothing like that. There’s 180 school days, right? 7 hours in a school day (we won’t let the teacher get paid for her lunch). A teacher has…let’s say 20 children. Holy crap- that’s $126K a year!!! Yeah!!! Please please please pay teachers as babysitters.