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.

 

Advertisements

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?

Google’s 20% policy

At some point in the short history of Google, employment practices have included what is known as a 20% time policy. The policy specifies that staff at Google spend 20% of their working week putting their feet up and being creative. During this time, staff do not work on specified Google projects, but instead focus on innovation, thinking about whatever it is they want to think about…

Earlier this year I became aware of this policy and began thinking about the implications that it could have when applied to education. My ideas have since taken two different paths.
20% creative time for teachers

An obvious alignment of Google’s policy to education, is to provide teachers with time off for 20% of their working week. This does not mean a day off each week to sleep in or go to the beach. Rather, the 20% would be set aside for teachers to develop projects at school, construct innovative curricula, do professional readings, design learning spaces and so forth. If a teacher with particular expertise wanted to spend some of this time working with groups of special needs students in order to achieve certain goals or explore learning pathways, then perhaps this could also be made possible.

Over the course of this year, I have been fortunate to have my own “20% time” of sorts. Specifically set aside for study that I am concurrently doing, I have used much of this spare time to consolidate my learning inside the classroom whilst being in my own space, free from distraction. Other graduate teachers at my school, working a full load for the first time, have looked on enviably at this apparent freedom. As they have told me, the extra classes that they are now teaching limit time for reflection and enhancement of teaching practices. For these young professionals, who are keen to perfect their craft, they are finding themselves managing to just teach and nothing more.  Could allocated time to think, reflect, plan, discuss and be creative make all the difference?

20% creative time for students

The idea of providing students with ‘creative time’ in which to explore their own ideas and interests under the guidance of a teacher sounds ideal in the current pedagogical climate of differentiation. Since a key role of education is to foster the development of young minds, why not try something similar at school? Why not push aside the time constraints set by the curriculum and allow students to experiment a little?

I initially had no idea of how this might play out. So many factors seem to limit this being feasible: disruptive classrooms arising from problematic behaviours, a crowded curriculum needing to be taught, and limited face-to-face time each week (not to mention excursions, camps, assemblies, strike days, professional development days, etc.).

For one of my classes in particular I have been wanting to make this happen though. In this class are students who have been a year ahead of the expected level since the start of the year, and who I feel I have not adequately catered for.

Over the weekend I saw a number of students from this class participating in the school production: on stage singing and dancing, in the band and backstage managing props and scene changes. The diversity of these students’ talents and interests jumped out at me, in a way that made me realise that the class work and whatever differentiation I had been providing up until then only pushed them back. Sure the odd bit of group work, competition or interesting, yet challenging mathematical problem spiced things up, yet the bulk of the learning itself has been traditional, expected and uncreative.

To implement this “20% time policy”, next term one session a week will be spent on an inquiry-based learning project. Whether it is science, English, music or mathematics itself that they are passionate about, students will research that area, devising a key question for exploration that is linked in some respect to their learning in maths. For example, if a student is a keen musician, they might look into the music of pi and potentially compose a song of their own. At the end of this process, students will then teach their peers and myself about their findings.

 

The ideas spelled out above are only preliminary thoughts that are still to develop. These thoughts are propelled by the sense that thinking outside the square will facilitate new understandings of concepts and ideas. Potentially, the allocation of time for creativity will also enable paradigm shifts in learning amongst students and teachers alike .

Learn to Live

It is a fallacy to assume that the school teacher is just an academic educator. If our role was solely to develop lesson plans, teach content, mark assessments and report on students’ ability levels in a subject area, then our job would be relatively easy. As it happens though, students (much like the rest of us) are not Econs, but humans. They are developing, young individuals, prone to error and emotion.

The students who walk into my classroom each day are not just learning how to manipulate linear equations or find an unknown angle in a triangle, but they are learning how to interact with those around them and how to live.

Incidentally, at the first two schools I attended when growing up, the mottos were Learn to Live and Learn and Live. These were an explicit acknowledgement of the holistic teaching that took place to assist in my growth and development.

I began writing this post this morning, and since then have attended a PD on positive behaviour management by Jo Lange. Jo emphasised the important role that teachers have, not in tutoring individual or small groups of students, but in teaching them. This is a careful distinction: for students to succeed in future workplaces and in relationships with their colleagues and their communities, they must be responsible for their behaviour and learning. It is not the role of the teacher to hover, attending to their every need.

Too often, we as teachers are trying to set students up for a tunnel vision ideal of academic success, working to provide the perfect learning conditions. I know that I am guilty of this – unquestionably and without hesitation providing students with pens, for example, so that they at least do not have an excuse for not doing their work. After all, why should a lack of equipment be a reason not to learn?

As the teacher, what I am doing however, is saying that content learning must be given primacy, and as such, I am neglecting some basic life skills that these students must develop (namely, responsibility and organisation). Even in maths classes, I am not teaching maths, I am teaching students. If a student cannot prioritise bringing a pen to class after they have been practising being a student for sometimes over a decade, what use is that algebra equation going to be?

Keeping it fresh

A commonly levelled assumption about teaching is that we have short working days and many holidays. True in part, at times, maybe.

Over the last week of the school holidays, I have been surrounded by 40 other teachers, also 6 months into their teaching experience. These 40, while positioned all over the country and teaching different subjects, have one thing in common: we are passionate about the educational outcomes of the students we teach.

At the end of 12 hour days, we have gathered together chatting excitedly about our experiences in the classroom so far. Seriously, can teachers talk.  Stories about students who have blown them away, and turned around behaviours, attitudes, abilities. Stories about terrible days, being threatened, being sworn at, having a lesson plan go out the door five minutes into class. Stories about the funny, the unexpected, the sad, the upsetting, the beautiful.

At midnight each night this week there has been a buzz in the room with no sign of conversation dissipating.

All in all, my young colleagues have discovered a love for their new profession and the students they are teaching. Like me, many are now feeling more settled in their schools, while also realising that this isn’t a job that sits still. Assessments, phone calls, meetings, planning, incident reports, photocopying, yard duties… oh, and classes.

Honestly, the education industry can be overwhelming  at times. I have seen teachers who would prefer to give up or take an easy route, rather than confront challenge. In coming together and sharing our stories, however, I have been reminded about how much can be gained in this profession from being surrounded by like-minded colleagues who motivate you to continue to do your best and to stay positive about what can be achieved.

 

Looking back in order to move forwards

Over the past week, I have spent a lesson with each of my classes setting goals for next term. At first thought, this may seem like a lot of time for the one task.  However, I am a strong believer in continuity: being able to reflect on what you have learnt, in order to plan for the next stages of your learning.

Goal setting, in this way, places emphasis on student responsibility for learning; as the teacher, it is my role to facilitate the learning, but the student’s job to make the most of the opportunities that are presented for them.  Spending some time reflecting and setting goals, enables the student to take ownership of their learning.

In each of my classes, students were given individual goal setting sheets.  On these, they noted down standardised test scores, reasons for why they have achieved certain results this term, what scores they would like to aim for next term and how they can get there.  While I am not the biggest fan of standardised tests, they provide a useful benchmark for students.  With this in mind, I have suggested to students that these tests are not always 100% accurate in indicating their true abilities.  The students themselves should know whether they are keeping up with the work or not.

Aside from setting individual goals, I see it as important to set class goals. Students should not just see themselves as individual learners, but as one of a cohort who are learning together.

Having shared goals enables the development of class cohesiveness and collaboration, and ideally will result in social facilitation – that is, where the presence of others, improves individual performance. Clearly what is required for this, is a class that is comfortable with one another and has a relationship that is built on mutual respect.

From each student, I collected a class goal then typed them up and popped them into wordle. Below is an example from one class:

For some classes, working towards a goal as a group will be easy, while for others this will not be the case.  Either way, the sort of improvement that can be gained from reflecting and thinking ahead, will take more than just the short school term that has now passed us by.

A Lesson on Failure

One of the first messages that came through to me loud and clear when I began my teaching studies is that failure is okay.  This is an important message that applies just as strongly for teachers as it does for students.

Just as you need hatred in order to understand love, you need failure in order to understand success.  I believe in these polar opposites as being integral tools for gaining perspective and insight into your own learning.  By making mistakes, you can plan, form goals and reflect upon mistakes made so that you may improve for next time.

In my classroom, I have been told, don’t worry about making mistakes or about having terrible classes – they will happen.  This is not to say that you should move on past a terrible class and forget that it happened, but use it as a learning exercise.  Even talk to the students about why that lesson did not go well and why you each believe that was the case.

Last week I gave one of my top-performing classes a test – however, the moment I handed it out, I realised it was testing them in the wrong way.  Instead of providing a set of questions that asked for a clear demonstration of skills, the test included challenging questions within too short a time frame.  In theory, most students would have been capable of solving all the questions, but given the allocated time, speed was prioritised over ability.  I have decided that since I would like students’ score to be a true reflection of their ability, I will talk to them about whether they would like to spend some more class time to complete the test.

While the structure of the test has reflected a failure on my own behalf, I must be careful to communicate to students that their own mistakes in the test do not indicate a catastrophe.  A student may fail the test, but they are not failures.  The distinction between being a failure and failing – a term that I do actually avoid using in case of confusion – is crucial. Much in our society is ridden on success, and constant progress.  If our students are only fed this mantra then it is all the more difficult to take imperfections in their stride and appreciate that failure is a natural part of life.

What I am trying to encourage students, and to display through my own practices, is that much can be learned through the habit of risk-taking. Risk-taking allows the individual to be autonomous in their learning, whilst also confronting challenge and potential fall-backs.  A thought to contemplate some more later: is risk something we are losing in our education?

Where am I again?

While I have not intended for this blog to be a place where I write in-depth about my day-to-day experiences in the classroom, I was asked elsewhere to put this piece together, and thought I would also share it here…

Somehow I have already reached halfway through my first term of teaching. I am not exactly sure how I got here – somewhere in between yard duties, differentiated homework sheets, ‘cool’ days of 35 degrees and 85 of my own students, the last 4 weeks have passed me by.  If you asked me two years ago whether I would consider teaching, the answer would have been a resounding “no”.  To my own surprise however, I am finding the first stages of this new course in my life rather exhilarating.

A typical day goes like this: at 7.40am I walk out the door, arriving at school approximately 12.5 minutes later.  By the time morning briefing takes place at 8.50am, I have done the photocopying for my first 3 classes, said “good morning” to the ladies in the library and picked up the cables from them that I use to connect my laptop to the projector in my classroom.  I have also taken my books, sheets, whiteboard markers, daily planner and a stash of other supplies to my classroom, rearranged the room if necessary and set up the board ready for session 1.

As I don’t have a homegroup, I have a few minutes to breathe and read the news online before my first class begins.  Year 9 maths.  These students always arrive on time, ready to learn.  I know that I can push this class, after having discovered early on that they like to be challenged.  During this class, I am also generally able to walk around the room and have a chat to each student, spending longer with those who have missed a class or are behind.

Forty-eight minutes later, Year 9s walk out and Year 10s begin to appear.  Session 2 is always lively, and I generally start the lesson with some funk music playing while the students get their equipment out and begin doing some basic skills practice or revision.  While many of the students in this class will be going on to the Senior College down the road next year, with some already having plans to go on to university, there are a number of students who have stated that they intend to leave school at the end of the year.  As such, amongst these students, there is less motivation to learn abstract mathematical concepts and a greater appreciation instead for tangible and applied maths.  I generally find that session 2 is over before I felt it’s started, and as the students rush out to recess I am left realising that I only made it around to talk to a third of the students.

With no time to spare, I drop my materials from the first two classes on my desk and pick up the next pile of work ready for session 3: Year 7 maths.  By some miracle, I ended up with this class. On my first day, I was shocked by their immediate silence and since then have gotten used to the enthusiastic participation of students in class discussions and comments such as, “Great, we’ve finally got homework!”  The class is not without its challenges though: standardised testing recently indicated that the ability range of students in the class is between Year 4 and Year 9.  Unfortunately, at the school I am at, this is the norm.

At 12.08pm the bell goes for the end of session 3.  There ends the morning rush of classes and starts the tidying, marking and planning – a continuum from one day to the next that I have gladly found myself in.

All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth. (Unknown)

As I step into the classroom this week for the very first time as the teacher, not the student, I am in a unique position to reflect on the role of this ancient profession.  What is it that has drawn me into this path?  Why have I chosen to move away, leave family and friends, to plunge into this role, uncertain of what it has in store for me in the years to come?
The answers to these questions are not important right now.  What is important, is the belief that I have in teachers to potentially make amazing, wide-reaching, dramatic changes to those maturing individuals that come before them.  It is a profession that I, like many others, have many opinions about – I critique, I judge, I compare.  However, I am in awe of what teachers do in transmitting skills and knowledge to their students.
At the micro level, the learning of the student is in the hands of their teacher: initially, they can only know as much as the teacher knows. Is the developing mind of a child imprinted by the content and boundaries of their teacher’s own limitations of thought? Think Locke’s tabula rasa (blank slate)… Yet the inside of the classroom does also mirror the structure and governing rules of society at large.
The teacher in many ways is a vehicle for educating the future adult citizens of society and inducting them into the norms of society.  This role is elucidated by particular frameworks that are articulated by government, from vague and value-laden, to more tightly prescriptive.  In Australia, these frameworks include the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians and the incoming Australian Curriculum.  I argue that in addition, the NAPLAN tests carry strong messages into classrooms about what sort of citizens we want our young people to be (in particular, I am thinking of ideas around comparison and constant, measurable progress).
In many ways, teachers are technicians, who take in the normative ideas and language of the local, national and even global communities, and re-craft these into messages that slowly build up a foundation of knowledge for students.  It is with this knowledge, and toolbox of skills, that students then equipped, are able to emerge into the world as capable young adults.
At this knowing-yet-not-knowing stage of teaching, I do not have the hindsight to reflect upon my own practice. I can only look forward onto an uncertain path, hesitant yet eager to begin my work.