“It is advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticize, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. They are not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy; they must be an intelligent medium of action” – John Dewey
Prior to the start of the First World War, the Canadian-made Ross rifle had become world-renowned for its accuracy in international shooting competitions and as a hunting rifle. When Canada entered the First World War in 1914 it made some sense that the Canadian government equip its infantry with the Ross rifle. Sadly, the grim realities of trench warfare did not compare to the tests where the Ross had shone. Canadian troops would quickly abandon their rifles which jammed due to the poor quality of the mass produced ammunition, the high rate of fire and the muddy conditions. Despite the pleas of the troops to switch to the more reliable British Lee-Enfield rifle, the Generals in the rear directed Canadian front line troops to continue using the Ross rifle until late in 1916.
I have often heard classroom teachers called “front line troops.” Please forgive this history teacher for developing the analogy a little further. As a classroom teacher I required my own professional judgement, my professional training and my professional experience upon which to make decisions that best met the needs of my students. It was often difficult to reconcile my sense of professionalism, alone at my post, while orders periodically came down through the chain of command from my Generals in the school, Board and Ministry Offices, directing me as to how I should be doing my job. Someone, who was far from the trenches of my everyday reality was making decisions that did not always make sense in my professional judgement or which I felt had a negative impact on my ability to provide the best possible education for my students. Fortunately, as unionized workers, teachers have fought for and continue to push back against attacks on their professionalism and the education system.
My oldest son is in his first year of a university engineering program and, like any parent, I worry about his success. Fortunately, he has had a very positive start that my son attributes, in part, to his Grade 12 calculus teacher. This teacher used his professional judgement to go beyond the curriculum expectations to give his students what he felt was a better preparation for the next step in their education at university. Parents do not need to read the work of educational research experts like John Hattie to know that the greatest influence on student learning is the classroom teacher. As a parent I want professionals teaching my children to become lifelong learners and critical thinkers. I want teachers who engage my children in meaningful ways and make them want to come to school every day. I remember my teachers because they made learning fun; I remember my teachers’ dedication and commitment. I want my children learning from dynamic and creative professionals, who don’t just uncover the curriculum and follow legislation and regulations, but who have a sense of autonomy. As a parent, I am comforted to know that my children have highly trained teachers, informed by their professional judgement, who have autonomy and flexibility within our education system.
As a teacher I recognized the reality that I had to be autonomous every day when I closed my classroom door and started a lesson. Ontario has very high standards for teachers entering the profession and competition for places in education faculties and jobs in schools has been fierce for many years. The year that I took my education degree, the average age of students in the program was 28! My cohort was loaded with individuals who had a tremendous amount of life experience and a desire to make a difference in the educational experience of students. Recent changes will see teachers graduating in Ontario having completed a two-year education degree in addition to a three- or four-year undergraduate degree. There is no question that Ontario produces highly-trained teachers.
As a Teacher Bargaining Unit President, I have been hearing from members in my District for many years that they have felt that their professional judgement has been under attack in an education system that seems more intent on improving test scores than educating students. Teachers across the province complain that principals and school boards are asking teachers to change individual student marks, to change class averages, to change their Annual Learning Plans, to change how and when they communicate with parents, how lessons are planned and delivered—all while being bombarded by the latest Ministry initiatives. Teachers are drowning in the latest education buzz words: triangulated, blended, personalized, universally designed, student-centred, deeper, individualized, competency-based…and all they want to have is course integrity, a greater degree of autonomy and to have their professional judgement respected.
In an effort to address the issue of the attacks on members’ professional judgement the following motion was passed at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly (AMPA):
BE IT RESOLVED THAT AMPA direct the Provincial Executive to create a work group tasked with creating a strategy to protect and enhance teachers’ rights to exercise professional judgement. The strategy will include: a lobby plan, the creation of model contract language for central and local bargaining tables, and a “pushback” campaign for the use of individual members.
A work group was formed in late 2014 and subsequently the provincial Educational Services Committee produced a document entitled Understanding Professional Judgement in 2015. This document is meant to be a resource that helps teacher members clarify what is and what is not “professional judgement.” This document lists the duties of teachers and provides some general advice on how to approach situations where a teacher feels that their professional judgement is being challenged. Growing Success, the document that outlines the policies and practices for assessment, evaluation, and reporting in Ontario schools since September 2010 uses the phrase “professional judgement” fifteen times. On the front page of the Understanding Professional Judgement document, Growing Success is quoted twice including the following definition: Judgement…is informed by professional knowledge of curriculum expectations, context, evidence of learning, methods of instruction and assessment, and the criteria and standards that indicate success in student learning. In professional practice, judgement involves a purposeful and systematic thinking process that evolves in terms of accuracy and insight with ongoing reflection and self-correction. (Growing Success, page 152.)
In September of 2015 this same definition has found its way into the Central Teacher and Occasional Teacher Memorandum of Settlement. The addition of this language is a significant first step in allowing OSSTF/FEESO to grieve when members’ ability to use their professional judgement has been tested. While this not a quick fix, members should know that OSSTF/FEESO will continue to take steps to have members’ professionalism respected.
If the experience, skills and training of the Canadian troops had been respected, there undoubtedly would have been more success. If the Generals in our education system want to have success, they should respect the experience, skills and training of their professional teachers. It is important to highlight that teachers do have tremendous responsibilities and need to respect their profession, but ultimately teachers need to have their professional judgement respected.