A sales pitch to the disinterested

My job is to sell a product that the client doesn’t want but has to have – so Dan Meyer has aptly described the job of a maths teacher.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some students who do love maths. They see the beauty of it and are curious about the language that underlies mathematics. They know that maths provides them with a break from the everyday and opens up a new world in which they can creatively explore.

For others, however, maths is a seemingly unattainable subject. The language of maths (and, quite often, the language of English) provides a brick wall that halts their ability to reason with any problems or puzzles they face. “I’m dumb at maths” becomes an easy catch cry and excuse for giving up. Many of these students have spent years not understanding this supposedly important subject and now, in high school, are one, two or sometimes five years behind.

These students’ behaviours unsurprisingly manifests in ways that show a disinterest in and lack of responsibility towards their learning.

At the passive end of the spectrum are students who ask for textbook exercises. Instead of being given open-ended or discursive problems to solve, they would rather follow procedural tasks that have a single answer to be ticked off by flipping to the end of the book. These students are simply satisfied with knowing they’re right and then moving on. The more interesting question of understanding ‘why’  is not of concern.

Somewhere behind these students are those who make an active choice to hand over responsibility for all aspects of their learning to their teacher. I mean all. These students, despite having had around a decade of education thus far, have over this period lost the ability to bring a book or pen to class. Education is of such little significance that these basic items are not perceived as an essential part of their day. Once the work gets started in class, these students will then often lack impetus or ability to get started, often needing help step-by-step to understand exactly what they need to think about and write down.

Finally, at the aggressive end of the spectrum, are those students who care so little about the learning of their peers and of themselves that they actively disrupt classes. These students take attention away from constructive discussions and productive stages of a lesson, shifting it onto their own behaviour. They display an unwillingness to concede that a classroom is made up of more than one individual and that those other individuals are there in the room trying to become smarter, not learn about their best friend’s Facebook status.

While these four personalities will exist in most classes, the difficulty multiplies when the balance of students shifts towards the disengaged end of the spectrum. In these classrooms, the teaching and learning becomes more about improving behavioural and attitudinal skills rather than specific mathematical concepts. To turn this around, takes not only much work from a teacher, but also from the school, support services and parents.



The Good #2: Limited funding as an enabler

The billion-dollar question of late in the education sphere, is “Will Gonski pass?” Tied into these three words are:

  • a detailed report on current and proposed funding arrangements on Australia’s school system;
  • state government versus federal government versus school sector deliberations on a myriad of potential funding models;
  • public awareness campaigns; and
  • a discourse that has injected new meanings into the term “Gonski”, such that the man and his report are far removed from where we now stand.

In the debate are issues around equity in student outcomes and the ability for each school to set their students up for success. In parts of the country and for some students of particular backgrounds, to achieve this desired state of ‘equity’ extra funding that will provide additional resources and staffing is required.

Now some schools have it tough. Gonski’s report suggested that in schools where different forms of disadvantage are combined, the levels of disadvantage are compounded. Thus the need for increased funding is even more apparent.

In my own school this is the case. Give me 5 minutes and I could come up with a lengthy list of how extra funding could be allocated. I would start with new desks, extra maths and science staff, updated IT equipment, paint jobs in classrooms, sufficient textbooks for every class, student sponsorship for camps and excursions… and then easily go on.

Intertwined into this discussion around the need for funding, however, is an illustration of public and poorer independent schools that is based on deficit language: what we lack, what we need, the state-of-the-art resources that wealthier (independent) schools have.

In part due to my own cynicism that extra funding will be coming any time soon and also as a means of rising above this deficit thinking, it is important to recognise the achievements that are being made by schools that steadily work within their limited capacities.

For example, by not having sufficient maths teachers, some staff at my school have had to teach across learning areas, finding themselves in front of classes that they would not have otherwise taught. While many of these teachers are subsequently placed in challenging and often stressful situations, they are also in a position of receiving additional professional development. Further, the increased scope of their work enables these teachers to gain a more holistic perspective of many of their students’ learning abilities.

Secondary schools are often criticised for focusing on teaching ‘subjects’ rather than ‘students’ – a criticism that primary schools do not receive – so maybe this practice of teaching multiple subject areas should be more deliberately embraced?

Another opportunity that has arisen due to the availability of limited funds, has presented itself in the form of atypical leadership roles for students. While not all students have the chance (or want) to be on the SRC or to attend leadership programs, often these are the primary forms of leadership development that students are exposed to. Leadership is frequently equated with wearing a badge, running fundraisers and standing up at assembly.

In situations where schools are unable to spend freely on extracurricular activities, however, opportunities then arise for students to take on roles where adults may otherwise have been employed. This was the case at a recent school dance, where one student DJ-ed and a few others were official photographers for the night. By maturely taking on their roles, these students proved themselves capable and in turn earned respect from peers.

While federal education reforms are a necessity, we mustn’t forget what schools are still able to achieve, even when cloaked by the more immediate challenge of mere survival.

Teachers who go above and beyond (the Good #1)

It’s Friday night, winter’s set in and we’re huddled around fire drums that have been set up on school grounds. Five teachers and a handful of parents are supervising 40 students who are running around searching for items to put together makeshift shelters. This is Homelessness Night.

Some of our Year 7 students are currently studying the topic as part of a term’s work on Civics and Citizenship. To help students develop empathy and really understand what life is like as a homeless person, a colleague has organised a guest speaker who works with homeless young people in the local area. Students hear about the challenges faced by the 300 people who are homeless on any given night in our town.

After spending some time out in the cold, they watch a documentary on homelessness in Australia. Here students get an insight into the lives of some of the 22,000 teenagers currently homeless in Australia.

By the end of the night, the message seems to have hit home. The students are quiet and have clearly been impacted by what they’ve seen and heard. 

An event like this doesn’t just run on its own, nor does it occur all that often. The teacher behind the event put in countless hours of prep work in the lead up. And were it not for the tight OH&S regulations that prohibit sleeping at the school, she would have had students camping out overnight to gain an even more real experience.

During recent negotiations with the state government, the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU) highlighted how much extra work teachers do on an everyday basis. As mentioned previously, when AEU members started implementing a strict 38-hour work week policy many out-of-class commitments such as camps and other out-of-school events had to be cancelled.

The importance of these extra activities that are carried out in an unpaid capacity cannot be understated. As with the Homelessness Night, it is during these times that some of the most profound teaching and learning goes on.

This may be because in these contexts the teacher is more freely able to enact their profession as an artform, rather than mechanically working in a manner that is hurried and strictly responsive to structural needs of a curriculum.

When teachers are outside the classroom there are different constraints: they are less time-bound and curriculum-focused. They are more able to dedicate themselves to the unwritten aspects of teaching that deal with personal and interpersonal development, including communication, teamwork and empathy.

The teacher who goes above and beyond, is the teacher who cares deeply about their work and has the desire to not just teach content matter but to enrich the lives of their students, by transferring across a meaningful system of knowledge and level of understanding about the world.

5 good things

As a teacher, it can be very easy to focus on what’s going wrong around you: a class that didn’t go as planned, students who are being disruptive, students who are being bullied, staff politics, stress, short time-frames, long hours, etc. Indeed, it seems that this attitude is one that is mirrored more generally in the media’s attitude towards public schools.

An underlying tone suggests they can’t support or provide for students in the same way as wealthier private or their more academically-endowed selective counterparts (e.g.). Public schools are not quite good enough.

Thinking about it, when are public schools ever the ones held in higher esteem with the other sectors striving to be like them? Rather, a discourse around ‘deficit’ magnifies the under-funding, under-resourcing and under-staffing of public schools.

Is a rapidly weakening ‘Gonski’ model going to fix this? Unlikely.

Is the Australian education system ever going to achieve the same results as is seen in the highly regarded education systems of Finland and Singapore? Not unless significant structural or philosophical changes are made to our education system as a whole.

However, let’s not forget we do currently have a system that is working for most of our students and is in fact relatively strongly rated in an international setting. Australia’s high levels of secondary and tertiary educational attainment and scores that are amongst the top in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are a testament to this.

In recognition of these strengths, my next five posts will focus on different successes that are apparent either in my own school or public schools more generally. They will be a celebration of the innovation, collegiality and hard work from staff and students that often goes unacknowledged outside the school grounds.

A history lesson for Kevin Donnelly

Gillard’s record as education minister, under Kevin Rudd’s leadership, is one of failure, waste and mismanagement…

Under her control, billions have been wasted on the Building the Education Revolution program that forced off-the-shelf, centrally mandated infrastructure on schools with little, if any, educational benefit.

The much-heralded computers in schools program, notwithstanding the cost, has delivered thousands and thousands of now out-of-date computers that schools can ill-afford to maintain or update.

Kevin Donnelly,   The Australian, 2 April 2013

Term 1 is over. As I relax into my two week ‘holiday’ I am getting on top of those tasks that were pushed to the bottom of my to-do list during term: report-writing, marking, planning. The marking primarily consists of year 7 history assignments on Ancient Egypt. For this, students learnt to form inquiry questions, conduct research and develop their understanding of history through concepts such as evidence, change, continuity and significance.

The students are being marked in line with the new Australian Curriculum. It states that at Level 7 students are to be able to “Locate, compare, select and use information from a range of sources as evidence”. While some students are treading a fine line between plagiarising and quoting, others have shown themselves to be more adept at this skill already at this early stage in the year. As 2013 progresses, it is clear that as a class we will need to go through this distinction though and also delve into the question of why it is important to use evidence in backing up claims.

It is fortunate that the majority of my students did not follow Kevin Donnelly’s example from his recent article in The Australian, for they included a reference list.

In his article, Donnelly – who touts himself as “one of Australia [sic] leading education commentators” – is quick to criticise and lay blame on the Federal Government’s past mistakes in education. He is particularly scathing of Prime Minister Gillard.

This criticism could perhaps be accepted if sufficient evidence were provided. Instead, Donnelly’s use of words twists the article from insightful political commentary to a piece that is obscenely emotive and one-sided. In addition to the quote at the start of this post, and to further highlight this, phrases adopted by Donnelly include:

  • “an increasingly sceptical and disillusioned public is no longer listening”
  • “the fetish for limiting education to what can be measured… are stifling innovation and change” (my italics)
  • “The Gillard-inspired national curriculum… is awash with progressive fads.”

If this were a Year 7 history assignment, not only would I have to mark him down for lack of evidence, but Donnelly would also score poorly on “Draw[ing] conclusions about the usefulness of sources” (Level 7, Historical Skills). From where has he drawn his conclusions?

Indeed, Donnelly’s sloppiness and cherry-picking of ideas has been noted elsewhere by another educator.

It is a pity that prominent input into the current education debate in Australia occurs at this level. If education is to be a key focus of the upcoming federal election, we can only hope that contributions to this debate are more carefully formed, with the aim of furthering rather than watering-down meaningful discussion.

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.)