In the spring of 1993, despite working in a temporary five month teaching contract in the lower mainland, I faced the reality that permanent, full-time teaching positions in British Columbia were scarce, so I found myself looking northward. Thus, in September, I started teaching in a small rural school two kilometres from the Alaska border. I was the social studies department. I taught seven distinct courses in my first full year, five of which I had hitherto never encountered. It was a brutal ten months, and I almost left the profession at the end of June.
What saved me? Desperation, for the most part. My wife worked at home raising our two young children, but they depended on me to provide an outside income, and we didn’t have many other options. Another element that sustained me was a fairly impressive armoury of resources. My first indispensable tool was the social studies curriculum binder. Back then, curriculum documents were somewhat helpful. They included resource lists and recommended periods of time for each unit. In addition, one teacher at my first school took pity on me before I left for the north and lent me multiple thick binders that provided the bare bones of four different courses (including fill-in-the-blank worksheets, crosswords and questions). To that teacher, I offer my eternal thanks; to the photocopier technician, I apologize for all the extra strain I put on the machines. I also visited the BCTF Lesson Aid service [the loss of which was a real misfortune] and purchased as many unit and lesson items as I could. Finally, my new northern school offered a complete surprise: a well stocked resource room. In return for educating a small number of American students from across the border, I was paid in part by the neighbouring Alaskan school district. As part of this unique arrangement, the Americans supplied my school with a vast array of videos, handouts, overheads and suggested lesson plans for the American government and history courses that were part of my bailiwick. Collectively, all of these resources offered me a necessary lifeline. They may not have been original, complete or elegant, but I don’t think I could have survived my first full year without them.
So that brings me to the central point of this post. Do we want new educators to survive past the first year? Do we want to ensure their students aren’t subjected to seriously fatigued and stressed out teachers, as well as hit and miss schooling? The questions should be rhetorical. Obviously we must not throw teachers into the bonfire without fireproofing them. And an essential part of this process must be a rich, helpful curriculum with a wide range of resources that ensure new teachers aren’t creating everything from scratch and reinventing the proverbial wheel.
But… teacher autonomy!
Ah yes, that hoary old chestnut. Let’s address it. Teachers are not autonomous when their teachers’ training has ignored the nuts and bolts of everyday education in favour of (bad) theory, leaving teachers to their own devices. Teachers are not autonomous when they’re stuck in school until 10 o’clock building worksheets and sweating over lesson plans, wondering how they’ll create – yet again – something out of nothing. Teachers are not autonomous when they’re forced to rely on a textbook, because sleep deprivation prevents them from building a “golden” lesson plan. And teachers are not autonomous if their curriculum documents are so vague that buying unit plans or copying other people’s work are the only barriers between them and a nervous breakdown. In short, if teachers only have time for the bare necessities, then they are slaves to necessity. That’s not autonomy.
So what is teacher autonomy? It should be enough time for teachers to pick and choose from a variety of options, rather than start from nothing. It should be enough time for teachers to modify and refine existing resources to meet the particular needs of their students, or create an original resource without feeling their careers depend on it. It should be enough time for teachers to work with their students and colleagues, and not resent the loss of precious prep time. And it should be enough time for teachers to, dare I say, spend quality time with their families. Thus, rich curricula, a plethora of resources, and suggested lesson plans do not infringe on teacher autonomy. Quite the opposite. They enhance the ability of teachers to create, to adapt and to refine.
All of this leads to my final point. In British Columbia, we have a particularly perverse approach to teacher support. At the secondary level, and particularly in social studies and English/language arts, curriculum and resources have steadily dwindled.
- In the mid-1990’s, for instance, recommended time allocations were eliminated. I remember attending a summer conference at SFU on the new curriculum; the central justification for the time allocation change was, not surprisingly, “teacher autonomy”.
- Only a handful of large school districts have curriculum departments that actually produce useful classroom resources or learning objects anymore, or at least that’s what I have been told by other teachers. I haven’t taught in a district for over 20 years that has produced such tools. [Please correct me if my impressions here are incorrect.]
- In the early 2000’s, official resource lists for English/language arts were removed. As a consequence, in many districts with middle and secondary schools, we now encounter teachers in earlier grades using texts that used to be taught in later grades. In these cases, the costs of rebuilding secondary-level resources and units have been quite substantial. In my experience, this free-for-all has caused a great deal of confusion and ill-will, and damaged inter-school cooperation. [This lack of resource articulation will also negatively impact the implementation of aboriginal content, in my opinion.]
- After a number of iterations, the latest secondary curricula for English Language Arts has reached a new low. The five new Grade 10 courses, predicated on an unsupported belief in expanded choice, offer little help to practising teachers. The curriculum document for each of the five new courses is seven or eight pages long. Only the first page is unique in each document; as you can see above for New Media 10, only a few vague platitudes and suggestions are offered. After that, the rest of the documents are almost identical to each other: six to seven pages each of boilerplate language arts edu-jargon that will be of little use to classroom teachers who need to build the courses… for tomorrow morning. In other words, BC secondary English teachers will now need to build courses from nothing (particularly New Media and Spoken Language) or – assuming they are experienced teachers with access to them – from the pieces of the old curriculum (like in Composition, Literary Studies and Creative Writing). Oh, and do the new courses come with curated and articulated lists of recommended resources? So far, nope, nothing, zilch and nada, though some enterprising publishing companies are trying to fill the void with de facto corporate substitutes. The ministry’s “curriculum” above is, in a word, preposterous.
In brief, we can’t keep going down the path we’ve been taking for decades here in B.C. If we’re truly concerned with teacher burnout, we need to address the need for a rich, properly articulated and fully resourced curriculum. Throwing teachers to the wolves is not respecting teacher autonomy; it is, in fact, profoundly disparaging to educators who should spend more time with their students and less time re-creating what has already been created. Put another way, teachers should survive and thrive with the help of curriculum, not in spite of curriculum.