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.

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.