W.R.D. Coffey: teacher, mentor, friend

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.
– William Arthur Ward

I’m heading to a funeral today. My grades 10-12 history teacher died last week after a long and, hopefully, happy life. If the latter is measured in the contribution one makes to the lives of those who knew him, then William R. D. (“Uncle Willy”, “Bill”) Coffey’s life was a happy one indeed. At least for me – but I am confident that I am speaking on behalf of a great many who knew him – his was an influence that continues to shape my thinking, my interests, my attitudes and so many small elements of my life, probably ones that I wouldn’t immediately recognize. For me, for always, he was a great teacher, one of the best.

That I am writing this almost 42 years after I last had him for a class (Canadian History in Grade 12) stands, perhaps, as the most telling testament of his influence. When I began my own teaching career, I had the good fortune to meet Bill as a colleague and a friend. I used to lunch with him and a few others on Fridays although that practice faded as more and more of the “old guard” retired and moved on to other pursuits.

If I happened to be wandering by, at times I would see Bill ensconced at Beatty and the Bistro on the ground floor of the Admiral Beatty complex. On occasion I would drop in to see him and say hello. Always the gentleman, he would take time and inquire regarding the details of my life and career. I honour him today. I will miss him.

When I think back to my time as a student in his class, by the standards of today’s educational theories, he probably wouldn’t have fit the mold of the “good teacher”. His classroom lacked extensive decorations, he wasn’t one to wander around observing students’ work; in fact, he spent most of his time behind his desk, if my memory serves me.

And yet, his “method” (hardly seems an appropriate term really) was enough to cause me, as a Grade 10 student, to read Thucydides “History of the Peloponnesian War” just for the fun of it. His gift was as a storyteller and what is history if not a panoramic unfolding story of humanity’s time on the planet?

He had traveled and frequently incorporated anecdotes of his visits to Greece and other parts of Europe and the world. He spoke of such things with a fervor that was infectious, at least for me, although, as I said earlier, I am confident that I am speaking on behalf of a large contingent of those who had him as a teacher over the years. All those who entered his classroom were treated with respect. To put it another way, he made you believe that you mattered.

Bill Coffey cared about his subject and his students. His caring was evident to all who knew him and St. Malachy’s Memorial High School, where he taught for most of his career, established, some years back, a WRD Coffey Award given to students who best exemplify the spirit that Mr. Coffey lived every day.

In sum, Mr William R. D. Coffey embodied, for me, the core of what teaching has always been about – and will continue to be about – however much university faculties and educational theorists try to convince us that it can be broken down to strategies to be implemented and technologies to be applied, regardless of who is doing the “teaching”. He cared deeply about learning, about young people and about the world. He wore his caring on his sleeve every day and he was quick to reach out to those in need of help and mentoring. My teacher, my mentor, my friend, Bill Coffey, can rest easy: his was a life well-lived.

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Aptitude: the missing link in 21st century educational theory

Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.
– Lou Holtz

My daughter has started her own company, one that seeks to promote and to support entrepreneurs. We’ve spoken often about the things that she encounters but the one detail that I find consistently amazing concerns the number of jobs available in New Brunswick that cannot be filled. The problem? We lack people with the skills to fill those jobs.

In a recognizably simplistic approach, any number of individuals and organizations decry the educational system’s failure to provide the training necessary to ensure that young people graduate from schools and universities with the skills that the economy requires. Fundamentally, such a claim fails to acknowledge the complexity of human achievement and ability.

Perhaps the “economy” requires 100 computer programmers. In the minds of those who are so often critical of the system’s failure to produce those 100 programmers, it should be possible to fashion a curriculum that will produce those 100 programmers from the first 100 students that are enrolled in a school. If this strikes you as absurd, I say simply, good! The product oriented mentality that has come to infect so much of the discourse surrounding education has promoted a view of students as empty vessels waiting to be filled for whatever “outcome” is desired, primarily with an eye to economic concerns.

Please don’t think that I am deaf to economics. When I was teaching, I always assured students that seeking a good job that paid the bills required their attention. At the same time, somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost sight of the importance that, to my mind, was once given to aptitude and ability. Because of the ironic homogeneity of our society’s school system – which claims diversity as a central value – students are exposed to a curriculum standardized and uniform for virtually everyone. The little flexibility that exists is bounded by consistent messages that direct one and all to dream of university degrees and jobs that require advanced technical skills.

My teaching career was restricted to the high school level so my observations necessarily arise from that experience. When I started teaching, various trade opportunities existed at the high school level. Additionally, there were programs designed for students who realized they either lacked the interest or innate ability to be successful at the university level. I’m fairly certain that my last sentence would cause a measure of outrage in certain circles as it has become a brand of educational heresy to use a phrase such as “lacked innate ability”.

Rather than apologize, let me say it again, in another way, by virtue of a personal example. Somehow, I managed to make it through childhood without really learning to skate. I owned skates and even went skating a few times but I never really became anything even approaching adept. That being said, even if I had learned to skate and had practiced constantly, I do not believe I could have been the next Wayne Gretzky.

I really don’t believe many people would challenge the notion that certain athletes have abilities that are exceptional and cannot simply be learned. Why, I ask, is this realization so easily acknowledged when it comes to athletics? Why is it so difficult to apply it to other features of human endeavour?

What frustrated me so frequently throughout my teaching career was the determined unwillingness of those with the power to decide curriculum and the design of the school system to recognize that not all students are the same. I have always held that each of us has aptitudes and interests that need to be identified (primarily by ourselves!) and nurtured.

In my perfect school system, such would be the case. I applaud the many teachers I have known over the years who have held on to that ideal even as the system, driven by a product mindset, has been dominated by an underlying presumption that all students can be molded to fit only the most evident economic needs of the day.

The greatest irony of all? The system’s determined efforts to insist that the proper application of uniform curriculum will provide the needed workforce instead produces a few very well-prepared students and a generation of young people with few skills and little clear idea of what interests them or where they might fit in this advanced economy of ours. Hence the continuing inability of New Brunswick to make any improvement in the rate of illiteracy among adults even as the number of graduates from high school increases.

Until we are ready to acknowledge, in a real way, that differences matter – through curriculum designed to account for students of varying aptitudes and interests – we need not look for any substantial improvement in literacy and numeracy. Consequently, neither need we expect to see those many unfilled jobs being filled by graduates from New Brunswick schools.

Educational change and the politics of distraction

Do not train children in learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each. –Plato

As a former teacher, part of me can’t help feeling good about teachers receiving a raise. I know how long it takes to become certified (and, these days, employed) and I understand the job. At the same time, I’m leery of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association’s crowing about the guarantee of a fixed number of teachers for the next five years.

Let’s be clear: for all its protestations, the NBTA is not in the business of improving education. Its responsibilities include seeking improvements in working conditions and salaries for teachers and that’s about it. No wonder then that it sees guaranteeing teachers’ jobs as a victory. In light of the current state of affairs in New Brunswick’s public education system, though, this may prove, ultimately, to be a very bad deal.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that NB teachers are extremely reluctant to criticize openly anything about the system in which they work. Teachers in New Brunswick have a Code of Ethics which prevents them from criticizing their employer. While I happen to think this provision has been exaggerated in its application, that is irrelevant. Speak to teachers privately and virtually every one I know will tell you that the system, in its current form, is, to put it mildly, in crisis. At the same time, don’t expect them to make such a contention in a public forum.

Meanwhile, the public at large must contend with a government and a department that insists that things are always getting better and better. It doesn’t matter if New Brunswick students score abysmally on international standardized tests; it is equally irrelevant that New Brunswick has a functional illiteracy rate in excess of 50%, a figure that hasn’t moved in more than a generation; pay no mind to the proliferation of interventions sponsored by UNB, ELF and any number of other organizations that are trying to compensate for the existing inadequacies of the system.

Governments, always with an eye to polling numbers and the next election, feel compelled to claim that they are on the verge of the big breakthrough that is going to turn it all around. They are supported by a bevy of educational researchers and “specialists”, eager to implement the latest greatest approach being bandied about in Departments of Education in universities, primarily and ordinarily, in the US and Canada.

The value of such initiatives to government is the time it provides for the latest upset and/or outrage about poor results or critical reports to fade from public consciousness. Implementing something new allows governments to say “wait, we’ll see the big turnaround once this program is up and running”.

When things fail to improve and public concern escalates, the trick is to implement yet another new approach. If the target is constantly moving and changing, the day of reckoning is endlessly postponed. Neat trick, unless you happen to be one of the students who muddles through the system and finds him/herself unskilled and unemployable. Such is the fate of far too many young New Brunswickers who continue to swell the ranks of the functionally illiterate in our province.

Which takes me back to this latest contract the NBTA has inked with the province. It has long been my contention that the school SYSTEM is the villain in the continuing story of mediocrity (at best) in education in New Brunswick. The successes that occur, in my experience, are the result of the efforts of individual teachers to ensure that the young people in their care learn as best they can in a school system that is often at odds with such efforts.

I mention this because that viewpoint is very much contradicted by editorials and opinions that tend to appear in media. As I read recently in the Telegraph-Journal’s editorial response to the new teachers’ contract, the problem, in large measure, according to the editors, is that teachers are not held sufficiently accountable for results. I can understand the sentiment but I know it is based on a serious misunderstanding of the dynamics of the system in New Brunswick.

Such a situation works very well for governments, providing a distraction and a ready scapegoat, thus ensuring that the difficult job of truly reforming the system never even begins. Such was my experience through my teaching career and nothing I have either seen or heard suggests that anything fundamental has changed. Governments tinker around the edges, the workings of the system become increasingly impenetrable as they are wrapped in the latest eduspeak, and students flounder their way through.

And now we have a guaranteed number of teachers for the next five years even as enrolment is set to decline. While this might qualify as a union “victory” it may prove to be a hollow one. If nothing else changes in the system as it currently stands, the same mediocrity that is evident will continue unabated. Inevitably, the question will arise: “we’ve lowered teacher-student ratios and nothing has improved substantially? What is wrong with these teachers?”

I suppose the NBTA can hold out the hope that the usual strategy of government will apply. When public concern reaches a peak, look for something else to change, something that will promise to bring about the improvement everyone ostensibly wants. And, with the latest promise in hand, public concern will fade for a time. It’s a sad and persistent cycle. Is there someone out there who has the courage to change it?

Back to the Future

As educators, we are only as effective as what we know. If we have no working knowledge of what students studied in previous years, how can we build on their learning? If we have no insight into the curriculum in later grades, how can we prepare learners for future classes?          – Heidi Hayes Jacobs

I’ve just had the pleasure of rereading an old report on school improvement, a report commissioned in the early years of Bernard Lord’s government. While it has a somewhat unwieldy title – “Schools Teach – Parents and Communities Support – Children Learn – Everyone Benefits: A Review of the New Brunswick Education System Anglophone Sector” – it is more commonly referred to as the Scraba Report.

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Perhaps “pleasure” isn’t quite the word I’m looking for in light of the horrifying picture of education in New Brunswick that it delivers. Maybe “grim satisfaction” captures my response, a response that really hasn’t changed since I first read this work upon its release in 2002. The author of the report, Elana Scraba of Education Consulting International, provides an unstintingly brutal assessment of the failings of New Brunswick’s system at the time.

The good news, of course, is that the Lord government immediately adopted a majority of the recommendations the report provided and a new golden age in education in New Brunswick dawned. Since 2002, reforms in New Brunswick education have seen language and math skills improve dramatically while the literacy rate provincially has risen astronomically as a result. Employers report that recent graduates from high school come prepared for the work force while those who go on to post-secondary studies are top of their class no matter where they attend.

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And yes, sadly, that last paragraph was entirely fictional. You might even say that it was written with more than a little bitterness. I remember reading the Scraba Report back then with dismay. It managed to identify virtually every issue I had ever had with the system in New Brunswick, most importantly, the lack of emphasis on a core curriculum that was clearly defined and properly aligned with classroom practice and assessment.

But that’s just the beginning. Rereading the Scraba report, almost 15 years later is very much a “déjà vu all over again” experience. It seems inconceivable that I am reading about things that could easily be used as justification for another examination of New Brunswick’s system: core curriculum, inclusion, assessment results, French Immersion, lack of resources. These are the very things that are at the heart of the Scraba Report’s analysis and ultimate recommendations and they are the very same things that preoccupy much of the time of those who continue to care about education in New Brunswick today.

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The fact that most who might read this have never heard of the Scraba Report should tell you what happened to it. Back in 2002, for a brief moment, the report awakened hope that something real and substantial might happen. An article appeared in the NBTA News, disability groups responded positively, and the report, in general, created some waves. But then it was shelved, government moved on, and the report was left to gather dust. I wish I could say I was surprised. Allow me to digress.

Within a few years of the province implementing the English Language Proficiency Assessments (ELPAs) at the grade 9 level, a committee was struck that got together to review the make-up of the assessments. One representative from each district was sent to Fredericton (I was chosen to represent what was then School District 8) and this group came up with over 80 recommendations for improving everything from format to content. In the end, one (yes ONE) recommendation was adopted: changing when the assessment was administered.

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I offer that story of my experience as a small example of the larger travesty and as a reflection on the current controversy over reinstituting Grade One French Immersion. Both the shelving of the Scraba Report, and my experience with ELPAs, point to government’s unwillingness to tackle, in a substantive way, the confused mess that the NB educational system has become. While we have an incredible cohort of well-trained and dedicated teachers, I watched as, year after year, their enthusiasm and energy were drained by a system that cares too often about all the wrong things to the detriment of teachers, the system and, most importantly, to students.

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What does government care about in education you might ask? Quite frankly, I don’t think they know, except in the most general terms. As the Scraba Report emphasizes in many places in many ways, the kind of change NB needs will take many years. Among the recommendations at the time was “Declare a moratorium on curriculum change for four years”. From the political perspective, that would be a hard pill to swallow.

Education in New Brunswick has long been a way for political parties to claim that they are willing to “invest” in the future. Imagine being prevented from making any education related claims for an entire mandate. Imagine leaving education more properly in the hands of educators. Imagine a system that focused on essential skills and measured its success by students’ obtaining them. Dare to dream.