The other day, I witnessed something that was unprecedented in my many years in Laos. It was a historic moment. I am still awe-struck. A whole elementary school started on time. All the teachers were present and teaching at the moment the clock struck 2. They were not asking the students for the day of the week, not writing it on the board, not asking what the lesson was for the day and not looking in their books to think about what to teach. They were up and teaching.
The students should have been as awe-struck as I was, but rather than dazed, they were engaged, responsive, sitting with backs straight and acting like model students. How long had they been waiting for this day? How starved were they to have a teacher earnestly spend time with them? I was not only amazed with the teacher, but amazed at how normal this was for the students. Despite everything acting to the contrary, these students knew, understood and recognized what a normal classroom should look and feel like, almost as if it was an unalienable right granted at birth.
Maybe it was because I was watching, but the teacher continued full steam with all-out enthusiasm throughout the full two hours. If she was acting, she was doing a masterful job because her eyes were bright as she showed delight in the students’ responses. She carefully reviewed to make sure every student understood. It was a beautiful sight. She was confident and appeared in all ways to enjoy what she was doing.
Some report that this dramatic change in behavior was because of a big important meeting with teachers about improving their practice. Some say that they saw how the successful teachers were being awarded with bonuses and pay raises. It was also reported that someone would be coming the next week to observe and review their abilities so this day was their dress rehearsal. The thing is, it all appeared so normal, I hope it’s not a monstrous dream to wish it to happen every day of the week and every week of the school year.
It should happen every day, because momentum brings about significant progress. The students begin to trust the teacher and they begin to trust their own abilities. They see a consistency and logical progression in their studies and they start to look forward to the next day. When school is on their minds, they go home every day and review their lessons. Teachers can pride themselves in their students’ progress. Schools get credit. Things move upwards.
Most dramatic pipe dreams burst at the seams all too early, but we can look at two reasonable targets for teachers. One is for them to be present in the classroom for every minute allotted as class time. The second is to be engaged with the students in any form throughout that time. This discounts writing on the board for 20 minutes, waiting for students to copy it all down in their notebooks, answering phones and stepping outside for a bite or a smoke. Without the common time killing tricks, the teacher will be so bored with themselves that they’ll start lesson planning and thinking how to use the time. They might have fun.
I suspect teachers, in their boredom, are tying their own hands behind their backs. Yes, their job is to follow the schedule, finish the book and submit the reports, but nobody is forbidding them from innovating a bit, creating a good lesson plan or trying something a little different. In fact, they are being begged to do so for the sake of education and the children. It’s another unfortunately unprecedented world record, but in all my time spent in schools in this country, I have yet to see a teacher do something that I could honestly describe as innovative.
I’m still rooting for Laos. I think this country should set records. It should shine beyond all odds and make neighboring heads turn. Laos deserves this.