September 12, 2016 7 min to read

Recognizing Teaching Excellence

Category : Governance

Author: Ms Ramya Venkataraman
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“I am keen to do high quality on-going training for my teachers, but it is not easy – any suggestions for an organization that can help me with this?” This is a question I am asked every now and then by some enlightened and progressive school principals or trustees. Based on where the school is located and what kind of training they are looking for, I try to think over it and see if I can suggest a couple of options for them to explore.

Each time such a conversation takes place, I am reminded of several teacher professional development programs that have been launched in India over the last ten to fifteen years. In fact, the number would run into at least hundreds, if not thousands, combining government-run or government-funded programs, non-profit run programs, private teacher training businesses and services by some schools themselves. However, very few of these initiatives have been able to bring quality, scale and sustainability together. The natural question that arises is – why? It is now reasonably well-accepted in India that both upfront (i.e. pre-service) and ongoing (i.e. in-service) teacher education play a critical role in enabling the teacher to deliver quality education – a view that is also supported by the findings of several global research efforts. Though teacher development is recognized as a critical need, and several people in the landscape are making efforts to address this need, then why has it been so difficult to build a high quality, large scale and sustainable teacher development program?

The core issue – lack of ‘demand’ for teacher education
My view is that teacher development has struggled to scale up and sustain because of ‘lack of demand’. The progressive school principal or trustee we were speaking about earlier are relatively small in number. An average school does not want to spend too much on teacher training, since it is intangible and difficult to show as a differentiator in the near term. Even more importantly, there is not much demand from individual teachers. Beyond the B.Ed. or D.Ed., which is a requirement, there is limited tangible incentive for the individual teacher to get trained! Improvement in competencies does not necessarily lead to bigger or better opportunities. Therefore, teacher training entities, for their sustenance, have to depend on a smaller number of progressive schools, donor grants or government programs – each of which have their own scale and/or sustainability issues. With this kind of dependence, teacher training entities find it difficult to build long term teams to maintain quality, or put in the investment needed for scaling up, and many of them end up remaining either small or inconsistent in quality or both.

So how do we create demand for teacher education and therefore also help high quality teacher training entities to scale up? For a minute, let us look at another side of this coin – recognizing teaching excellence.

Tangible Rewards
Every now and then, I hear a school principal saying, “So-and-so teacher of mine is outstanding… I wish I could do something special for her/ him”. In fact, a survey of 120 school principals and trustees from around the country, conducted by CENTA in 2014, revealed that an overwhelming 95% were interested in creating incentives for their high-performing teachers if there was an objective way to do that. A smaller but significant 32% were willing to create financial incentives in addition to role-based incentives such as promotion.

Teaching of course has one automatic powerful ‘reward’, i.e. satisfaction in seeing one’s students grow and do well, and some teachers constantly keep improving their competencies towards this. However, it is natural for any professional to also expect ‘tangible external rewards’. In another survey that our organization conducted, of about 300 new teachers, majority responded that they would be keen to see: (a) opportunities for career growth; (b) financial rewards; (c) public recognition of their good work.
However, school managements also pointed out two sets of practical challenges in rewarding and recognizing outstanding teachers. First, how does one objectively identify outstanding teachers? Second, what should the rewards be? In most professions like education or health, it is difficult for an individual entity to reward its outstanding performers by itself. This is a challenge that is best solved collectively in a landscape.

Here is an example of what such a solution could look like. Our national competition, the CENTA Teaching Professionals’ Olympiad or TPO, recognizes and celebrates teachers, through tangible rewards. Moreover, an initiative like this also creates a platform for teachers to network and meet like-minded people across the country. This is of course one example. More fundamentally, what are the elements needed for creating systemic rewards for teachers for improving their competencies? Examples from other high-performing education systems and inputs from several stakeholders in India suggest that there are three important aspects for making this happen.

The three inter-linked pillars.The first aspect is a reasonably aligned view on what competencies of teachers can most contribute to high quality education and a mechanism for any individual teacher to signal that s/he has those competencies. For example, a ‘certification’ that is based on well-accepted competency standards could serve such a purpose. The international Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) certificate would be an example of such a certificate in the finance profession while The Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians in the UK (FRCP) would be an example from medicine. The Standards towards such a certification must be well-researched and also regularly updated based on lessons from the ground.

Further, I believe that such a certification needs to be ‘independent’, in order to retain its objectivity; i.e. not linked to a particular training program or a particular set of resources or philosophy. It must instead serve as a catalyst or support pillar for teacher training programs; e.g. by providing relevant information on teacher competencies and gaps.

The second aspect, following from the first, is the presence of a large number of opportunities associated with such certifications or evaluations. For example, appointment of coordinators, principals, coaches, subject specialists, etc. could be based on meeting well-defined competencies. In the government system, teachers meeting well-defined competencies could get the opportunity to become ‘Cluster Resource Coordinators’ or training ‘Resource Personnel’. Further, broader opportunities would also be relevant; e.g. selection for high quality training programs or international conferences, state or national level recognition, international opportunities for those interested in them, and so on. Such broader opportunities, beyond what an individual school or even an individual system can create, also become important at large scale.
The two aspects above are closely interlinked – while some of the opportunities mentioned may exist anyway, a high quality certification that becomes well-accepted over time, allows various stakeholders to provide these opportunities in a structured, objective and large scale manner.

The third aspect, is, for teachers wanting to improve their competencies, the presence of aligned professional development options. This requires high quality information on strength areas as well as improvement areas of different teacher segments, along with appropriate linkages.

For example, analysis of detailed data from the CENTA Teaching Professionals’ Olympiad TPO 2015 reveals that while ‘pedagogical methods’ seems to be an area of strength for many teachers, ‘creating lesson plans using these methods’ is an area of improvement for many. Similarly, while many teachers displayed comfort with a range of ‘student assessment methods’, many found it more difficult to ‘derive insight from student assessment’. In the subject-specific section, the ‘Middle School Maths’, ‘High School Maths’ and ‘Middle School Science’ tracks showed greater need for improvement, compared to the other six tracks offered. Such specific lessons with a large amount of data, over time, can play an important role in directing the efforts of professional development entities and focusing them more on the themes of greatest need.
‘Linkages’ refer to alignment between the modules offered by training entities and the independent Standards that a large number of stakeholders in the landscape see as relevant.

To summarize, high quality, large scale and sustainable teacher professional development initiatives can take root if ‘demand’ (not just ‘need’) can be created for them. This requires a mechanism for ecosystem-wide recognition of teaching excellence, so that a larger population of teachers feel motivated to keep improving their competencies and ask for professional development. With high quality information on strength and gap areas, teacher professional development entities can align themselves with gaps identified and respond to the demand now generated.

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