Perseverance sucks. I’d love to be able to tell stories of how I have walked into the classroom and started transforming my students lives. But the fact of the matter is I’m not yet a great teacher. I’m perhaps scraping in as just being a good teacher. One of the difficulties of being part of the Teach for Australia program is that there is definitely a high level of expectation around the impact we’ll all have on the schools we enter. Part of that comes from the system, and partly from ourselves. So to think about the gap between where I’ve almost expected myself to be, and where I am as an educator can be a depressing thing.
But one thing I know. I’m a better teacher this week than I was a week ago. And the teacher I was a week ago beats the daylights out of the teacher two or three weeks before that. And I know that there is a tonne more stuff that I want to know than there is stuff that I already know. So while the big goal of becoming a genuinely great teacher is still a long way off – I can see the path that gets me there. It’s long, and it looks like it’ll probably beat me up along the way, but I can see where it goes.
We’re already almost halfway through the term at this point, which is a frightening thought. It does feel like most of my students are finding some rhythmn in my classes: the students I’ve had some trouble with are starting to submit some attempt at the work set and I’ve got some of my more enthusiastic students ready to work hard enough to stretch themselves. But I think probably the most frustrating thing about being a first-year teacher is just never quite knowing how much you can expect your students to already know, and the level to which you can expect them to engage in some “higher-order” thinking.
The most obvious example at the moment is that I’ve set my year 10 class a Web Development exercise that another teacher has commented she would probably set for year 12s. Part of the problem is that I’m desperate for students not just to develop sites for the sake of it, but to do so with a purpose and an audience in mind. And it is starting to feel as though that jump to thinking about who is going to visit a site and why they would be there is almost a jump too far for some of the troops. But I’m very hesitant to just have students creating sites without thinking through these things: as far as I’m concerned I don’t actually see there as being much value for a student’s life if they are learning application-specific skills in an application they are never likely to see again.
I guess part of the deal is about allowing space for really high goals, but not being too disappointed if nobody gets there.
With the reduced load that Teach for Australia graduates have been afforded, I have managed to get a timetable with some interesting features. The first is a big win: Thursdays are classtime free – a great opportunity to get catch up with where I thought I should have been with preparation, and to catch some breath. The downside of this quirky timetable is that my Friday’s are 5-on or 6-on depending on which week it is. Exciting times.
Already I’ve been looking for a Ctrl-Z on a few of my classrooms – or perhaps just a Ctrl-N so I could start again. But the fact of the matter is that this job is well suited for me: it stretches me in areas I’ve sometimes been able to sneak through in the past (I’m dreading the day that I have to wing a class on no preparation), but it also suits some of my strengths. I shared an encouraging story of one of my kids with learning difficulties being desperate to show me the (theory based) homework he’d done, and my friend replied that “if there’s anyone who can take every last ounce of encouragement out of a story like that, it’s you”. While I’m sure that was meant to be insulting in some way – the truth is that I think it does speak to part of why really do think I’m made to teach. I’m never going to be satisfied with only seeing that spark in a few students: but there’s no way in hell it’s not going to encourage me.
At times the Teach for Australia program has been described as a sink or swim approach. And there’s been enough of a roller-coaster ride this week for it to feel as though the analogy is a reasonable one. With one week down, it certainly feels that I can quite reasonably suggest that I am swimming.
After two genuinely great days, I had one shocking lesson this morning and it felt like a plank to the back of the head. A few behaviour issues that were probably not dealt with sternly enough and resulted in a really disappointing lesson was a tough pill to swallow. But welcome to teaching huh?
The temptation is to wallow in that place: just sit there and feel bad about myself. But fortunately I had a good chat with a couple of people, recomposed myself and recognised the points at which I needed to start looking at a different strategy and even just the way I can better plan out the lesson to keep the students interested.
I’m really glad that by classus horribilis was on the third day; and not the first. And there will undoubtedly be others. But I’m definitely still OK: it’s when there’s nothing left to change, no stones to overturn that I’ll really start worrying. And I’m nowhere near that.
The first day with students has come and gone, and I’m still here. Truth be told, it wasn’t anything like that bad at all: the biggest thought in my mind after a (still very flawed) first lesson was “I can do this”. Despite the feeling that I should be way out of my depth (and to a certain extent I still am) – I feel comfortable in the classroom. There’s still plenty of apprehension and I already have a massive list of things I need to work on, but having run thousands of classroom situations through my head it was a really exciting thing to see what reality looked like.
This is an optimistic post, and it’s an optimistic time. But make no mistake – this is a long road, and I have am under no illusions. The first day of school is hardly likely to be the toughest and it’s not like I’ve even met all of my students yet. But you can’t help but be happy to be feeling good after day one.
So the last couple of days have been at the school and (in and around meetings for this, that and the other) making sure that the first week or two are properly planned and that I have all the important things like keys, computer login, timetable and rooms all sorted before there are a bunch of teenagers getting in the way. I’m pretty excited to get the whole adventure started, though I came home and crashed yesterday so it’s still been a pretty full-on experience. And I’m at least feeling like this way I’ll be three days ahead of my year 10s, who will have their first day at the senior campus on Monday.
That sound you can hear is of rubber gradually moving towards impacting with the road.
“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” – Winston Churchill
The carnival that has been the “initial intensive” is over. We are now essentially as trained as we will be for our first day of school (though there are still some pieces of assessment to complete). The last few days turned into a bit of a circus, as classes mixed with end of intensive events: the biggest of which was last night’s DEEWR function with Julia Gillard (the deputy Prime Minister).
Amongst all the fun and games that come with these kind of big-deal events for Teach for Australia have come some amazing pieces of inspirational oration. All three spoke last night, though it’s not necessarily their speeches last night that I’ll reference here.
With a name like Rufus Black, and working as the Master of Ormond College (which has a fantastically old dining hall) in conjunction with a hint of a British accent- it seems that the Hogwarts references are inevitable. But when the chairman of Teach for Australia’s board speaks, you want to listen.
Rev. Black’s speech at our welcoming dinner has absolutely set the tone for the entire intensive experience: but more than that, has been an ongoing reference point throughout the entire time. While his story is certainly not mine to tell, the incredible roads he’s travelled and the obstacles he has overcome to eventually study my all-time dream course: ethics and theology at Oxford via a Rhodes scholarship – and the direct way he could relate that back to the belief and the commitment of his schoolteachers has almost haunted each of the associates.
Melodie Potts Rosevear
While Rev. Black’s subtle accent does wonders for the English language flowing from his lips: our CEO and fearless (I’m quite sure literally) leader delivers beautiful words despite having to overcome the obstacle of a (not especially subtle) South Carolina accent. Melodie has however, been an incredibly inspirational person for each of us. Melodie introduced us to the most beautiful concept to describe the noble cause we have signed up for -that freedom is the right to live a life that one has reason to value (from Amartya Sen).
Perhaps even more stirring though has been Melodie’s absolute determination that the state of educational disadvantage in Australia is not only unacceptable, but that it is a problem to which there are solutions. Regardless of whether you agree with her methods (and if you do disagree – you’re wrong :)), her stubborn pursuit of change in an area that hasn’t seen a lot of change in a long time comes out in almost any conversation.
Politicians are infamous the world over for being sneaky, slimy, self-aggrandizing and stuck up. But in our brief interactions with the Deputy PM, I was very pleasantly surprised. Julia dropped in yesterday to meet the associates, and to get a feel for how the experience had been (naturally with reporters in tow), before speaking at the function later last night. I think that the consensus across the room was that we heard someone speaking from a place of deep conviction: especially as she told of speaking with Teach for America alumni and Washington DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee. From the transcript:
She told of a discussion she had with a principal of a school in Washington which had been shown through testing to have fallen radically behind educational benchmarks and well behind the results being achieved in schools teaching similar children.
When she asked the principal for his analysis of what he thought should be done to lift standards, he initially struggled to offer a view and simply maintained that really everything was fine.
Finally, somewhat frustrated, Michelle Rhee said to him, ‘would you send your grandchild to this school?’
To which he replied ‘Well, if that’s the standard.’
It’s a great question. Would you send your child, your grandchild, your brother or sister, your niece or nephew to this school?
That’s the standard I want to be the Australian standard.
Teach for Australia aims at that standard and, in doing so, creates opportunities for change.
Speeches are of themselves, essentially meaningless. But when, as I’m going to go so far as to say for Rufus, Melodie and Julia, they are backed with compelling actions a speech instead becomes a powerful rallying call – and I am sure that I have become more determined to commit my professional life to confronting educational disadvantage because of the words of these three.
Don’t know how many of the fellow associates who were in the tutorial the other day will actually find this, but the conversation came up about finding useful pictures and graphs for demonstrating how to read graphs, etc to students. You might want to be a bit careful about some of these, because some of them are a little bit looser than others on the conventions of graph writing, and the majority of the sites flit between being “acceptable” for the classroom and decidedly unacceptable, so I’d also be careful of not recommending too many of these sites to your students.
With the disclaimers out of the way though: here’s some of the best places I’ve found:
Be very careful not to recommend this one to your students, but it’s got some fantastic stuff mixed in with some very very nerdy stuff and some jokes that are downright crass. Don’t worry if you don’t understand lots of the jokes there: it just means you have a life.
This is a much safer site to recommend: though at times it can get slightly political (can’t we all), Information is Beautiful has an incredible collection of infographics which can communicate complex information usually in simple, easy to understand ways. My wife is a graphic designer and she is in love with this site.
This is a much less definitive recommendation: graphjam’s stuff is all about user-contribution so the quality varies from putrid to fantastic. But if you do manage to get a hold of the good ones, they are usually pretty cool/funny. The whole thing is graphs and Venn diagrams, so you should at least be able to find something useful if you look long enough. They’re certainly not as pretty though.
Fascinating discussion over at “Dangerously Irrelevant”, in the context of a discussion with a Biology teacher about whether students needed to memorise the parts of a neuron. From the post:
“In an era of near-instant Internet search, it’s possible that knowing the parts of a neuron isn’t really that important. For example, if I don’t know what the parts of a neuron are, I probably can find a couple dozen images of neurons – with parts labeled – in about 5 seconds using an online image search engine. It seems to me that what’s more important is generally knowing what neurons are, how they work, why I should care about them, how they impact my health and well-being, how current cutting-edge neurological research may impact me in the future, and so on.
Will I need to learn the parts of a neuron in the short term so that I can understand these bigger issues? Yes, most likely. Six weeks from now, will it be important if I still remember the parts of a neuron? Probably not, because I always can look it up again. But the bigger-picture understandings about neurons and how they impact me? That’s what I need to remember six weeks from now – and six years from now. That’s the stuff that’s important. Assess on what’s important.”
This ties in with some of the things that have frustrated me already, specifically in the IT curriculum: from University down. With fact-based information being so readily available – what could the point be in me requiring students to recite facts back on their assessment? And information accessibility is only going to improve: where does that leave educators? Asking the bigger questions, or refusing to take the outside world seriously.
One of the commenters on the post thought that this video was relevant: hard to argue.