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.

Term 2 completo, and what a way to end it. What job sends you on an all expenses paid trip to a Pacific Island? Teaching of course!

My school was recently awarded a grant to undertake a social responsibility project with a group of students, and I am one of the fortunate teachers to be accompanying them. As a result, my current “holiday” has turned into a series of meetings with community groups, the Australian High Commission on this island, and the other accompanying teachers. For the trip, students will be involved in organising and setting up IT equipment for a school in need.

In many ways, this trip is the sort of opportunity I only dreamed of when entering this profession. The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young People aims for all Australian students to become active and informed citizens. Back in 2010, I wrote my Honours thesis on civics and citizenship education, disentangling the very concept of citizenship. I concluded that active and informed citizenship necessarily involves respect and engagement in dialogue with those around us, so that we can learn about the boundaries of our own thought and discover commonalities with those who appear different.

Opportunities such as this trip, will develop students’ moral and intellectual capacities; they will gain a heightened sense of awareness of their own identity and the roles they play within their (local/national/international) community. The students will undoubtedly meet with confronting situations that will force them to acknowledge the privileges of their lives, but also to realise that, in many ways, young people around the world face similar issues.

In the lead up to the trip, I will be teaching the students for a term. Students will research the nation we are to visit, organise aspects of the project, and develop team and leadership skills, as well as a sense of social responsibility. From the outset I am cautious that “social responsibility” is not associated with some patronising colonial mind-set. It is not our aim to impose a developed nation’s unneeded tools on another, who we perceive as worthy recipients of our generosity.

Instead, the project aims to develop ties between our rural community (which contains many emigres from the particular Pacific Island nation) and the destination country, and provide assistance as is deemed appropriate at their end. For our students, who have never travelled overseas before, this will not be a trip to Canberra to learn about Australian political history (the “textbook experience”), nor will it be a unique – though increasingly common – opportunity to get a taste of the culture and traditions located throughout Europe. Instead, this trip will enable students to become more socially aware, capable and autonomous, deliberate and respectful young adults.

…And yes, this is a public school.

Those perilous young are not learning anything again.  Apparently, if a recent Lowy Institute poll is anything to go by, Australian students show little appreciation or understanding of what democracy means: “A lack of enthusiasm among young Australians for democracy shows civics education in schools has failed… a national poll showing many young adults are lukewarm about the merits of democracy should raise alarm bells among teachers, policy makers and others who care about human rights.”

Really? Is our liberal democracy under threat? Are young Australians planning something drastic like overthrowing the government, imposing martial law, or rampaging the streets in protest of our political system?  Given current political machinations, from Government and Opposition, I possibly wouldn’t blame them.

To say, however, that the civics education program has failed to teach young people, looks at the issue wrongly in two ways.

ONE: democracy, political activism and civic participation has vastly changed in nature over the past couple of decades (not to mention the last decade), since civics and citizenship education was first envisioned in Australia during the 1980s. A program teaching young people about the role of citizens would be negligent to ignore the role that social media can play (think Arab uprisings, Kevin 07, Obama’s Presidential campaigns, GetUp’s grassroots activism, Wikileaks etc.). With this in mind, it is not the students who are failing to reach particular curriculum standards, but the standards that are failing to reach the students.

TWO: how has student achievement been measured? In large part, by surveys and by the National Assessment Program (Civics and Citizenship version of NAPLAN). Since this education is supposed to teach students about becoming “active and involved citizens” (Melbourne Declaration), how can cognitive tests and self-report questionnaires (Year 6 and Year 10 NAP CC information) properly assess this? I would argue that this is an area in which assessment of this kind is not applicable – to know if students have become active and informed citizens, we must think about what type of citizen we are seeking (controversial of course), and then consider whether such values, attitudes and actions can be explicitly measured. We need to also consider whether the values, attitudes and actions can be measured immediately after the education has taken place, or if this education has a longer-term goal of affecting the wider community.

It will be interesting to see in what way assessment of the new national civics and citizenship curriculum progresses.