Europe must learn digital lessons in classrooms

Parents don't always support teachers who grapple with challenges inevitable in the dynamic of a master-pupil relationship.

By Jon Van Housen, Mariella Radaelli

Published: Mon 3 Sep 2018, 8:42 PM

Last updated: Mon 3 Sep 2018, 10:43 PM

A generation ago, public school teaching in Europe was considered an honour. It is a profession that forges the bond between schools, students and parents as stakeholders who believe in the age-old process of transmitting knowledge from wise, committed teachers to diligent and willing students. The tradition runs deep in Europe, stretching back to ancient Greece.

Today that process is breaking down in many countries. Teachers no longer seem to command the respect and prestige they once had while the youth often appear more focused on gadgets and social media. Parents don't always support teachers who grapple with challenges inevitable in the dynamic of a master-pupil relationship.

Issues such as low pay compared with other sectors, declining respect and disruptive technology are forcing teachers to leave the profession or not join it to begin with. The result is leading to a crisis of sorts in several Europe countries.

In Germany, the shortage of teachers is only expected to get worse. Experts predict a shortfall of 35,000 teachers in the country's primary schools alone by 2025. In the UK, schools will need 47,000 more secondary school teachers by 2024. The shortfall is evident as the number of applicants for postgraduate teacher training in Britain has fallen by 23 per cent this year compared with 2017.

The UK has even called in the army, offering former military personnel a bonus of about ?50,000 to begin teacher training courses in priority subjects that include math, science and modern foreign languages. The move is also intended to help "instil self-discipline and leadership skills in young people", said an announcement from the department of education.

The need is also marked in Ireland, where the government is considering a range of incentives to attract more teachers, including wooing them back from jobs abroad. In Portugal, funding for teachers has been cut as the country scrambles to dig itself out of its financial crisis. The country is also facing an alarming statistic: only about 24 per cent of the adult population has finished high school.

In Amsterdam, a team of 60 municipal officials, four of them with teaching certification, have been put into service to tackle shortage of teaching staff in primary and secondary education. Those without teaching credentials will support schools with administration or as a class assistant.

As education authorities wrestle with the problem, increasing funding is not the only answer. Sometimes solutions are sought in technology - computers or high-speed Internet - but that does little to solve issues with overcrowded classrooms or unmotivated students.

German high school teacher Ingo Matthias told the local media that whatever is spent on hardware "at least as much money needs to be invested in training teachers how to use it." Often students know more about digital technology than their teachers anyway. The challenge is how to truly integrate the power of modern technology into real learning.

A report from the European Commission recognises the need "in making the teaching profession more attractive to a wider pool of candidates."

Along with a range of other issues, respect and self-respect are crucial for teachers. "Transforming the teaching profession into one based on professionalism, aspiration, teamwork and a diversity of career opportunities - to become a leader, mentor or researcher - can help attract more candidates," said the report.

And support from parents in their child's education has always been an important pillar. "The parenthood question is rather complicated to answer," says Dr Kari Kivinen, head of the Lycée franco-finlandais d'Helsinki and former Secretary-General of the European School system. "It is a well-known fact that the social-economic situation of the parents correlates with student success in school.

"It is also true that there are always individual parents who have 'outsourced' the education responsibilities to the school," says Kivinen. "But I would not make it as a general claim."

And though throwing money at the problem isn't the only solution, better pay would certainly help. Statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that teachers in many European countries earn from 15 to 40 per cent less than college graduates working in other fields.

"Teachers are being asked to do more work for less reward," according to the OECD. "Salaries are falling compared with other professions while our knowledge-based societies are placing new demands on teacher abilities such as mastering information and communications technology. Faced with these problems, ensuring that there will be enough skilled teachers to educate all children becomes an issue of major importance to policymakers."

The digital revolution has changed almost every aspect of life, and that is a stark reality in schools as well, placing pressure on sometimes on the pool of aging teachers who struggle to adapt. "The world around school has changed drastically and will change even more in the near future," says Kivinen. "Education systems have to reflect that change. We have to provide our students with relevant skills, competences and attitudes needed in the 21st century."

And as governments and school administrators look for answers, they grapple with a sometimes contradictory challenge: how to restore the prestige of teaching while making the profession "cool" again.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at ?the Luminosity Italia news agency in Milan

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