Anybody Can Teach or Only The Best Can?
Opinion Pakistan

Anybody Can Teach or Only The Best Can?

By Rubab Fatima

Three years ago, when I picked up a teaching position mentoring fresh intermediate graduates for aptitude tests, I had little in mind than to add a flare of extracurricular activities to my résumé. Three years into it, and I am still rethinking the assumption I carried with me to the first day of the two-month long program: anybody can teach.

I think I shared this assumption with 1.4 million or so teachers in Pakistan, and quite possibly with most of Pakistan’s population. Elsewhere in Europe, the situation is quite the opposite. Policy makers in the western part of the world strongly advocate for only the ‘best and brightest’ to be allowed in the teaching profession; the emphasis, as in every other discipline, is on quantifying the academic ability of candidates to measure their effectiveness as teachers – this appears to be a typical case of mistaking correlation for causation.

The two extremes of the qualifying criterion for teachers – anybody can teach or only the best can teach – are emblematic of the status offered to teachers in their respective societies. In case of the former, discipline and didacticism underpin education making teaching synonymous with successfully disciplining a classroom full of students. The other extreme works on the assumption that those who have mastered the content can teach it too.

Finland treads a different road. The rigorous admission process of the compulsory five-year masters’ degree makes the teaching profession almost exclusive. Applicants go through a two-phased admission process, and only 10% get selected. In 2014, of 1,625 applicants, only 120 got selected. Of those selected, 20% had top academic records, while the rest fell into the academically average category.

In a system so exclusive, how is it that a sizable portion of applicants selected for the most prestigious teacher education program were not the most academically excellent? The reason is simple; Finland believes that academic ability does not guarantee teaching ability. In turn, the five-year teacher education program ensures that the profession is pursued by individuals who are passionate about teaching, and only those who have seriously considered the profession apply for the program guaranteeing that the profession will not experience attrition, and teacher retention would not be a challenge. The rigorous admission process, as well as the research-based masters’ program ensure that only those passionate about the profession and appropriate for the job are selected.

As a result, Finnish students have been ranked at the top in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is a global comparative international test taken by 15-year old students who are tested on their ability in math, reading, and science. This means Finland is doing something different than other countries in the world. What stands out is that these teacher education programs are research-based and aim to develop reflective teachers. A study conducted on the teacher education program in 2010, published in the European Journal of Education, states:

The aim is not to produce researchers, but rather to provide students [enrolled in the teacher education program] with skills and knowledge to complete their own studies, observe their pupils, and analyse their thinking. Future teachers should be able to base their pedagogical decision-making on a theoretical foundation and reflect on their work as teachers.

The implication of this conceptual framework is far-reaching. The program has been structured to develop a culture of inquiry among the teachers, which ensures that the educators rationalize the decisions they make in the teaching process and are always critical of the effectiveness of their teaching methods. The masters’ degree is, in some form, a response to the decentralization of the education system in the 1990s which offered more autonomy to the schools. Supplemented with this autonomy, teachers in Finland are given the tools and the freedom to develop their own pedagogical frameworks based on their professional training. However, the Finnish teacher education system is not all roses. Recent PISA results suggest a less-than-exemplary story. While the first decade of the twentieth century showed an upward trend, recent analysis revealed a significant pattern in student achievement and their socioeconomic backgrounds. Moreover, as fascinating and comprehensive as the research-based program appears, Finland has not been able to regularize the system, and the teacher education programs have suffered from neglect. Despite the problems, Finland’s example is worth noting, as it does not merely delineate a structured approach to teacher education, but also sets the groundwork for a comprehensive ideology in teacher training.

There is much to learn from countries such as Finland or Singapore – ranked at the top in recent PISA rankings – that have reformed education through teacher training. In comparison, the reality on the ground in Pakistan appears bleak. Although issues such as lack of research and socioeconomic or gender disparity in education surface every now and then, they merely remain confined to the larger discourse in education. Rarely do we ever talk about the foundations on which these issues can be addressed.

UNESCO’s 2013 report on the Status of Teachers in Pakistan reports that the 2010 education policy revision – which made education a basic right, and devolved education to the provinces – cannot be successfully implemented until we address ‘the triple challenge of teacher presence, adequacy, and competency.’

While Finland’s policies are a long way to being replicated in Pakistan, they do present some clues for where the education system in Pakistan appears to be lacking. Recall my assumption that anybody can teach. This appallingly loose criterion for qualifying as a teacher stands in stark contrast with Finland’s thorough admission process, or Singapore’s diligent training procedures and performance appraisals. The most that majority of primary or secondary institutions in Pakistan require from a teacher is a graduate degree in no specific discipline, and in most cases the situation is even worse. The implication of this loosely structured approach are multi-faceted. This means that anybody can join or leave the profession as they please because they have invested close to nothing in it, the ramifications for students are far worse.

The issue of a high teacher turnover and absence is part of a larger problem. Countries like Finland and Singapore with adequately developed education systems have been dealing with higher-order problems of regularizing and sustaining the quality of teacher education, while Pakistan is still struggling with accepting teacher education as a viable solution to the myriads of issues plaguing education. The education system in Pakistan is a microcosm of the overarching authoritarian social structure in which hierarchy is maintained by a respect for authority and an obedience to command. In such a culture, teachers aspire to be all-knowing, almost infallible authorities in the classrooms demanding respect and imparting discipline.

Part-time job for housewives

It is no surprise that amidst these social ideals, programs that encourage teachers to learn and develop will be highly ostracised, and this is not least because of the prevalent notion that teaching is a part-time job apt for a housewife because it requires less temporal and mental investment. The issue comes full circle when these social underpinnings become both the source and the consequence of the low status offered to teaching in the hierarchy of professions.

Why is it that a profession that is indispensable in the development of all other professions is the very one least attended to?

What this demands is not merely a policy change but an ideological change as well. And we have to begin by dispensing with the age-old assumption that anybody can teach.

What to do?

The task is easier said than done and it can hardly be qualified as a top-down or bottom-up approach; the responsibility of redressing this issue cannot be entirely relegated to either the state or the teachers themselves, on the contrary, this calls for a joint approach. The first step in this seemingly – but not so – insurmountable ladder has to be a regularization of the profession with regard to the teacher qualification process. In lieu of the current practice of hiring as a teacher anybody who shows the slightest interest, let us look for individuals who show commitment and a passion for teaching. Already developed teacher education systems worldwide can provide a healthy framework to build upon, provided we allocate enough monetary and human resources to study these programs and construct a methodology of our own.

While we do see individual teacher training programs cropping up, and various institutions have resorted to in-house training, the framework for teacher education is largely unstructured. The programs that do exist are either attended on the basis of desirability – often young females form the demographics for these programs – or their exclusive fee structures prove to be a deterrent altogether. The absence of a properly structured curriculum for teacher training and higher teacher education programs are reflected in the issues highlighted above.

Unlike the situation in Pakistan, the strict qualification requirements and the highly developed, research-based training programs ensure that the teaching workforce in Finland and the likes are nothing less than exemplary. However, the challenges educational institutions encounter in Pakistan are far greater than those presented above; in fact, merely the discourse on teacher education in Pakistan encompasses a lot more than has been explicated here. In spite of that, suggestions of raising the bar for teacher qualifications and the formulation of centrally structured teacher education programs provide a direction to the erstwhile amorphous issues in education.