Saturday, October 18, 2008


Recently, in Melbourne newspapers, we’ve been reading all sorts of stuff about how schools have been wasting too much time doing all that fancy-schmancy stuff and it’s time to get back to the basics! Or, rather, the Basics! You know, the three Rs that we’ve supposedly been neglecting all these years (perhaps in response to all those letters to the editor that begin “They oughta be teaching - fill in the blank- in the schools!” Not to mention editorials that think we “oughta” be teaching swimming, values, health, drug education, sex education, the list goes on and on, in the schools! The kind of stuff parents used to teach, but think their taxes ought to be paying for, these days). I’ve been working in the school system most of my adult life and can’t remember when nobody was teaching the basics (sorry, the Basics). The grammar books are a lot easier to follow and less forbidding than they used to be, but they’re still there and nowadays you can also go on-line and get other people’s ideas. I’ve had to. Suddenly, I have had to be responsible for 8B, in an area I haven’t covered in a long, long time. So I know. The simple fact is, most people can’t spell. I remember, in my second year out, having a student who was bright and articulate but couldn’t spell to save his life. Probably, these days, he’s using a spellchecker in his highly-paid job. Maybe there’s a spelling gene. I think I have one. Most people don’t. You can only do your best to compete with the advertising and the TV shows and the shop signs and the text messaging, all of which tell people that it's okay to use apostrophes other than to join two words or indicate possession - or not to use them at all, that it's fine to abbreviate words to "txt", even when it isn't costing you money.

But hey, the government knows best. At the Federal level, they’ve got the bright idea that they can grab kids who got high scores in uni, give them a five-week crash course and send them out to the schools to teach experienced teachers how to do it properly.

Then there are all these warm and fuzzy articles in the newspapers about this or that primary school where they’re teaching – wow! – local history. Or robotics. Well, duh. Guess what? We had local history at Flemington Secondary College back in the 1980s, when I was getting a full day’s time allowance to handle it. People from outside the school system were coming in to use our historical newspaper microfilms. And at Sunshine College, where I now work, we have local history units at Year 9. Sunshine is a very important place in the history of industrial relations. Some of our students are descended from the original Sunshine Harvester workers. We like them to know that they have plenty of which they can be proud. And yes, thanks to a very good teacher willing to give up his own time, we have robotics too, and students who wouldn’t normally hang around after school hours are going along. It’s going to expand.

So what’s new?

Victorian schools these days make a lot of fuss about literacy, but get rid of their teacher-librarians. Thing is, when Jeff Kennett came to power, apart from closing a lot of schools to save money (and make money in the case of Flemington SC, which he sold to the Victoria Racing Club next door), gave principals powers they’d always wanted. Among them was control of the purse strings. The trouble with that, which these principals probably never considered, was that controlling the budget means you have to make decisions you mightn't like. You need to fiddle with the funds to make them fit. You have to hope that the more expensive experienced teachers will leave so that you can replace them with kids fresh out of university who don’t have to be paid as much. Of course,you can always, as so many principals do, declare that you want "young and dynamic!" as if you have to be one to be the other. You have to decide that the first place to make cuts is the library which, let’s face it, is just a book room. Give everyone a key and get rid of those people who, after all, just stamp books! They don’t, of course, help design curriculum or teach research skills or fit kids to books or help instill a love of reading. Come on, now! We don’t need them. Not if it means paying out more money.

Or, if you MUST have someone in the library, get someone without library qualifications or teaching qualifications. Much cheaper! And you can make them work longer hours than teachers, even if nobody makes use of them.

We used to be able to apply for jobs at other schools, but with the global budget, once you reach a certain level, you can’t do that any more. Schools aren’t advertising for experienced teachers unless they need someone in a leadership position and then only grudgingly. So if you want to move, you have to take a pay cut and then, when you finally retire, your superannuation pension is lower because the calculations are done on your last two years, no matter how many years you’ve been paying your super contribution before that.

When the budget was centralised, people could be chosen or promoted on merit, not on how much they were going to cost. Schools were still making cuts in the library, but the minimum you had was one full-time teacher-librarian. Those were the days when you could concentrate on the basics instead of our current, overcrowded curriculum when we somehow still fit in the important stuff among all the things that parents don’t want to do any more.

So go on – teach us to suck eggs!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reflective Journals, Circle Time and 8B

Recently, the VIT (Victorian Institute of Teaching) decided to show they were doing something other than taking our compulsorily paid money every year and providing us with glossy, self-congratulatory newsletters, so now we have to start, effectively, keeping records for tax and we have to prove that we're doing PD, keeping log books and noting how much time we spend on each PD activity. The fact that we just do it without thinking about it, read stuff for our work, in my case review lots of YA books, read papers for use in class, check out useful web sites, attend conferences and Booktalkers at the State Library and generally exchange information counts for nothing unless we have it written down. We have to prove all these things at our annual reviews anyway, but without all the record-keeping.

It's likely to lead to people counting their hours, saying, "Well, that's VIT satisfied" and not bothering with more, but there you are.

One of the things they suggested is to keep a "reflective journal". Until now, we've had that as an option for our annual reviews, but been assured we don't have to show it to anybody. Which, by the way, doesn't stop meeting leaders from inviting us all to "share" ("Hallelujah, brother! Today I did Circle Time with 8B and one of the students who's normally a pain really enjoyed it!")

At the last meeting we had, I told people I keep a reflective blog and they're welcome to go on-line and look any time they like. My diary I don't share with anyone. I more or less do what "reflective journals" do orally, as does every teacher I know. But now they want it in writing.

So here it is. I did try Circle Time with 8B. They had seemed to enjoy the previous one, which was done with the school nurse, so I decided to have a go at it myself. The theme was "self-esteem", which is this term's Pathways unit (Pathways being a fancy name for "homeroom")and I began by saying something nice about every student in the class.We passed around a "speaker's tool". After that, we had a ball that was thrown around and you had to say something nice about the person who threw it to you. I'd like to say it was a huge success, but while some of them did what they were asked, many couldn't think of anything (this was mostly the more peaceful students, who will write anything you want and do you fabulous posters, but are just too shy to speak up in class) and others simply didn't get the rules about one person speaking at a time and banishing from the Circle anyone who interrupted or put down anyone else. I finished up the period but told them that we wouldn't be doing it again until I was happy with them. Since then, they have asked me, "Can we do Circle Time?" and I've said, firmly.

I think I might try it again, for the last few minutes of a period when they've been good and see if it works better. Meanwhile, I know that at least one student was made happy by my compliments, because she positively beamed when I said how hard she worked and that she did terrific posters. That has to count for something.

And self-esteem is very important. This is not a school with kids who have everything in life. A lot of them have very low self-esteem, especially the worst-behanved, who feel they have something to prove. They need to understand that everyone does something well, even if it's just making other people happy, or being honest about having done the wrong thing. Hey, I discovered that one student, who was having a struggle in class, does tae kwondo! I made sure to let him know how impressed I was.

Circle Time #2 - perhaps even today? Or maybe next week...