Weapon of Choice

As I’m sure is the case for many in the profession at the moment (and countless others), I’ve progressively been coming down with the latest cold-type bug that has been going around. It’s sapped my energy levels, left me with a red-raw throat and otherwise just made life miserable.

But most significantly it took the vast majority of the volume out of my voice today. I’m naturally quite a loud person, particularly in leading the classroom: often just when I get excited about whatever it is that I’m teaching. So today I felt completely dis-empowered, my “weapon of choice” was unavailable. I couldn’t instruct for longer than about a minute, I struggled to regain the attention of the class when I’d let them go, and I struggled to maintain their attention when I had it. I don’t think I realised just how much I’ve relied on the power of my voice in the class.

Some of that is good: I think I communicate effectively most of the time, but I’m also reminded by the need to have plan B, C, D, etc. ready for when the plan doesn’t happen. All good learnings I suppose – but I’m not sure I’ll make it in tomorrow. In the meantime, the headline gives me an excuse to link to (embedding is disabled) that most fantastic of music videos: Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”.

Not magic

One of the real highlights of the TFA mid-year intensive was spending some time hearing from behaviour-management guru Bill Rogers for a couple of half-days. While we were debriefing with some drinks afterwards I had a rare moment of insight and commented that “the tough part about all this will be when we get in the classroom and find out that this stuff’s not magic”.

Sure enough, I got back into the classroom and realised that while the strategies we learnt are fantastic (and make no mistake, they’ve changed the way I manage the classroom), they aren’t magic. The tough kids are still tough, kids still want to disobey instructions whether they are given as a stupid question or as a clear direction. The fact remains that we’re dealing with teenagers: independent, intelligent (and it’s important to remind myself of that one), human beings with their own sets of ideas about how they should approach any class. Sadly, but also happily, there is no magic to do away with that.

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.

Why I Wouldn’t Have Boycotted NAPLAN

Well, after 6 months or so of blogging here it’s about time I did something a little controversial. So, keeping in mind that these views are not the views of anyone other than yours truly (not Teach for Australia, not my school, not the education dept, etc) – here’s my thoughts on the NAPLAN saga.

Background (from the media)

Australian teachers, through the education unions, were threatening to boycott supervision of the National  literacy and numeracy test which for acronymical details that elude me is called the NAPLAN test. The data from this test have been the backbone of the controversial MySchool website.

Background (from my end)

We (as staff members) have received trickles of information about how the AEU (Australian Education Union) was not going to have their members supervise the test. I’m not currently an AEU member, though I’m not yet certain that I won’t be in the not-too-distant future, and as such I am at liberty to choose whether I would support the AEU ban. All our staff members got an email today saying that a list would be at the office, where we could sign to indicate whether we would be supporting the ban or not. Then late today we received official word that the AEU had been satisfied in negotiations with the government and the ban would no longer go ahead. If you need any more background – this gives you an idea.

Why I Wouldn’t Have Boycotted

On receiving the email requiring to state a position quite publicly, I was forced to think about which way I’d go. So why not boycott?

  1. I think that the NAPLAN results are a valuable tool for teachers in understanding their students a little better. This in itself is a slightly controversial opinion, but I’m in favour of teaching staff having the option of knowing as much about where their students are “at” with issues of literacy and numeracy as possible.
  2. I agree with the MySchool website in principle. There, I said it. I actually do believe that schools should be accountable and (to a degree) transparent. My issue with the site is actually that the data is currently poor. Very poor. The site lists NAPLAN data for year 7 students who have barely been at the school for a term. It’s not measuring improvement of students during their time at the school – it’s just listing where an individual cohort is at. And I actually believe (perhaps naively) that the government is interested in improving the data, with things like their (relatively) recently announced national student number. Once you can start tracking improvement at schools, rather than just some arbitrary measure of exactly where students are at a certain point in time – you end up with something different.

For their part – I’m actually quite impressed with what the AEU has managed to negotiate for: a working party to evaluate the best way to be using student performance data with AEU members on the working party. And I do think that as it stands MySchool is a damaging attempt at bringing competition policy into the education sector. But all the same, that’s my position. And now I don’t have to worry about it after all.

The Big Goal

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.

So as I was saying, perseverance sucks 🙂

Expectations

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.

Nervously on top of things

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.

Swim

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.

Deflating and inflating

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.

Feeling a bit deflated