Reclaiming Teacher Quality

Jane Caro is a bit of a hero in the public school system: one of the few in the commentariat who have shown genuine understanding of why public schools need more appropriate funding levels, and who has long been an advocate for the hard work of teachers. I like to think of myself as being on the same side as Jane Caro, and feel like I understand relatively well why she says the things she does. You can catch the video here.

Recently, Jane gave a pretty impressive diatribe on the ways teachers have had their reputations and the reputation of the profession denigrated over time. It made some magnificent points, but there was a key moment when I just lost all ability to concentrate.

“I don’t think we have a quality problem”

We absolutely have a quality problem. Certainly not primarily a problem with the quality of the people in the system: Caro’s points hold up 100%. But we do have a quality problem, because teachers are simply not able to prepare lessons, mark work, meet (ever increasing) compliance requirements, differentiate for varied abilities and interests (and on and on it goes), in the allocated time. Teachers are left with two options: work like a crazy person and likely burn out, or compromise on quality. In their first couple of years, they usually have to do both.

And there’s nothing more demoralising than not being able to do the job you’re so passionate about to the standard you’d like. To take the quality of teaching out of the equation is to say that our lessons shouldn’t improve. No teacher believes that, or if they do it’s been beaten into them because they don’t see another options.

Our union – the AEU – has provided the easiest solution they can find: class sizes. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong horse to back. There’s no evidence that when class sizes drop (below reasonable levels), learning outcomes improve at all. But so much funding gets spent on keeping class sizes below arbitrary levels. It comes from a place of wanting to protect teachers , but it’s misguided at best. And while ridiculous class sizes have a serious impact on teacher morale, the difference between a class of 25 and a class of 28 is negligible at best.

But providing more time for teachers to prepare, cutting the relevant teaching allotments is a much clearer way to build morale, and massively improve “teacher quality”. Amazingly, it seems that the Grand Poobah of education research Monsieur Hattie hasn’t done the legwork on the effect size of increasing teacher prep time, but it’s certainly vastly different in those systems doing better in the PISA arms race.

Will it happen? It’s a tougher sell to parents, that’s for sure. But at very least, there’s no way that teachers should be ignoring “teacher quality” as just something being imposed from outside – it’s what we do.

Getting process right – breaking unseen barriers to participation

Until recently, our coaching team had worked off a purely informal basis for coaching requests: when people wanted coaching they would approach one of the team and kick off a relationship. And for the most part that seemed to be working. But there was a massive disconnect between people who indicated an interest in coaching, and the number of people actually receiving coaching.

So we put together a really simple Google Form, and put it out there for people to impersonally request coaching. And a small group of people, most of whom are well-connected and established staff members, put in requests. The unseen barriers (relational awkwardness, not wanting to load up a coach who might be under the pump) were taken out of the equation.

We are regularly make adjustments for our students when they feel unable to participate and become great at removing those barriers for our students. It can equally be so vital to get on top of removing barriers for staff.

Note: This is my first blog post in a gazillion years: and it’s fair to say that my experience and reflections are quite different from the older posts on the site here – which was really started to help me reflect on the beginning of my teaching journey. So don’t judge anything older on here too harshly!

Intuition – A Teacher’s Best Frenemy

I’m naturally a very intuitive person: the monotony of choosing to be explicit about minute details bores me to tears. The beautiful thing is that more often than not, that intuition has proven an invaluable trait. It allows me to think strategically, to go big picture with ideas and to often troubleshoot classroom issues before they arise. It’s a beautiful thing, and thus my intuition is my best friend as a teacher.

But the sad truth is that my beautiful intuition is also my enemy. By trusting my instincts rather than meticulously recording what goes on for individual students, I miss things. Students miss concepts I’ve tried to teach because they’ve looked competent, and I’ve found out later they were too proud to ask, or just didn’t realise they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

So I’m learning to change: my intuition is no longer the badge of honour it might have once been, but rather a powerful (if unreliable) tool in the toolkit, used but not depended on. I’m trying desperately to get into the habit of recording more, being more explicit with questions as well as answers and at least pretending to care about the details.

Plus – I do really like the frenemy neologism.

Embracing Eccentricity

I’m an eccentric person. It’s taken a bit for me to recognise this about myself, but it has become something I am now comfortable with. It has not, however, been a big part of my teaching. To be honest I’ve probably tried to keep the crazy to a minimum, partly for concern that students will go silly themselves, partly as a lingering uncertainty about how students would take it.

But these past few days, my guard has been down. I’ve been battling to get along to school with a nasty cold and probably should have had yesterday off bar the fact that I really needed to see a few kids to make sure their interim report had them up to date if possible. As a result, the filter that would normally stop the stupid, dorky things coming out of my mouth was turned off. For example:

  • I apologised for almost sending my Strepsil sailing across the room.
  • I remarked that having taken a cold and flu tablet I was feeling a bit dopey today, to which a girl remarked under her breath “just today”. I almost wet myself.
  • Caught myself raving about how wonderful my wife is on more than three separate occasions in the one day.
  • Started singing a student’s name to the tune of the Blues Brothers theme when just calling his name couldn’t get his attention.

The scary part was, it worked. I keep forgetting that when I let students know that I’m a person, and see that I’m a person, they’re able to connect with that. And sure I’ll get the looks that have my students wondering about the sanity/stability of their IT teacher, but who cares?

Plus I know which teachers I remember: the craziest ones.

Best job in the world

This is how happy I am!

We’re now most of the way through the first week of the school year, and I’m feeling struck by the re-remembering of just how much I enjoy this job. There’s plenty to get frustrated at: unhelpful students, unhelpful teachers, administrivia, meetings, negative teachers, blah blah blah, but the fact of the matter is that this job (and probably even in this exact school and these exact classes) is exactly where I want to be right now.

Happiness all round really. I’m hoping it lasts.

Teaching with Integrity?

One of the bigger questions to come out of my trip to Mumbai (more details in previous post) was rethinking what integrity looks like in the classroom teaching environment. The trigger for this line of thinking was around the story I heard about Gandhi (again from the previous post):

“A mother had a boy who was eating too much sugar. His mother had repeatedly asked her son not to eat sugar, but to no avail. Knowing that her boy respected Gandhi, she took her boy to him to have Gandhi tell her son not to eat so much sugar. As she explained the issue to Gandhi, Gandhi said “come back in a month”. Naturally the mother was confused and a little frustrated, but she nevertheless went away and returned one month later. When she reached Gandhi, he told the boy that sugar was bad for him, and that his mother was right: he should not eat sugar. Of course this infuriated the mother: “Why wouldn’t you tell him this a month ago?” Gandhi’s reply was simple: “Until a month ago, I was eating sugar”.”

There’s plenty to think about in a story like that. For starters: so much of the practical advice around teaching methodology (particularly with reference to behaviour management) is that teaching is essentially an acting job. You can’t let students know what you really think, how you’re really feeling, etc. And there’s certainly a sense of self-preservation in that mindset: there’s little doubt that some students will take advantage of any vulnerability. But at the same time, it feels to me as though there definitely has to be a balance in that – in part because I think that lots of the time I’m a rubbish actor. I know that the students I’d been the most “real” with: admitted when I was having a shocker and let them know when I was walking on sunshine, were also the students who were most likely to believe me when I saw something impressive in what they were doing. Of course, it feels farcical to talk about “balancing integrity”…

The other half of this quandary is considering how you respond to kids, when “the official line” differs significantly with your own beliefs. Regardless of which school policy it is that you disagree with: uniform, computer policy, whatever – at some stage there’s going to be issues in which your beliefs side with the students and against the school. What does it look like to take integrity seriously? To shift either way seems a cop out; playing the cool teacher who rebels against the system or towing the party line and playing it safe. I’m really not sure where to land on this: my best effort at this stage is to discuss both sides of an issue wherever possible, but there’s certainly a level of professionalism that does require you to swallow your tongue at times.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Mumbai – Being the Change

Mahatma Gandhi - Be the change

I’ve been back from my trip to Mumbai for about a week now, so it’s probably about time I get some thoughts down on paper (or nearest virtual equivalent) before those thoughts drop out of my mind completely. “Teach for Australia” is part of a global network of organisations who all essentially do the same thing: put graduates into schools in disadvantaged communities. This network (Teach for All) had their big annual conference/workshop thingy, and somehow my application to go was successful. The conference was in Mumbai, India and hosted by Teach for India. We spent a couple of days in classrooms in slum communities in Mumbai, and the rest hearing from the Teach for India guys as well as from each other.

If I do this right, each of these sub-headings will get their own blog post – but with my blogging patterns being the way they’ve been we should all just be thankful if this post ever sees the light of day. So here are my “take-aways” from the conference, in no particular order:

1. Integrity in the classroom

The only way I would want to introduce this point is by relaying a story we heard in the conference. Naturally, it’s a Gandhi story: a mother had a boy who was eating too much sugar. His mother had repeatedly asked her son not to eat sugar, but to no avail. Knowing that her boy respected Gandhi, she took her boy to him to have Gandhi tell her son not to eat so much sugar. As she explained the issue to Gandhi, Gandhi said “come back in a month”. Naturally the mother was confused and a little frustrated, but she nevertheless went away and returned one month later. When she reached Gandhi, he told the boy that sugar was bad for him, and that his mother was right: he should not eat sugar. Of course this infuriated the mother: “Why wouldn’t you tell him this a month ago?” Gandhi’s reply was simple: “Until a month ago, I was eating sugar”.

I’m struck by the way that integrity is not something that is ever discussed in teaching – certainly not in relation to how we interact with our students. There’s a “what they don’t know won’t hurt them” mentality – as long as students don’t know that you don’t really believe what you tell them, it’s OK. Exploring what integrity in my teaching means is certainly a rich vein of thought – and one I intend to continue exploring.

2. Feel, Imagine, Do, Share

This one comes courtesy of Kiran Sethi, who was really impressive in her presentation to us. Kiran was my first introduction to the idea that to enact change we follow a progression of “Feel, Imagine, Do, Share”. First you feel what the problem is and not just from your own perspective. Imagine what the situation could look like, both in a practical planning-type way and in a dreaming type way. Do: Get out there and have a go. Do what it is that you are thinking about. Share: make sure that no matter whether your efforts are a success or a failure (and it’s pretty rare for anything to be either completely), document what you did, so that next time others (or you again) learn from your experiences. I think at different times in life I’ve been much better at one than the others. More thought also required here.

3. Self-confidence, Collective confidence, Expanding your locus of control

This one came from a workshop, but was a highlight of the week for me. In describing how the Teach for India “fellows” hoped to bring about systemic change in education in India, they described the progression as build self-confidence in who you are and what you are hoping to do, then find others on the same mission and together build the collective confidence, then gradually you expand your locus of control. This made a lot of sense to me as a way of “building a movement” – which was another key part of the time: feeling like I’m part of a global movement to confront educational disadvantage.

4. Take responsibility

Mixed in with the previous point is a very clear call to take responsibility for what I want to see happen in my school. Lots of the past year has been about drawing some very clear boundaries around what I’m responsible for: my classroom. But it’s got to be bigger than that. I feel like this upcoming year has me in a position ready to really start changing some mindsets: in particular in the attitude to students and their potential.

Hopefully all this gives you a bit of an idea of how Mumbai was for me. The optimist inside me says I’ll get a post out about how each of these points is going to look practically for me, the pessimist says that there has barely been a post in the past 6 months. We’ll see.

Go all the way

I realise this blog has been low on content and (for the last couple of posts) high on stealing other people’s content. But you can deal with it, because I loved this YouTube video – Bono reading a poem by Charles Bukowski.

I know Bono can be a fairly divisive figure, but I love him and this sort of stuff is some of the reason why.

Ken Robinson on why education is broken

Great video from RSA Animate on why education needs a complete paradigm shift. I’m sure lots of you have seen his TED video, but the guys from RSA Animate do an amazing job with all their videos to put pictures to audio. And if you haven’t heard any of Ken Robinson’s stuff – I strongly recommend this as a starting point. Great viewing.

New theme for Teacher Man

I’ve created a new theme for Son of A Teacher Man – that’s right, I’ve created it. It’s something I’ve done before for my personal blog and this theme is loosely based on that. I’ve gone with a style of the old dot-matrix printers, mixed with some old-school video-games stuff. It’s been pretty fun, and I’ll keep working at it to make it work properly. Take a look (if you’re not already).