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.

Getting By With A Little Help From My Friends

I have spent the past week at the Teach for Australia “Mid-year Intensive” – five days of living together back at our old haunts at University College and Melbourne Uni, and participating in some great times of learning together – both formally and informally. It’s been a fantastic time of hanging out, laughing, crying, expressing frustration, re-invigorating one another and reconnecting with why it is we got into this program in the first place. That and riding out a nasty stomach virus going through the majority of the group (and quite a few staff members). Nothing brings people together quite like poo stories.

This group of people have inspired me. They drive me on to being a better teacher and they remind me of the good things I am already doing. So it’s in this context, I’d like to (anonymously) introduce a few of my friends, and perhaps share a little bit of the lessons they teach everyday.

B is a drama teacher. In reality she teaches English as well, but you only need to look at B to recognize that she is probably a drama teacher. B brings an enthusiasm and excitement to almost everything she talks about: I can still vividly remember a conversation with B about the disappointment of the bland salad sandwich she was eating. There’s little doubt that she brings that whole-hearted approach to absolutely everything and anything she does. And once she is onto talking about something she truly cares about, there is no stopping her. B teaches her students that things matter, and that it’s OK and important to be passionate; that there are things in life genuinely worth looking a bit silly to pursue.

R1 is a deeply faithful husband and dedicated father. He gave up a very successful career in the IT industry to teach information technology and maths to year 11 and 12 students. R1 has a beautifully disarming way of communicating the absolute heart of a matter. But more than that, R1 knows exactly who he is and what he stands for. He knows that he’d much prefer to spend an evening with his kids after a long week at the intensive than he would spend the time at a lavish dinner with friends. So while his students may have maths or IT written on their timetables, I have little doubt that in reality R1 is teaching these kids that being an adult is about knowing what’s important to you, and living for exactly those things.

R2 and L are both teachers at my school, though I don’t see them much because they’re on the other campus. While they are both close friends, in reality they are quite different people. L teaches English and Humanities, while R teaches Science, Maths and IT. Both are in Teach for Australia for quite different reasons, and come from noticeably different backgrounds. But the most unifying thing about these two beautiful women is the love they ooze for their students. I’ve been in conversations where someone (else) has besmirched the name of one a ratty year 7, and both these girls have leapt to the child’s defense. It is not possible that R or L could teach a student and have them not know that someone cares about them, and how they do in life.

J brings a quiet dignity to everything he does. I can’t remember meeting a more gentle voice delivering such a rapier wit, and yet he brings an immense calm to tough situations. J makes people (and certainly myself included) feel safer through his own presence. As he works in a pretty rough, country school: it seems to me that J must surely be teaching that manliness and strength is not about aggression or domination.

These stories are there for every person I have been able to share this experience with, and it is an absolute honor to be calling these people my friends. There are certainly better teachers out there, and probably even groups of better teachers. But I am so immensely proud to be a part of this one.

In the immortal words of the Bee Gees…

“…Ah, ha, ha, ha, Stayin’ alive”.

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.

The Rufus, Melodie and Julia Show

Julia Gillard and I

“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.

Rufus Black

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.

Julia Gillard

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.

(full transcript at DEEWR Site here)

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.

and then suddenly, in a flash of light…

… our previously unmotivated associate IT teacher did receive a call from a damsel in distress (who the teacher would like to point out was not as beautiful as his wife, but still a lovely person) and our hero did rescue the poor damsel’s essay which had been lost in the dark and murky marsh of the dragon Internet Explorer’s Temporary Internet Files. The damsel did rejoice at the return of her poor, lost essay and there was much rejoicing in the village of University College. With that our hero was rejuvenated, and reminded that in his hands lay the opportunity to raise the next generation of heroes: for who else would recover lost emails, download codecs and slay the Internet Explorer dragon once and for all if not for his IT students?

And there was much rejoicing in the land.

(although my motivation was also helped out by this fantastic article on Teach for America and their research into what makes a good teacher)

Essays, ponderings and some futility

I must admit that my “Teacher Man” posts have been somewhat absent since the start of the new year. We’re now into Week 5 of a 6 week intensive, so it would be fair to say that the assessment end of the intensive is well and truly upon us, and in many ways my time is now taken up with either working on assessment pieces or procrastinating from assessment pieces. Have enjoyed my latest essay (though found the limitations of the word count deeply frustrating) around learning theory and applying that to our specific classroom contexts. I’ve definitely become a fan of developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner: but feel certain that I will have underwhelmingly attempted to fit the relevant parts of his work into my 150 word summation. Bah – what can you do?

One of the struggles at the moment has been in working through the idea of becoming a specialist IT teacher, and the inherent limitations held within that. IT feels like it’s not always taken seriously in schools, and while everything in me would love to flare up and spoil for a fight when that happens, I have depressingly found myself agreeing with those who would relegate IT to being a niche subject.

The frustration stems from the deeply held belief that the majority of content studied in IT classes (before VCE at least) is content that really ought to be embedded in the curriculum of other subjects. Why would you learn about word-processing outside of the subject dedicated to words, or perform calculations in spreadsheets outside of the context of being interested in what the calculations produce? In the long term, I cannot see any reason why Information Technology should be taught in secondary schools other than to specifically teach “Computer Science” type subject matter (programming, database design, etc.) Even the business focussed IT applications subject being offered at VCE level should probably be swallowed by subjects like Business Management and Accounting.

Now the realist in me says that teachers generally have nowhere near the skills to make the curriculum genuinely cater for the technological aspects of their subjects, and who knows if they ever will. It’s just a bit tough to get excited about working towards being a great IT teacher when I’m not certain that “IT Teaching” as a profession will see out another decade. Ah well, I guess I”ll just have to become an impressive generalist.

Narrowing and enlarging the vision

The first three weeks of our Teach for Australia intensive is almost up: three more to go. And as the intensive has travelled along (at break-neck speed for the most part), I’ve noticed something changing in me, and more specifically in why I am here.I got into Teach for Australia, and the teaching profession more generally, because I care about young people. I get angry when people bad-mouth “kids these days”, my heart breaks when I see a kid throwing away potential because of life-situations.

But in the past three weeks something has been happening. The “vision” (for lack of a less pretentious and presumptuous term) is narrowing, but also growing simultaneously. I’ve become passionate not just about education, but primarily about educational disadvantage. Where previously I have listened and interacted with my mother’s stories from her school: I’ve instead found myself attempting to recruit her into the public system in the schools where they need her talents more. I might have found a cause that I’m genuinely ready to commit all of my energy to.

I’m sure that part of this could well be roughly akin to a whirlwind romance on school camp: and once the daily grind sets in the idealistic Geoff could all be forgotten. But it’s a nice thought at least.

At home at school

Last week was an interesting one. For the most part there was little study: instead the days were filled with being in classrooms. It’s not the greatest time of year to be in schools, particularly if you’re hoping to see how they run, because by this point in the year reports are written or being written and so there’s very little still happening. Just a bunch of quite stressed teachers trying to cover off everything before the end of the year.

The first three days were probably the most useful in terms of getting hold of some great resources and discussing some very interesting ideas around educational theory and how that really plays out in the classroom environment. But the real winner were the last two days of the week in the Northern suburbs.

I’m not sure that the schools in Teach for Australia have been officially announced, but I’m apparently permitted to say that I’m in the Northern Metropolitan region; so for the moment you’ll have to take that at face value. But having spent two days at the school I am already starting to feel a little bit at home there. It’s the little things that make the difference, but knowing what my teaching load looks like for next year, and seeing where my desk is likely to be: well maybe they’re not even really that little.

I am likely beginning to sound like a broken record (though I’m much too young to understand what that means) but it is certainly true that each step towards day one of classes next year brings with it a sense that this is all happening, as well as a sense that it’s all happening very fast. The study is starting to get more serious, our practical sessions are beginning to become, ah, what’s the word…. practical. Which is why it really is quite nice that when I stepped into a classroom to assist taking a Year 7 Maths extra late in the day that I actually felt home. At home at school.

And the adventure truly begins…

Just pumping out a really quick post in between going from one place to another, but I thought I’d better mention that the intensive has started in earnest. We’ve been welcomed and introduced more times than previously thought possible, and cogitated over the mission and values of Teach for Australia until our collective brains hurt, but nevertheless it’s been an exciting couple of days.

A couple of thoughts that stood out already: a quote I’ll likely misquote and have also managed to forget the original owner of from Amartya Sen : “Freedom is the ability to choose a life one can reasonably find value in”. That’s the sentiment at least.

The second was from Martin Seligman, a very impressive man who seems to have fathered positive psychology – he was talking about what it means to flourish, and boiled it down to four pillars: Happiness or amount of pleasure, finding meaning, positive relationships and achievement or mastery. The idea being that if these four are aligned, one can be considered to be flourishing.

Off now – will correct later

Door problems at Teach for Australia

Julia Gillard was once more promoting Teach for Australia in the media, this time on Lateline raising a concerning problem.

“They were literally having their doors beaten down by high-performing graduates who wanted to get on the program, and they had to turn people away.”

via Lateline – 11/11/2009: Gillard discusses education changes. (emphasis mine)

I must admit that in the visits I’ve made to the Teach for Australia offices I hadn’t noticed any damage to their doors: but I suppose it is the sort of thing you fix fairly quickly.

(I can’t stand the misuse of the word “literally” – maybe I should be shilling for an English class…. )