A decade ago, an experiment was held in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Faced with increasing amounts of petrified wood being stolen from the park, a group of researchers put up four different warning signs for visitors at the start of various paths:
- The vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, preserving the natural state of the Petrified Forest;
- Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest;
- Please leave the petrified wood in the park;
- Please don't remove the petrified wood from the park.
The researchers also scattered marked pieces of petrified wood close to the signs. They then counted how many pieces of petrified wood had been taken by visitors after seeing each sign.
The fewest number of pieces were taken by visitors after seeing the fourth sign. This was the result that the researchers had expected. It is well known that people pay more attention to negatively worded messages (in this particular case "don't remove") than they do to positively worded ones. The second sign explained the negative behavior of other visitors and indicated the results of such behavior, but the result was undesirable. The highest number of pieces was removed by visitors who had seen the second sign. Three times as many people removed pieces of petrified wood after seeing the second sign than after seeing the fourth one. Why did this happen?
According to the researchers, the negatively worded message of the second sign, as with the fourth sign, sharpened the visitors' ability to perceive. However, the second sign notified visitors that the removal of petrified wood from the park was characteristic of other visitors. This helped the visitors overcome the moral dilemma connected with the theft.
This research is interesting in terms of education policy. Whilst a lot has been written about the impact of stereotypes on school students, here I want to encourage readers to ponder over what the experience described above means in the case of teachers.
The performance of school students is naturally affected by their inbred abilities, the degree of education of their parents or guardians as well as their levels of income, the quality of school management, the curriculum followed and even the textbooks used. However, all the research has proven that teachers, and in particular their degree of professionalism, is the most decisive factor in the achievements of students.
Several interrelated conditions have to be met in order to have professional teachers. First of all, the prestige of the profession must be enhanced and a cautious and thorough selection process of potential applicants must be conducted. These two conditions are closely intertwined. A positive perception of teachers among society is one of key conditions for improving the quality of education in schools.
The above cited research is important in terms of raising prestige. The media, researchers and especially government representatives must refrain from spreading negative information about teachers in such a way that reinforces negative stereotypes. This includes statements such as how teachers cheat in their qualification exams, how they are driven by prejudices, and how they oppress school students. Yes, this information might reflect reality, but the problem arises when we generalize such facts, fail to counteract them with positive statements and, as a result, create negative stereotypes which encourage disreputable qualities among teachers; as happened in the case of the national park visitors.
The media rarely reports positive information about teachers. Even industry-specific editions almost never feature articles about successful teachers. For example, mastsavlebeli.ge is an internet and print magazine created for teachers. In it, one finds many interesting and knowledgeable people writing about education topics and numerous useful pieces of advice are given. Up to 1,300 articles were published there over the past two years, however, information about successful Georgian teachers is a rarity even there.
Just try to recall how many times you have heard or read about a successful Georgian teacher during recent years and compare that with the frequency of so-called scandalous news you have received about representatives of that profession. For teachers, however, it is important that their performance be evaluated against the highest standards of professional behavior. This function, in addition to increased reporting about successful teachers in the media, can also be performed by regular professional conferences.
To raise professional prestige by means of the media alone is, of course, unimaginable. Significant financial encouragement is very important to achieve two goals. First, we must try to make the teaching profession attractive to as many skilled and knowledgeable young people as possible. Second, according to various studies, the professionalism of a teacher reaches its peak after some eight years. It is therefore important to provide young people with sufficient incentives to keep them interested in staying in the education sector rather than changing profession at the beginning of their careers.
The choice of profession can also be influenced by non-financial factors. The younger generation are not very attracted to school cultures that rest on the idea of the superiority of veteran teachers. More attractive for them are those schools in which teachers, each with diverse levels of experience, work together to try and jointly solve common problems.
The attractiveness of the teaching profession is also undermined by the fact that, in the majority of schools in Georgia, a significant segment of teachers lack their own workspaces or offices. They do not have their own computers, desks, shelves, et cetera. It is no wonder that having conducted their lessons in such conditions, teachers quickly rush home to continue their work. Not only is this unpleasant for the teachers, it is also a significant drawback for the schools because it is during the time outside of the classroom that teachers are able to share their experiences with one another, assist students and cooperate with the school administration.
Freedom is an important factor in the attractiveness of a profession. What type of ambitious and successful person would like to only perform instructions issued by others throughout their whole professional life? Today, teachers face numerous restrictions. The state does not trust the evaluations of teachers, their ability to choose teaching materials or develop methodologies themselves. Such an approach causes demoralization amongst many innovative people and encourages their marginalization from the system.
Yet another important factor related to the attractiveness of the profession is the professionalism of one's colleagues. The university entrants with the best potential rarely show interest towards those faculties in which they will lack classmates with good knowledge, abilities and prospects of a successful future. International experience shows, however, that those countries where applicants to become teachers are selected in a strict and cautious manner, ultimately have teachers with higher competences and, consequently, attain better educational results.
In this regard we encounter a serious problem in Georgia. There are not many people willing to become teachers. Consequently, the toughening of conditions for admittance into higher education institutions or for gaining certification as a teacher may even lead to a decrease in university entrants to that faculty. This will clearly happen if the corresponding supportive elements are not introduced. An increase in the salaries of teachers and the improvement of the prestige of the profession in the eyes of society are just two necessary conditions amongst numerous possibilities. There are other mechanisms too.
Two other types of financial incentives can be exploited to attract students to the pedagogic faculties of higher education institutions. Earmarking state grants to fund education programs would be one incentive. No less encouraging would be teacher training programs under which students, in parallel with attending classes, would be able to gain practical experience working at schools and receiving salaries for that from specially allotted funds.
The sustainability of the profession as well as possibilities of career development are also important for increasing the attractiveness of the profession. Financial guarantees are an important element in sustainability. If, for example, the annual salary of a teacher is tied to 100% of the GDP per capita, the average monthly salary of a
eacher would reach 500 GEL and this salary would increase along with economic growth.
An important element for the career development of teachers is the existence of relevant structures inside schools, such structures as subject-specific faculties, an institute of mentors, et cetera. Some of these structures are already in place in our schools, but they require support to further develop. Career development must of course also imply the existence of mechanisms of quality assessment inside schools which will facilitate cooperation among teachers instead of opposition and rivalry.
It is clear that the problem is complex and multi-tiered. Consequently, the state must spare no effort to settle matters with the involvement of as many parties as possible – the teachers, school administrations, higher education institutions, the media, teacher associations and others.
Professional teachers are crucial for improving the quality of education in schools in Georgia. To this end, it is necessary to raise the prestige of this profession. An insignificant increase in financing, providing teachers with more information, directives and training, and conducting an annual ceremony to award certain teachers is not enough to achieve this end. This all requires a greater amount of attention being given to university programs, the culture in schools, working environments, academic freedoms and career growth. If we want to have the best schools, the door to the teaching profession must be open to the best candidates, whilst the best teachers must regularly be revealed, appreciated and respected by society.