It’s back to school time in Portugal where I’m spending the semester at the Universidade de ‘Evora as a Fulbright scholar. I just arrived a week ago, but have learned enough about the national system to learn that individual teachers are not hired by local district administrators; instead, the (central) Ministry of Education places teachers throughout the country. Until this year, teachers were given a one-year placement, subject to change every year. Starting this year, teachers are guaranteed to remain in the same place for four years. I’ve been pondering the implications of both the one year and four year policies.
Let me acknowledge right off the bat that I don’t know the history of these policies, and would welcome clarification from those who know more. I am told that Portugal has more than enough teachers. I am also told that people in Portugal don’t like to move (unless they emigrate to another country). It’s a lot like Pittsburgh, PA (or at least how Pittsburgh used to be); when you grow up, you move in down the street from your mom! You don’t leave the old neighborhood – or region. I can only guess that these policies are intended to give the Ministry the flexibility to place teachers in all the regions of the country, no matter what their place of origin or preference. I doubt that teachers are moved willy-nilly each year, and I assume that Ministry officials have good reasons for doing what they do. Still, it’s seems that school directors (principals) – and students – can’t count on working with the same teachers year after year.
Because I side with educational scholars and practitioners who view relation as central to pedagogical possibility, I am perplexed by any policy that impedes continuity of relation between teacher and student. Continuity (suggests Nel Noddings among others) is one of two elements in the development of positive pedagogical relationships (the other is engagement). If some critical mass of teachers does not remain in the same school for any predictable period of time, the possibilities for relation and community, i.e. for caring, diminish. It takes time and attention to construct and nurture generative relations. Policies that move teachers around for the sake of bureaucratic convenience seem to be counter-productive to creating the relationships that can foster learning.
So the cast of characters changes. Children come back to interact with adults they’ve never seen before, adults who don’t know their names or the siblings or their histories. Sometimes that’s a good thing – past histories can complicate any relationships, but more often, it is good for children to know teachers by reputation if not personally, and for teachers to recognize the children with whom they will work. (It’s even better when teachers can work with children for more than one school year!)
And what of the teachers? Educational research over the past decade in particular has made it clear that good teaching is context dependent. That is, how “good” a teacher you will be depends on where you are and what and whom you are teaching. If I am moved from pastoral Evora to urban Lisbon to the sunny Algarve, will I be supported as I spend the time and effort to come to understand the ways that life in that place pushes and pulls each student? Again, I assume that those in the Ministry who make the placements try to be respectful of teachers’ background and talents. And a change of location can be a very good thing for a teacher, heightening one’s sense of self and the rhythm of a teaching life. But to be reassigned regularly seems to be an assault on a teacher’s professionalism as well as a drain of energy that could be devoted to the practice of teaching.
I am a guest in Portugal where I have found only hospitality and welcome. I confess readily that I don’t know enough about the system to make any judgment. I write not to criticize a particular system but to raise questions about the relations between teachers and students, and about relations between teachers and the administrative structure that determines their professional positions.