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Teaching the teachers
Thursday, August 16, 2001

Many Ontario teachers think Mike Harris is out to get them. It is easy to see why. The Premier's Conservative government has pushed through a host of changes to the school system, including new, clearer report cards, a tougher curriculum and provincewide student testing. Much of the burden has fallen on teachers, who have endured six years of strikes, confrontation and upheaval. Teachers in other provinces often feel the same way. In British Columbia, for example, teachers are rallying against a plan to restrict their right to strike.

But not every government move is a plot to persecute teachers. Consider the Harris government's plan to make teachers take training courses.

Everybody who has studied education seriously agrees that well-trained teachers are a key to an effective school system. At a time when the curriculum changes every few years and computers and other new media are coming into use in the classroom, teachers have to refresh their knowledge and rehearse their techniques all the time if they hope to stay sharp.

Some teachers already do that on their own. In Ontario, an average of 24,500 of the province's 126,000 teachers take extra courses each year to update or upgrade their skills. Others, however, coast along on what they learned at university and teachers college. As a result, many students find themselves stuck with teachers who are incompetent or out of date.

For that reason, more and more school systems require teachers to undergo regular retraining. Forty-seven U.S. states require some form of continuing professional education. In Canada, Nova Scotia makes teachers take 100 hours of courses every five years to keep their certification, while Alberta makes teachers draw up an annual professional development plan.

Ontario's own plan, which comes into effect this fall, would require teachers to take 14 courses every five years to keep their teaching certificates. The program, consisting of seven core courses and seven electives, would cover subjects ranging from teaching strategies and classroom management techniques to use of technology and knowledge of subject material. There would be no overall test at the end, but teachers would have to take all the courses to keep their certificates.

It's a tough requirement, given everything else that teachers have to do, but necessary all the same. A recent report by Ontario's Task Force on Effective Schools, co-chaired by a former NDP education minister, said teachers should undergo "continuous learning" throughout their careers.

Most conscientious teachers would agree with that. Yet Ontario teachers unions have denounced the plan, just as they have denounced every other important part of the Harris education reforms, no matter how sensible. The head of one union, Phyllis Benedict of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, has even called on her members to boycott the whole business. "Teacher testing is one more attack on teachers," she said when the plan first came out.

It's simply not so. No matter how ill-used many teachers may feel, retraining is not something Mr. Harris dreamed up to torment them. In fact, it was first recommended by a royal commission on education appointed by Ontario's previous, NDP government. Like many other studies, the commission found that regular training makes for better teachers and better schools.

Teachers are right to demand to be treated as the dedicated professionals they are. But in return, they must accept the burden of constant learning.

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