Manitoba·Opinion

As Manitoba reviews K-12 education system, focus needs to be on support for teachers

As Manitoba embarks on a major review of K-12 education, everything will be on the table. But it's vital, says Seven Oaks School Division assistant superintendent Matt Henderson that in this process, we don't lose sight of the vital role our teachers play in the success of Manitoba's students.

Best way to help students succeed is to focus on day-to-day practices of classroom teachers: Matt Henderson

Governance, curriculum, funding, and testing will be under the microscope during Manitoba's education review, but it's vital not to lose sight of the essential role supporting teachers plays, says Seven Oaks School Division assistant superintendent Matt Henderson. (sebra/Shutterstock)

Think back to when you were in school — that is the early, middle, or senior years. Recall, if you can, a time when you dove deep, you were excited, and you were severely impacted by the learning that was intended.

Chances are your teacher was amazing. They were passionate about what they were teaching, they were so good at cultivating rich bonds with kids, and they had an uncanny ability of making the curriculum come alive. For me, this was Grade 12 English with Mr. Aitkins!

Come back to the present. The province of Manitoba has set off on a review of our K to 12 education system and has begun to consult with the public — a healthy process that all public systems need to enter into from time to time. Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen has provided the Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education with a clear mandate: to ameliorate our education system. 

The commission has put everything on the table: governance, curriculum, funding, teacher development, accountability and testing.

Other jurisdictions engaged in similar reviews have abolished responsive and democratic school boards, brought in high-stakes standardized testing, changed curricula, and moved to private and charter schools.

It's essential, though, that in this process, we don't lose sight of the vital role our teachers play in the success of Manitoba's students.

Despite Manitoba's students performing at least as well as others in the OECD and an increase in graduation rates, some learners in our schools struggle to gain critical numeracy and literacy skills.

More significantly, they do not feel successful or see themselves reflected in this common endeavour we call school.

This is a problem.

Clayton Manness, co-chair of Manitoba's Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, presents a discussion paper on April 12 that will guide conversations about changes to the province's education system. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Everyone in Manitoba can agree that we want all learners to have the skills and knowledge necessary to flourish and have the basic needs for a decent life.

Fortunately, extensive research provides evidence-based pathways forward, especially related to the key and arguably core concern of all Manitobans — student learning.

And the evidence is clear — achievement levels are best raised through focusing on the day-to-day practices of teachers in actual classrooms.

Quick fixes have limited success

While standardized testing and parental choice appeal to many, internationally documented research tells us that these fixes don't work or have limited effectiveness.

According to John Hattie and Dylan Wiliam, renowned researchers on education, positive impacts on student learning are most strongly influenced by the teacher's expertise and passion, the relevance and rigour of the content covered, and the subsequent relationship forged between learner and educator.

According to Wiliam, "The greatest impact on learning is the daily lived experiences of students in classrooms," and we need to establish a "culture where all teachers improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better."

It's a simple and powerful truth. Teachers with increased teaching expertise and passion bring the greatest demonstrable difference in raising the achievement of their learners.

We need to support our already outstanding teachers.… We want them to have the time to watch each other, design and collaborate with each other.

In Singapore, for example, teachers are required to watch each other teach, design learning experiences collaboratively, and break down and reflect on their practice. They are able to fully immerse themselves in technique, specific content areas and develop expertise in both.

We know that this equates to learner achievement and fulfilment. This approach has led to Singapore leading in key global rankings.

This is not to suggest that everything Singapore does would work in Manitoba — far from it. Manitoba is unique — in both its possibilities and its challenges.

Unprecedented challenges for learners

We also know that our learners face unprecedented challenges.

They face existential threats related to the degradation of the biosphere, poverty, and the changing world of work. In this changing world, human intellect and cognition will be highly sought after.

If we all agree that we want all learners to flourish, that teachers are the most important factor in a learner's achievement, that relationships between teacher and learner through inquiry are critical to achievement, and that our learners need to have the skills and knowledge to navigate an increasingly complex world, then what are the conditions required to move us down this path?

The governance of school divisions, standardized tests, fad-driven teaching methods and technology have little to do with the flourishing of learners if they do not address the support of teachers.

We need to support our already outstanding teachers. We need to encourage their professional development. We want them to have graduate degrees, to be experts, and to be passionate about what and why they teach. We want them to have the time to watch each other, design and collaborate with each other, and to assess with each other.

Teachers also need time and space to develop meaningful relationships with their learners and families, and to design experiences with intention.

And finally, we need to dive deeply into the knowledge and skills required for a changing climate and a changing world of work.

The governance of school divisions, standardized tests, fad-driven teaching methods and technology have little to do with the flourishing of learners if they do not address the support of teachers and the forging of relationships through knowledge and inquiry.

Supporting teachers in the pursuit of getting better at teaching, in truly knowing their learners, in multiple adults connecting with the learner, and the deep and authentic teaching of knowledge and skills are paramount to our collective future. 

The aims of the review should be to determine how we create the conditions for this type of support and growth.

We need not orbit the periphery of education, but support our incredible teachers who work tirelessly with our children.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Matt Henderson, who has a master's degree in education, is the assistant superintendent, curriculum and programs, of the Seven Oaks School Division. He is the former principal of the Maples Met School in Winnipeg and a winner of the Governor General's History Award for Excellence in Teaching. He ran for the New Democratic Party in the 2015 federal election.

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