Teaching The Teachers

Pedagogy students and lecturers themselves admitted insufficient knowledge in class teaching two years ago. As a result teachers mostly react to consequences, lecturers at the University of Latvia concluded in another study in 2012. Schools are based on «punishment, deprivation of privilege, writing explanation notes, summoning students to the principal’s office or other school specialists, calling the police and alerting parents.»
To offer an alternative, the same group of lecturers at the University of Latvia used EU funding to develop the programme ‘Support for Positive Behaviour’ and started implementing it at twenty-five schools in Latvia from the study year 2012 to 2014. Any school could join the project, provided participation was supported by the principal and 80% of the teachers. The teachers took a course of lectures, and the researchers visited the school once a month to discuss progress. It took time for the teachers to open up, as they’re afraid to openly talk about their helplessness in class, remembers Linda Daniela, one of the lecturers and an associate professor at the University of Latvia.

The main aim of the programme was to teach teachers to react to their students’ achievements. «Not just to say — well done, but elaborate what exactly was done well,» Daniela explains. Right now the education system in Latvia tends to only notice students’ mistakes. The researchers recommended, for example, to note also positive actions in the e-class online system, instead of only noting down misconduct. That information was automatically sent to parents as well. «Later the teachers said they hadn’t believed that such nonsense could work, but it did,» Daniela remembers.

At the same time, the researchers helped schools devise internal rules for actions in case of behaviour issues in class — like defining exact roles for the teacher and the school, and how to find help outside of the school. «Initially the overall feeling was sad. The teachers were confused and had no idea what they could do,» says Daniela.

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The results of the programme were impressive. A year later 79% of the participating teachers said in a survey that in cases of breach of discipline they could find solutions themselves. In schools not participating in the programme that number was 10%. The majority of teachers in such cases go first to the school administration, then to support staff (such as a social educator or a psychologist), and then only as a last resort would they find a solution themselves. At the moment the programme has been concluded, having run out of EU funding.

Education researcher Hattie points out that courses like this aren’t enough — what is most important is cooperation among teachers. Meeting on a regular basis and sharing experiences is most effective. Regrettably, such meetings are dominated by conversations about the curriculum, students and grades, and discussions of teaching methods and their effectiveness are rare. Too often this cooperation among teachers is limited to the exchange of teaching materials, telling «war stories» and trying to justify why it doesn’t work «in my case»,» the expert writes.

The Brocēni secondary school did not participate in the programme because no one at the school was aware of it. Teachers in the district can take courses organised by the municipality; last year, for example, principals and their deputies attended a several-day development course on innovation in schools. Teachers were offered a lecture by the controversial psychotherapist Viesturs Rudzītis on what it means to be a female teacher, and one by TV star-gone-life-coach Viesturs Dūle on emotional intelligence. The municipality hasn’t offered anything particular on discipline issues, says Daila Frīdmane, education specialist at the Brocēni municipality, adding that teachers have not asked for such a course.

It is not only the teachers who need help. In this Saldus social services is an example of success; it offers parents three different training programmes on raising children. The courses last an average of two months and are in demand. Each group includes up to 12 parents. The courses is taught by local social workers, trained for this at the Dardedze crisis centre. Behmane admits that smaller municipalities, like Brocēni, may not be able to afford to offer courses like this. Saldus social workers also go to schools to work with teachers. «What issues do they most encounter at schools? Intolerance toward children (she answers) — you’re late again!»
Brocēni social services have heard about the parent training in Saldus, but are still thinking about offering such a course themselves. However, the good news is that already in the spring three meetings were held in the municipality, where all the services involved came together to discuss the issues of specific children.

Both local and international education experts agree that Brocēni municipality is headed in the right direction. Only by joining forces can the institutions help children from families that either cannot or don’t know how to support their children. Paul Tough points out a typical excuse — a person’s character determines everything, and nothing can be done about it. But research proves that character can be changed. If parents can’t do that, «help can come from social workers, teachers, officials, doctors and neighbours.»

In Latvia, at least for now, there is no thinking in this direction. Everything social support-related depends on the understanding and capabilities of the municipality — teacher training, social educators, and teachers’ assistants. The Ministry of Education has no information as to how much municipalities spend on «support functions» for education. Last study year less than half of educational institutions in Latvia had a social educator, and half of them had a psychologist.

No government institutions collect data on how educated or prosperous are the parents of students at particular schools. The OECD, the only source of available data, suggests taking these factors into account when allocating funds for schools, as it may cost more to teach children from troubled families. In Belgium additional payments for teaching problem children can constitute up to 15% of schools’ budget. It pays back in the long term, as educated citizens have better-paid jobs and the state collects more in taxes.

In May, before taking the exams at the end of ninth grade, Dāvis had not decided what he was going to do next. He could go to a vocational school with a sports focus to become a fitness coach. Mom wanted him to stay at Brocēni secondary school, otherwise she would have no one to take his little brother to and from kindergarten.

At the end of the summer Dāvis made his choice. In August he enrolled at Kandava technical school to become a car mechanic.

*All students’ and parents’ names have been changed.
Written by Inga Spriņģe | Edited by Sanita Jemberga and Nellija Ločmele, IR | Translated into English by Laura Ziemele | Pictures by Kaspars Go

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