Measuring the worth of an educator

January 27, 2023 09:54
Photo: Reuters

What makes a good teacher?

How do we measure the successes of an educator?

Some say, it’s to do with the number of A*s and As (or 7s, 8s, and 9s) these teachers churn out. Others suggest that it’s reflected by the salary – the higher the salary, the merrier the teacher, the better the teaching (that’s what one calls inference, I suppose). And then there are those who cynically frame teaching as an inherently political activity: the more anti-authority, the better. Teachers, after all, are but pedagogical tools and devices seeking to liberate hearts and minds from the shackles of status quo conservatism.

I jest. In my view, the ideal educator’s success is determined neither by the volume of self-aggrandising and self-congratulatory rhetoric they churn out, nor by the amount of money earned by their students – and/or a long roster of cursory metrics that, beyond sound and fury, ultimately signify very little. The best educators are the ones who cultivate and build their students into successful, independent, autonomous, and free agents – who can truly pursue what their inner calling, or a calibrated version of, compels them to do.

Education is freedom – but it’s freedom in a non-trivial and non-performative sense. Not the chanting of faithless slogans. Nor the regurgitation of top-down-imposed curricula designed to soothe and placate the particular senses of actors with ulterior motives. But freedom.

An oft-repeated mantra is that education bears the responsibility of transforming individuals into capable citizens – yet the questions thus arise. Whose citizens? Citizens for what purpose? Citizenship with what ends? Who defines the boundaries and limits of citizenship? I refuse to subscribe to this sort of narrowly prescriptivist rhetoric, for the simple fact that I am unsure if we could indeed place blind, undying faith in the ‘nations’ that educators are allegedly to serve, or the ‘citizenships’ these educators are ostensibly to raise students in preparation for; citizenship only makes sense – insofar as there exists a polity built upon camaraderie and common sense of purpose. A citizenship rooted in vacuous politicisation ploy – like citizenships granted to score quick political wins against a geopolitical rival – is not inherently valuable. Indeed, some may say it is substantively vacuous.

Another oft-asserted cliché is that educators must promote ‘critical thinking’. Very good, congratulations on checking the boxes for coming across as a 1980s revolutionary protesting a war from the 1960s. Hippies only go so far these days, and curry very few favours in the grand scheme of things. Critical thinking is certainly to be valourised and encouraged. Yet it must not be conflated with criticism thinking – e.g. this endless fixation over nit-picking, axe-grinding, griping and grumbling undergirded by a fastidious confidence. We have raised generations of students to know how to criticise, yet very few, if any, have been endowed with the capacity and resources to articulate the what next – e.g. what to do after the criticism?

And truth be told, we can’t blame these students. For from adults to elders, throughout contemporary political parlance we’re seeing an increasing shift towards problem-raising and problem-noting, with a corresponding marginalisation of any and all effort at addressing these problems. Education, even where it has succeeded, has shifted away from an excessive emphasis upon the know-how, to a fragile equilibrium vacillating between tokenising and game-ifying knowledge through rote learning and ritualistic examinations, and this lazy form of universalised scepticism: if everything is to be questioned, then questioning ceases to have practical and normative significance.

A good educator should be willing to call a spade a spade – and point out the flaws in this sort of constant problematicisation-oriented mindset. Sweeping problems under the rug is not the correct response, albeit one that ostriches residing under subjugative epistemes tend to enjoy practising. Yet blowing the problems up to be out of proportion, is equally an approach that must be chastised. A real educator must therefore be a pragmatist – that balances a recognition of the tribulations and sensibilities of victims of injustice, with a constant yearning and encouragement of said yearning to identify solutions that can deliver for all in society. Educators, as Dewey aptly notes, should be social reformists in their own right – ready to bear the mantle of molding the institutions and norms of their society through influencing the next generation, and beyond.

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Assistant Professor, HKU