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By Dr Dan C. Carter
Primary school management has long moved from the period of the 19th and the middle 20th centuries when the headmaster, now referred to as the principal, was seen as the maximum leader. He was the central authority who controlled every aspect of school life, whether it was ensuring that government regulations were rigidly adhered to or at times putting his own interpretation to what was acceptable behaviour.
However, as the educational budget expanded, so did the bureaucracy that accompanied it. The primary school principal was faced with an increasing number of children, often the result of amalgamations; more favourable teacher-pupil ratios that led to increased staff numbers; a better-qualified teacher, most of whom were being recruited from the secondary section of the system; a more professionally qualified teacher as a result of Erdiston Teachers’ Training College; major curriculum changes; a teacher that was unafraid to articulate his or her views through the support of an increasingly radical teacher labour movement; and a populace that was demanding higher levels of school performance.
The above conditions combined to minimise the authority figure of the principal, thus forcing the administrative modernisation of the office. Over time, the administrative functions of the office of the principal were shared by the senior teacher who became an important part of the governance of the primary school. In fact, it was suggested at times that this post be upgraded to that of deputy principal to reinforce its importance.
However, the bureaucratic nature of school management in the second half of the 20th century saw the principals of primary schools putting a case for administrative assistance in the form of school secretaries. This development was inevitable since the principal was becoming more and more trapped in office commitments rather than in the overall general supervision and administration of his/her school. There was, therefore, a clear and obvious need for the school secretary.
Writing at the time on this topic in the Outlook magazine of the Barbados Union of Teachers, I opined: “There is simply no avoiding the very important role an administrative assistant can play in the smooth and effective running of a school.”
The school secretary has since become an indispensable addition in the office of the principal.
The most recent announcement by the Ministry of Education, Technology and Innovation that school monitors will immediately become teacher assistants should be welcomed by the teaching fraternity. The school monitors initially were brought into the system during COVID-19 to facilitate the restricted health conditions during the epidemic. Ensuring that children entering the school compound were masked and followed certain protocols would have been tasks outside of the job description of the classroom teacher. The move seemed to have been met with the general approval of both teachers and parents.
It was in November 2020 that I wrote an article entitled, Need For Teacher Assistants in which I argued: “Not only has COVID-19 made virtual learning a reality, but it has also introduced a form of teacher help in the name of school monitors. The use of the school monitor is a clear recognition of the burden teachers would have to face combining classroom activity with adhering to the new school protocol.”
In the same article, I articulated a position that the time was now appropriate for the introduction of teacher assistants. I do so on the basis that the modern classroom has become a very complex environment. Not only is the teacher being asked to constantly improve professionally, but the classroom has not escaped the rapid societal changes that seek to minimise his pedagogical role. Factors such as the unemployment of parents, social media, drugs, dress, beliefs/values, violence (gangs) and a lack of respect for others are the symptoms of modern society that impact our children’s behaviour in the classroom and, therefore, are of concern to the teacher. Preparing for the classroom demands extra human resources to avoid teacher stress and ill health.
In addition, two developments have occurred within the last two decades that have brought increased pressure on teacher/classroom effectiveness. Firstly, the introduction of information technology throughout the school system was mildly traumatic for some teachers. The mass training that occurred would have seen thousands of teachers relinquishing their tried and proven didactic delivery to one that involved the use of the computer in the teacher/learning process.
The academic literature is replete with the continuing challenge to many teachers of the effective use of the computer. While, in fact, schools were afforded Information Technology Coordinators, teachers were still, and are in some cases, struggling to master the new skill. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers were often left bewildered and frustrated when the system was impacted by several breakdowns.
The second development relates to the attempt to introduce teacher appraisal in the system. While various appraisal strategies may have been developed, their purposes have been restricted. There is still not a comprehensive, ongoing, in-school system that meets the goals of those who initiated the system many years ago. While the major teacher unions had all made recommendations to the Government, a final agreement and a united position seemed to have eluded the parties involved.
The recent alleged revelation that a teacher’s competence was being questioned by both his peers and the students he taught, brought to mind the very critical role that a teacher appraisal system could play in improving student performance, staff efficiency and the entire image of the school. The criticism of teacher appraisal was the fact that there was inadequate time for those doing the appraisal to effectively carry out the process.
My view is that the introduction of the teacher assistant (the name preferred rather than school assistant), eventually trained in the rudiments of classroom management with the requisite teacher entry qualifications, could assist school administrations in helping teachers manage the complexity of increasing technology in the classroom and facilitating time for adequate teacher supervision (teacher appraisal) at the school level.
It should be the expectation that in the new educational reform thrust, that teacher appraisal be the foundation on which a progressive educational system is built.
Dr Dan C. Carter is an educational historian and author.