Glenn Tucker: Are all teachers really equal?
"In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest would have to settle for something less ... ."
- Lee Iacocca
When I attended York Castle High, I was not placed in the science grade. That was reserved for the students that showed promise. It didn't really matter at the time, as I was too young to be embarrassed and always had a preference for what was easier.
Even in those early days, however, one was able to determine which teacher was committed and had the ability to make solutions look easy. Yes, mathematics and science presented challenges, but, looking back, I wonder if these subjects really require superior 'brainpower' or just that the appropriate methodology has not been identified to impart the principles.
After all, those principles are all around us. We live and breathe them. In fact, mathematics should be easier than the humanities.
There has been a long history of poor performances in these subject areas, not only in Jamaica but elsewhere. Recently, in apparent frustration, it has been proposed that maths and science teachers be paid at a higher level in order to address the shortage of teachers in these areas. The Jamaica Teachers' Association is not on board with this idea. But it is an idea that is being considered elsewhere.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has proposed that maths and science teachers get more pay than gym teachers. This prompted an NJEA teachers union spokesman to quip, "... What has he got against gym teachers.." I would not know. But I don't think it has anything to do with the fact that Christie tips the scales at 331 pounds. Douglas County, Colorado, is the only place that I can think of that has actually moved forward with institutionalising pay differential for hard-to-find teaching specialities, and even there, it is a hard sell.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
What the JTA and other dissenting groups fail to recognise is that this is just another case of supply and demand. Early last year, I was getting carrots at $60 per pound in Coronation Market. A few months later, my same carrot lady was asking $180 per pound. Why? Because of the drought, demand was greater than supply. This is a universal concept. But that is not all.
A US teacher earns an average of $45,612 per annum. A maths graduate can become an actuary or a civil engineer - among other professions. As an actuary, his average salary would be almost double that of the teacher's at $81,000, or $79,000 as a civil engineer. The 'pull' away from teaching is tempting.
Then there is another consideration. What guarantee is there that after hiring at attractive salaries, one would be getting persons who could make students learn - because the bottom line is that one has not taught if no one has learnt. Some of the best footballers in history have turned out to be hopeless at coaching.
What I have found is that the best teachers see teaching as a calling and - though they sometimes complain - are not motivated by money. The poor ones see it as a job. Their body language and results soon separate them.
I remember, as a young teacher, one student scheduled for CXC exams that year was missing. Inquiries revealed that her father had decided to withdraw her from school, permanently, to perform a certain domestic chore. Appalled, I got hold of her address - some place in Trelawny - and secured a commitment from a bus conductor to take me there after informing them of my visit. I got there in the dead of night.
When I got off the bus, it was my first and only experience of complete darkness. I had to hold on to the conductor's shirt tail as he marched up a hill with the occasional warning like, 'Watch yu step. A sinkhole right deh so'! My exhortation to the father about the importance of finishing school was obviously having little effect, so I had to resort to a few fibs. Like this winner; summoning my most imperial tone, I declared, "I was really sent by Mr Shearer". The girl and I were on the bus 4 o'clock the following morning.
I did not receive any addition to my pay. In fact, nobody at school knew of this adventure. I am not in touch with her, as gratitude can be an enormous burden. But the lift I get - even today - when I hear of her progress is like crack to a starving addict. Or I suspect that's how it feels.
Mathematics is not just important in finding employment. It improves the quality of one's life. When one buys a car. seeks the best mortgage package, decorates one's home or bets on a horse, maths helps.
Perhaps the reason I performed so miserably at maths is because I never had a teacher - even those from the mother country, who could make me understand how tan and cosine were going to help me in life. When I left Mico, I did a first degree and got an A for Statistics and Scientific Method. I later did Demography and 80 per cent involved calculations.
Although I also completed an MBA degree, I am extremely uncomfortable with figures and shy away from them completely. I was alarmed to discover I could not handle the maths section of the Junior Schools' Challenge. I may not be the brightest bulb in the room, but I still think it also has something to do with the quality of teaching. And all my teachers were qualified. But I have never mastered the mechanics of mathematics.
My only consolation is that I am not alone. Albert Einstein once confessed, "Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I don't understand it myself anymore."
Is it that we are losing teachers of maths and science because of demands from the broader labour market? Or is it that we have traditionally treated our teachers poorly? Are efforts at valuing teachers equally across subject areas hurting students? These are some of the critical questions we need to ask ourselves and be guided by the answers.