Trust in Teachers

by Mathilde Whitburn on 8 November 2017

Mathilde Whitburn
Matriculated 2012
M. Phil Psychology and Education 2013

I left Cambridge in 2013, after having completed my Master’s degree in education and returned home to Belgium, where I was hired to teach in a primary school. After spending a year reading research about how we can improve primary schooling, I was ready to revolutionise primary education in Belgium. I was convinced I had the power to change the lives of children and ensure the success of all my students, with some hard work and a few well-chosen methods. My head was full of ideas. I was going to carefully design my classroom environment in order to stimulate the children’s development. The learning in my classroom was going to be hands-on, cooperative and inquisitive. Regular class councils at the end of every week would support the development of my students into good citizens. I was also going to let the pupils make some choices for themselves. After all, hadn’t it been proven that choice improves student motivation and helps them become lifelong learners? Unfortunately, I had scarcely started the school year when my ideas hit a brick wall.

I first realised the enormity of this wall when I was buried under administrative tasks, imposed upon most teachers, which left little time for the preparation of class activities. Indeed after the children packed up and went home, I felt like my real work day started: I would have meetings with colleagues and parents, make display boards, write my lesson plans for the next day (in a rush, conscious of all the work that was still awaiting me), gather or make all the resources I needed, grade students’ work, record data, answer the long list of emails from colleagues, administrators or worried parents, and sort out diverse administrative papers such as students’ medical certificates or lunch forms. By the time I was done with all of that, it was usually close to or often past midnight and I did not have the time or the energy for my big plans to be put into action.

Moreover, all the directives from the government added to the immensity of the barrier I was facing. These directives seemed to have been written by people who had never set foot into a primary classroom or even read a research paper about educational issues. I was perplexed - and still am to this day – as to why children are expected to be capable of doing certain things by a certain age. It is indeed widely known today that children develop at different paces, and that a child who has not mastered a skill by a certain age will probably be able to do so with time. For example, all children are not ready to read by age five, or even six but it does not mean they will never be able to read. Similarly, if a child cannot count to one hundred by age seven, it is very often because their brain is not ready to grasp the complex concept of the decimal system. Unfortunately, directives and programmes do not take these developmental differences into consideration, but instead put enormous pressure on teachers to ensure every child achieves the numerous objectives set by the programme. This pressure makes teachers rush through curriculum, drilling children to do things they may not be ready for, to the detriment of activities that are more beneficial for student development, such as free play, project-based and or student-led learning.

The pinnacle of the obstacle I encountered was the plethora of expectations from different people and especially from the parents of my students. By the second week of my first year of teaching, I was getting emails from parents asking why their child did not have daily homework, or why the children spent so much time “playing”. These parents had a particular image of what primary education should look like, based on their own experience and anything that deviated from that picture was unnecessary. Parents would still have a poor opinion of my methods, even when I explained that homework has not been proven to enhance learning or what they had scornfully called “playing” was in fact high quality hands-on learning, which would help the students truly understand the concepts that we were studying and hopefully cultivate a love of learning. Under this unrelenting pressure, it requires a lot of confidence and will-power for a young teacher to persist in doing what they think is best for their students. In the end, I regrettably gave in and increased the amount of homework and my teaching also became less student-centred.

Since these first days of teaching, I have fortunately become more skilled at implementing research-based methods into my classes while following government directives, completing the required administrative tasks and all throughout reassuring parents that their offspring are getting a high-quality education. However, in order for teachers to be able to fully implement what research has proven to be beneficial for children’s development, authorities, school administration and parents need to realise that what really makes a difference in a child’s education are carefully designed classroom activities, adapted to the children’s abilities and interests, a stimulating environment and a rested, happy teacher. Therefore, teachers need to be liberated from unnecessary tasks that shift the focus away from learning. In other words, more trust needs to be placed in teachers, who are trained professionals and who, for the most part, are truly passionate about the edifying undertaking that is teaching.