Taiwan today has more than 60,000 “reserve” elementary and high school teachers, popularly known as “stray teachers” --— people who are qualified to teach, but are not employed in permanent teaching posts. Taiwan also has one of the world’s lowest birthrates and there is little sign of an upturn in fertility rates. Many outstanding high school and vocational school graduates apparently believe that entering a military or police academy offers better prospects than going to a university that trains future teachers. Sept. 28, the birthday of the ancient educator Confucius (孔子), is Teachers’ Day in Taiwan. This season is therefore a time when people think about our education system and its problems.
Finland is recognized as having the best-quality education in the world. The key to Finland’s achievement lies not only in the high educational level of its teachers, who since the 1970s have been required to hold a master’s degree, or the great respect paid to teachers in Finnish society, their high social status and their strict self-discipline. Most importantly, student teachers in Finland are drawn from the most outstanding young people, whose academic achievements are in the top 8 percent.
Up until the 1990s, the average quality of student teachers in Taiwan was even higher than in Finland and teachers were generally highly dedicated to their profession. However, today, some student teachers are of poor moral character. Some have barely passed the minimum threshold scores in mathematics, physics and chemistry, while others are poor writers.
Considering the surplus of “reserve” elementary and high school teachers who have gone through highly competitive teacher selections, why do many school principals still complain that they cannot find suitably qualified teachers?
It is because many student teachers only prepare by rote learning for the multiple-choice written tests that are required for teacher selections. They may know the basics, but that does not mean they are capable of critical thinking. As for the 10-minute teaching demonstration that they have to do, they can get through by doing magic tricks, but may be incapable when it comes to class management. In view of this sorry situation, and considering the market orientation of education today, it is highly questionable whether the brief procedure by which teachers are selected can really allow schools to find good teachers.
Today’s buffet-style educational programs for elementary and high school teachers, the formalistic teaching practice and coaching they go through, and the way teachers are selected through multiple-choice tests alone have given rise to a surplus of “reserve” teachers.
Consequently, talented young people fear that it would be hard to get through life in the teaching profession and worry that they could end up as “stray” teachers, so they do not want to learn how to teach. As for student teachers, they have lost their passion for education and only aim to get enough credits to graduate.
Those who are willing to devote themselves to education should be provided with sufficient incentives so that they can pursue their studies with ease of mind. Student teachers should receive realistic and strict guidance to foster their teaching abilities. We should cultivate teachers with a love for education through quiet and patient character building. We must abandon the idea that as long as exams for teachers are competitive, they will necessarily produce good teachers. If these steps are not taken, really good teachers will indeed be hard to find.
Yang Szu-wei is president of National Taichung University of Education and chair of the Chinese Teacher Education Society.
Translated by Eddy Chang