Giving a Gonski

I recently filled in one of those generic emails to the Victorian Premier about why I Give a Gonski. Before sending it, I stopped and pieced together a short paragraph about my own experience of teaching in one of the most disadvantaged schools in the state.

Here are some of those words, which were picked up by the team at the I Give a Gonski campaign and subsequently posted to their facebook page.

I give a Gonski

Note, the intent of these words is that there are students who are so deeply in poverty that their basic living needs are not being met. As a result, their capacity for learning at school each day is hindered.

Friday (week 7, term 1)

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I think the measure of a very good teacher is a teacher who has been given every opportunity to give their students the opportunity to reach their full potential. So I think a great teacher should have time in their class to actually teach… I want to give you the opportunity, if we get elected, to have the time to teach your students the English, the history, the geography, the maths that you want to teach them, the basic skills.

Although I don’t fully follow this comment by Mr Pyne, I sense that according to his definition I would not be “a very good teacher”.

On Friday I gave a class a test. One student handed back a blank test. Others gave it a good shot. One or two showed excellent understanding of the content.

There are 26 students on my roll. On any given day, however, about 20 will show up. Have I been given every opportunity to give my students the opportunity to reach their full potential? (That apparently being the indicator of good teaching!)

My goal for this class is to help them to progress 1.5 years in their learning – two if I can really succeed – in the space of a year. Currently, they are on average four years behind where they should be.

Does this mean that every maths teacher that has preceded me has failed to “have time in their class to actually teach”? Clearly these students do not know the basics. To outrightly say that these predecessors are not great teachers, would be a simple statement. It would be unfair to not give them the benefit of the doubt that they have tried and that, in fact, the needs of these students are deeply multi-faceted and not at all straightforward.

I hope that Mr Pyne, as with others in the public domain, hold their tongue before blindly pouncing on this notion of teacher quality. Certainly, it is fundamental that teachers have particular capabilities in order to carry out their work to some degree of success. But let us not assume that these capabilities are fixed within teachers (and from the moment they begin their university degree). Instead, we should assume that teachers, as with others, hold the potential for change and development.

It would also be misguided, of course, to assume that all student success or failure rests in the hands of the teacher. By recognising the teacher as a facilitator, it is possible to see that a student’s trajectory of learning and achievement is necessarily beyond the means of that one adult. Even if it is just the possibility of providing students with rich learning opportunities “to reach their full potential”, sometimes this is only something we can hope for.


Thursday (week 7, term 1)

Q&A AUDIENCE MEMBER: At Melbourne City Mission, we are running classrooms for kids who are homeless. They’re turning up to class in the morning, not with a school bag but with a sleeping bag. These young people have real complex needs that mainstream schools aren’t catering for. This is the question: where are the flexible alternative education programs in this debate for they play a vital role in keeping our most vulnerable kids connected to education.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, the kind of children that [the audience member] was talking about, these are very extreme cases. These are not children that are in mainstream schools. So there need to be specific programs that don’t just deal with their education needs but their homelessness, their family situation, what their future might be. They may well be drug-addicted and so on. So it’s not just so easy to say, well, this falls into the Gonski review or this is part of the education debate.

For the second day in a row, a different student of mine was suspended. Suspensions tend not to happy easily. They occur when a student is posing a risk to the safety of other students and staff or has exhibited a number of other complex behaviours. This was not the first suspension for this student this year. Indeed there is much going on in this young person’s life. From a young age the student has been involved in taking illicit substances. On various occasions other people, including myself, have been threatened by this student.

Yet the student has no diagnosed mental or behavioural disorders, and has a home to go to every night. In fact, the student is doing well in a number of school subjects, which is a contrast to the typical profile of “hard-to-manage” students, who tend to be many years behind where they should be in their learning.

Admittedly, my ‘mainstream’ school could be doing more for this student on top of what is already being done. We should be checking in with this student every day. There should be a stricter behaviour plan in place. Etc. (I’m not precisely sure what else must be done; I’m not exactly an expert in dealing with these issues). Since we can only be satisfied by working within our means, however, this student has continued throughout the term to disrupt their peers’ as well as their own learning. For as long as this student continues to display such volatile behaviours, their own learning and capacity for improvement will be haphazard and stifled.

In my short experience as a teacher, students such as these are not an anomaly in ‘mainstream’ schools. They may only represent 1-5% of students, but they are still a real and concerning presence. If this is not part of the current education debate, it is unclear to me in what way any education reform can truly produce the sort of change that we aspire to.

Wednesday (week 7, term 1)

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, while you’re going through your litany of cuts you should add that the Federal Government cut $3.9 billion in education last year… They have cut the laptops in schools program completely… And they’ve cut the trade training centres completely so…

Indeed, more stories came in about self-mutilation on Wednesday.

Q&A AUDIENCE MEMBER: Can you answer my question about your funding, please? My question about your funding.

Last year our school began a Year 7 mentoring program, to assist disengaged students or those at risk of becoming disengaged. The program ran successfully, with staff members spending upwards of 20 minutes a week with a nominated student. This year I have put my hand up to help out and on Wednesday attended an information session on it. Out of our 50 or so staff, four turned up.

It’s not that no one cares or doesn’t want to become involved. I spoke to a number of colleagues afterwards who responded positively to the program, noting how important it has been for those students who took part last year. Maybe under different circumstances they would put their hand up. Some said that if they were really needed they would consider becoming involved.

The limiting factor for the majority of our staff is time, a precious commodity particularly in the current Victorian political climate. For months now, Victorian Australian Education Union (AEU) members have participated in various actions designed to sway the state government in their stance on pay and other conditions. One of the more prominent actions has been the implementation of a strict 38-hour working week policy. Teachers participating in this, will teach all their classes, talk to parents, attend meetings, do planning and so forth, so long as it is within the 38 hours for which they are being paid. For many, this has meant a drastic shift in school commitments: camps, productions, extra-curricular activities have all been cancelled.

For our disengaged year 7 students, the time limitations mean that teachers are unable to take on the extra commitment of working one-on-one on a regular basis as the mentoring program necessitates. It’s unclear at this stage whether all the students nominated for the program, will have the opportunity to take part.

While I question the utility of the AEU in promoting such a stance, I respect teachers’ adherence to collective action. It is a pity that the failure of negotiations between the AEU and state government are having such broad-reaching effects.

Tuesday (week 7, term 1)

Q&A AUDIENCE MEMBER: Mr Pyne, the O’Farrell Government cut $1.7 billion from education and 1800 jobs, the Newman Government $0.9 billion and 14,000 public sector jobs and Ted Bailleu slashed $555 million from education before he himself was slashed. Why should we not expect similar education cuts from a Liberal Federal Government?

Slashing. Cutting. Scars.

Sorry, I’ve moved on from the discussion of where the next billion dollars worth of school investment is going to go – as much as it does concern me.

The more immediate concern on Tuesday was physical. At our school, there is a trend among students to use blades or other sharp objects to self-inflict wounds. At some point in the day, a student ran up to tell me that this was taking place and that a student was bleeding.

Young people cutting themselves is by no means a new phenomena. So as worrying as this is, I was not completely surprised to hear about it. What is new, is that it is currently a trend. “Many of the kids who are doing this are not doing it for the same reasons that kids normally cut themselves”, the school social worker told me. Normally, these are kids who are using their body as an outlet for extreme internal pain. But many of the kids currently involved are harming themselves as a result of peer effects: because their friends are doing it. Bizarre, right?

What can be done to stop trending self-mutilation? Is some kind of macro-level intervention needed?

(Note, Reach and the Kids Helpline are two organisations that provide help and support for young people.)

Monday (week 7, term 1)

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: We believe that a school funding system should be based on need, so that the money should get to where it is most needed. 

No school on Monday due to a public holiday. Instead I spent the day, preparing lessons for the week and contacting university students who had just applied to help out at the school’s Homework Centre that I run. Needless to say, the extra day off provided a welcome respite in the middle of the school term.

The Homework Centre is a free service for our students that provides them with a healthy afternoon snack and one-on-one assistance as needed. It was started last year in recognition of the barriers that many of our students have at home that limit their ability to properly complete homework and assignments.

Each student who attends comes with differing motivations. Some have no desk or quiet space at home where they can study uninterrupted, others have no internet. Some have no adult of older sibling they can turn to for assistance: their parent(s) or guardian could be at work in the evenings, or looking after multiple children. In some cases, the student comes from a non-English speaking background meaning that for the adult, despite best intentions, any school-work is unintelligible. Other students attend simply for the food: the platters of fruit and sandwiches offer an enticing sight and a meal that isn’t often found at home.

It is thanks to goodwill that the homework centre  is able to exist. Staff and tutors volunteer their time to help out the students who attend. La Trobe university provides funding that goes towards stationery and the weekly food supplies.

Week 7 recollections: from the macro to the micro

In between the news broadcasts that bandy about phrases such as “school improvement” , “teacher quality”, “educational disadvantage” and “Great Teaching, Inspired Learning”, another average week in a public secondary school has passed by.

Through this flow of language that is more an onslaught of words and opinions than meaningful dialogue, I have started to hear an underlying current of who the politicians and journalists claim to be speaking for. In the position of privilege that I have frequently found myself in, I am now straddling two worlds. I am that teacher with disadvantaged kids in the classroom. The teacher at a rural school. The teacher in their first few years in the profession. The teacher over whom they are arguing and speaking authoritatively about. They have claimed my voice and are using it as a billion-dollar football.

Over the next week I will be posting some recollections of small, albeit meaningful, events that littered my week 7, term 1 2013. Each day I will also take a step back from my own experiences and bring into the picture snippets from last Monday’s Q&A education debate between Peter Garrett and Christopher Pyne.

The pen is mightier than… no pen

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. As a second year teacher, stepping into the classroom this year I have benefited from having a deep understanding of the expectations and processes that are in place at my school. I have been assertive in setting ground rules and all the more clearer to my students because I am not just following intuition, but confidently believe what I am saying.

From day 1 of Term 1, 2013, this has materialised through particular routines and expectations, some of obvious importance, others seemingly mundane. For example, students must line up before coming into the classroom, enter quietly, rule up their books and immediately begin the task on the board. Last year, the size of margins in a student’s book were lower on my list of priorities, somewhere behind coming to class on time and not using phones. This year I care.

Why? Through conversations with colleagues, we have discussed the benefits of using the Cornell note-taking system, specifically how it can help students to be more organised and precise in their learning.

The routines that I rigidly enforce, such as this, are what I believe will help students to be successful learners.

After visiting a KIPP school in New York over the summer holidays, I decided to also adopt some of their practices. This school is renowned for taking students from disadvantaged backgrounds and showing that “demographics do not define destiny”. On entering a KIPP classroom, it is hard to ignore the many routines; such as the way students take out their folders, recite the times tables and respond to peers during class discussions. One particular routine I took back to my own classroom related to student organisation and responsibility.

“Six pens. This is how many pens you need to bring to every class”, I told my students during our very first lesson. I proceeded to ask who had ever lost a pen. Hands shot up. Who had broken a pen? Again, more hands. Who had lent a pen to a friend and not gotten it back? So now they started to get the picture. If three pens can become unusable so easily, then it’s probably a wise idea to have three more.

Now this might seem a bit silly harping on to high school students about needing pens.. haven’t they been practising this school thing for the past seven or more years? And so surely a pen is the most obvious thing (aside from lunch perhaps) to bring each day? Wrong. There is nothing more frustrating when you are trying to execute a carefully planned lesson and a hand shoots up. Great, you think, this student has been deeply engaged and has a question or insight to share with the class. Instead, the words that tumble out go something along the lines of, “Miss, I need a pen”. Unfortunately this scenario is not uncommon.

Admittedly, this is why teachers are often accused of being boring. We could easily fill an hour or two discussing what to do and say next. The point, however, is that students who don’t have pens disrupt the flow of lessons and themselves are not prepared (mentally and physically) for learning. So to avoid this scenario, the expectation of six pens was put in place.

Undoubtedly as I progress as a teacher and as my context of students, subject area or school changes, so will the routines I enforce. Currently, my practices are motivated by the idea that for students to be well-prepared and in a position where they are best able to learn, minor yet unnecessary disruptions must be avoided.


I would be interested to know, what routines and expectations do you set as a teacher, or do you remember experiencing as a student when you were at school? And in what ways have these helped students to become better learners?