“SUNS” COLUMNS 39 and 40: CAR CHAOS and RELIEF TEACHERS

These columns were published in the Darwin/Palmerson/ Litchfield Suns in April 2014.

Readers are welcome to quote and use, but I would appreciate acknowledgement of the Suns Newspapers.

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CAR CHAOS AROUND SCHOOLS

A long term and ongoing problem is that of congestion created by parents dropping off and picking up students from their schools. Traffic issues impacting on many schools is almost chaotic.

This issue has been on the agenda of most schools for many years. It is like a festering sore! Further, it seems the problem will get worse before it gets better. While some schools have spent a great deal of money modifying and extending parking space, the situation is still confronting. Driving past any of our Darwin and Palmerston schools before and at the end of each school day, confirms this to be the case.

Why the problem

There are many factors contributing to the issue.

* The majority of our schools were built many years ago. Then, our city was significantly less populated than now. Growing numbers mean more people and more cars creating a congestion problem. Newer schools have been constructed with traffic and parking consideration in mind, but that is not the case for facilities build more than fifteen years ago – the majority of our schools.

* Some of our older schools have the ground space necessary to modify and extend traffic throughput and parking availably. Several have modified and upgraded vehicle access but at the cost of space loss for other activities.

* For many schools, traffic extensions are not possible because there is insufficient space for upgrades.

* Funds availability can be an issue. While drive-through and parking extensions for some schools have been funded by grants, that concession has not been universally available.

* Tied funds means issues around vehicle movement and congestion cannot be alleviated. The Building Education Revolution (BER) sunk many millions into Territory schools but with strict spending imprimaturs. This meant that identified school needs could not be funded if they were different to the project options offered by the Federal Government. Similiarly, funding for car management projects through NT Governments has been minimal.

* The apparent reluctance of City Councils or the Territory Government (depending on who is responsible for particular roads) to install traffic calming devices is an issue. One particular school with a chronic vehicle issue asked the City of Darwin Council to place speed humps on the road adjacent to its drop off and pick up zone. The request was declined because speed humps would slow the traffic!

* Most schools are not located on major arterial roads. However there is increasing use of these roads by traffic from expanding suburbs. Drivers ‘rat run’, taking short cuts to work on the lesser roads past schools. This adds to traffic volume in local areas.

Walking or cycling

It is often suggested to parents that their children should walk or cycle to and from school. That is fine for students living close to their schools. However, newer suburbs are located at increasing distances from schools. Schools are generally not built to keep pace with suburban development. Building programs lag behind residential and commercial construction.

Walking and cycling can be hazardous. Many footpaths are poorly maintained and children are likely to be confronted by barking dogs. Cars reversing from driveways can be an issue. Some parents have concerns about unaccompanied children because of road crossing hazards. They also worry about their children being confronted by strangers. In an age where we are constantly reminded of the need for personal care and security, many parents and caregivers believe driving children to school is the only sensible option.

It is behoven upon us all to be mindful of the need for care when driving within school precincts. That extends to both parents and children. To date there have been few accidents around school zones, but plenty of near misses. It is a miracle there have not been more serious mishaps. Extreme care and caution must prevail.
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RELIEF TEACHERS SUPPLY VITAL SCHOOL SERVICE

Relief teachers fill a vital role in our schools.Without their contribution schools would be stretched in providing teaching continuity for students in the case of teacher absence. Most absences which require class coverage are for sick leave. Sickness is generally brief, one or two days at the most but there can be longer periods of teacher illness.

Employing relief teachers may be necessary when teachers are on long service leave, jury duty, army reserve exercises, or urgent business leave. They may be on professional development courses, parental leave because of sick children or attention required by their own, generally elderly, parents. Children in care may become unwell, requiring the child care centre to contact their parent. asking that the child be taken home. Some teachers are also parents with parental responsibilities.

Short notice given

If they are going to be absent from work, teachers try to give as much notice as possible. However, there may be a need for them to take leave at short notice. With personal child care and other emergency situations, teachers have to walk out the door almost immediately, leaving their classes and school responsibilities to the care of others. Being able to engage the services of relief staff is paramount to smooth running and learning continuity for students.

Until a relief teacher can be booked, the school principal and leadership group step into the breach in order to ensure a lack of disruption. Other members of staff also contribute, foregoing release time, in order to assist.

Limitations

Organising relief teachers to cover classes and programs is not easy. Schools working off the general relief teacher list (names and preferences of relief staff known to the Education Department) can be frustrated. In countless instances, supply teachers contacted have moved, accepted short term contracts, taken work in other professions, are travelling, have already committed to schools ringing earlier and so on. One remarkable case involved contact with a teacher for work ‘tomorrow’. The teacher responded to the call from Trafalgar Square in London where they were holidaying.

Many relief teachers are available only for particular grades and subjects or only on certain days each week. The process of engaging temporary staff can be challenging. It is not unusual for thirty to forty phone calls to be made before schools successfully engage relief staff.

Supply and Demand

There are far more positions to be filled than relief teachers available to fill them. Generally it is a case of getting in early or missing out altogether. With sudden teacher illness there is a degree of pot luck about engaging relief staff. When staff are going to be away on professional development programs, relief staff are contacted well in advance of the absence, because many are booked up weeks ahead for work.

It can at times be absolutely impossible to obtain relief staff. In these cases classes may have to be split, with teachers from other classes taking extra students for a day or two. In order to avoid these splits, specialist teachers may have to leave their regular programs to help with class cover. Members of school leadership groups may need to put their regular duties on hold and step in to assist.

The reality

Teachers and school support staff members are at times criticised because of absence from work. However, they like the rest of us get sick and are parents with family and personal commitments. Absence is both necessary and unavoidable. The support offered by relief staff is necessary and invaluable. Relief teachers fill a vital role in our schools.

SNIPPETS FOR PRE-SERVICE TEACHERS … First entry

THOUGHTS FOR PRE-SERVICE TEACHERS

1.  Always make sure you write notes at the end of each day, that reflect on the things you have done well and on things you might do differently and better with or during your next lessons. It is important to make note of your successes as well as noting the things offering challenge. This ‘reflective journal ‘ is ever so important and can be easily overlooked. My suggestion would be that you write it with reference to your plans and notes used during the day, that you write conversationally and that you use it as a way of noting things you recall.

2.  Teachers are directors, the classroom a stage and students the actors in a play that is pointing them from today toward the present. Each scene offers them ongoing development and confidence building.

3.  If a preservice teacher, never feel undervalued. Know that older colleagues appreciate the qualities you bring to schools. Know you are regarded as staff members while in your practice schools.

4.  SEPARATION of work and home is something we need to consider. There is a time for work, a time for family and a time for recreation. Wo ought avoid polluting time with family by work overlays.

5. The role set of educators is like an ICEBERG. Observers are aware of the one tenth of our duties ‘above’ the water, but unaware of the nine tenths hidden from their immediate view.

6.  Educators are people whose teaching and leadership has a life lasting impact upon students. What we do should come from the heart. Educators make a powerful and hopefully positive impact on students.

7.  Setting SCHOOL PRIORITIES is important. Genuine education is about preparing children and students for the whole of life. This preparation is about far more than academics and test results alone.

8.  Train to be a teacher because you WANT TO be a teacher, not because you HAVE TO be a teacher. Entrance requirements for teacher training should be top of the pile not bottom of the barrel.

9.  Pre-service teachers should listen to and synthesise advice. They should read widely and shared with colleagues. But they should NEVER try and copy others. Each teacher is unique and individual.

10. When counselling, correcting or advising students, be EMPATHETIC. In your mind’s eye, put yourself into their place. Think how it would feel to be on the receiving end of what you are about to say.

11. When in classrooms as preservice teachers, SEEK FEEDBACK from mentors on things you are doing well and on what might be done differently and better. Take initiative and initiate these conversations.

12. With assignments and practice preparation, work steadily toward completion and readiness. USE TIME WISELY. Take breaks, relax your mind, then come back to tasks. RECORD work to do and list tasks done.

13. SOCRATIC DISCUSSION is a method of in conversation with students, where you and they engage in quality discourse. It is superior as a way of developing shared learning and empathetic understanding.

“Great tool to use when intending for the students to take ownership in the learning. Students really carry the load in making meaning, stating and defending ideas, and synthesizing learning. Even better, the students really enjoy the fact that there is not a single right answer, but they must state and defend their ideas. The fact that text is usually utilized in a seminar increases rigor because the students identify and expand upon key ideas, not simply record and regurgitate what the teacher believes to be important.”
By David Zilli

“Of course the teacher must be good at asking relevant questions with well focused objectives. He/She must be able to organize students response logically and probe students answers to make them more specific. Furthermore, if an answer or response is irrelevant the teacher response must be making the responder to think about his/her response. Last but not the least the logical sequence of From easier to difficult, from known to unknown and from concrete to abstract be followed.”
By Mohammad Faiq

14. Regardless of your position, SEEK FEEDBACK from a critical friend or colleague on thing you do well and elements of your performance needing attention and improvement. Be open to advice – it helps.

15. BRIEF DAILY SUMMARIES can be useful. Summary might include: *Activity/project; * How did I feel (+’s and -‘s); *What did I learn; * Implications for study/ work (tasks), people (relations) and self.

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SNIPPETS FOR PRINCIPALS AND TEACHERS … First Post

* SCHOOL PRINCIPALS fill a very special and unique position in student guidance-ship with their teachers and support staff. It is important they work with their teams to create a strong culture.
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* EDUCATION’S PRIME FOCUS HAS DISTORTED

Many years ago, the Northern Territory (Australia) became a self managing system. Our first Director of Education was a Dr Jim Eedle. Dr Eedle called all principals of the NT to a conference in Katherine, a large town 250 kilometres south of Darwin in March 1978. He told us that we should remember two things. 
1. Schools are for children.
2. Structure (administration and support services) should always serve this function. 
He warned that if structure grew to become too skyscraperish (too big for its boots) the system would defocus from its prime purpose and become mediocre. That has happened, in my opinion, not only here but with other Australian and overseas systems.
Dr Eedle was about holistic education. These days people ask “what is that”? How sad. How sad too, that many on schools treat those schools as trampolines – launching pads to greater glory.

* ADVICE I GAVE  TO TEACHERS

1. Be malleable and persuadable but true to standards and principles.
2. Debate issues, rather than focussing on personality.
3. Take care with email traffic – written words cannot be rescinded.
4. Take care with speech that its impact is issues focussed not scarifying of personality.
5. Practice empathy but don’t lavish sympathy.
6. Don’t invite others to impart ownership of their monkeys to you; rather, help them with advice about how they might solve their own problems.
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* RESPECT – SO EASILY LOST

Respect evaporates if ‘followers’ realise their leaders are sayers and not doers. It is not sufficient to talk the talk; walking the talk is important if leaders are to be taken as sincere and committed people.
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* It is so important as leaders and teachers to be SINCERE in all we do. Connections with students must be enhanced by underpinning empathy and genuine interest. HUMANITY must underscore our profession
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* SEPARATION of work and home is something we need to consider. There is a time for work, a time for family and a time for recreation. Wo ought avoid polluting time with family by work overlays.
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*Formal PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT is a system imperative, a requirement binding on Principals and teachers. I would cut this and reinstitute meaningful, trusting, professional and collegiate conversation.

It happened in the two systems in which I have worked, that once those to whom you reported would, if advice and guidance were needed, take one aside and talk with them quietly and encouragingly about things needing to be done differently and better. There was also appreciation for things being done well. Therefore ‘bouquets’ wirth ‘brickbats’ offered throufgh a ‘velvet glove’ approach. School leaders in turn applied this principle of approach with those responsible to them. That has all changed. Performance management panels are formal and regular, being more interrogative than conversational. Recipients are nervous and frightened of what is coming, rather than being confident, relaxed and contributive before and during the process. Trust needs to be built through such a process, rather than rank worry beforehand, aversion whilst it is happening and relief once it is over (until the next time.)
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* Principals and teachers alike should look for opportunities to genuinely thank those with whom they work, for things that are well done. We are often quick to criticise but slow to appreciate.
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* CURRICULUM DOCUMENTS both hard copy and online are voluminous and often written in an unclear, confusing manner. We need simply written and contextually relevant guidance materials.

The simpler, straightforward and more relevant the curriculum content, the better. I suspect in this world there are,within systems, tens of thousands of educators who spend their time developing curricular that are more and more complex. Their job will be never-ending and their output constantly changing. Their fear is they might have to back into classrooms and work in a primary, first hand context at the coal face.
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*Setting SCHOOL PRIORITIES is important. Genuine education is about preparing children and students for the whole of life. This preparation is about far more than academics and test results alone.

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It is one thing to PLAN action but another altogether to successfully conclude and evaluate those plans. We need to be COMPLETERS and FINISHERS of all tasks we undertake. This earns confidence.
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* We should always DO what we SAY we will do. Commitment as principals and teachers to teachers and students respectively, should always be met.
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* Government imposed SYSTEM TESTING is often about conferring bragging rights on governments. It is a case of ‘our students are better than yours’. Bragging rights should not be their prime purpose.

Testing regimes and their apparent importance to systems, discounts and devalues what should be true educational function. In reality it is systems behoven to governments which use data outcomes to brag about ‘their’ accomplishments – as if it were GOVERNMENTS making the difference. Testing regimes are really about “keeping up with the Jones’s”.
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* When counselling or advising staff or students, be EMPATHETIC. In your mind’s eye, put yourself into their place. Think how it would feel to be on the receiving end of what you are about to say.
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* Counselling and dealing with behavioural correction means a lot more to students if they know that parents know and care. During my years of school leadership I came to appreciate caring parents because it meant that both they and I were on the same side, keen to work on development of their child and student. I believe it to be distressing in cases where parents do not want to know about these things, or do not believe that correction is necessary.
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* After school hours meetings for the SAKE OF MEETINGS is anathema. Meetings should be brief rather than lengthy and follow a set agenda. They need to be satisfying, not staff wearying.

It is when meetings are held for the sake of meetings in order to ingrain a ‘meeting culture’ that problems arise. Meetings re necessary but need to follow set guidelines which avoid meetings by length and meetings which embed extraneous and irrelevant issues.
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* When talking to parents and members of community, be clear and straightforward. Don’t tarnish your conversation with jargon. Neither be disparaging or belittling by ‘talking down’ to them.
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*SOCRATIC DISCUSSION is a method of engaging principals, teachers and students in great discourse methodology. It is superior as a way of developing shared learning and empathetic understanding.

The Socratic method of discussion helps students think logically and in a problem solving way. It focuses on issues and messengers rather than messengers. It uplifts debate and
brings everyone into the conversational frame. If the discussion area is appropriately set, it ensures everyone is on the same level, with all participants able to see each other’s faces. There is no talking to the back of hears, rather the opportunity to engage in meaningful visual and eye contact.

“Great tool to use when intending for the students to take ownership in the learning. Students really carry the load in making meaning, stating and defending ideas, and synthesizing learning. Even better, the students really enjoy the fact that there is not a single right answer, but they must state and defend their ideas. The fact that text is usually utilized in a seminar increases rigor because the students identify and expand upon key ideas, not simply record and regurgitate what the teacher believes to be important.”
By David Zilli

“Of course the teacher must be good at asking relevant questions with well focused objectives. He/She must be able to organize students response logically and probe students answers to make them more specific. Furthermore, if an answer or response is irrelevant the teacher response must be making the responder to think about his/her response. Last but not the least the logical sequence of From easier to difficult, from known to unknown and from concrete to abstract be followed.”
By Mohammad Faiq
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* It is sad to me that many educators are UNHAPPY in the jobs they are doing. They are trapped in their profession. Too old to change jobs and too young to retire they are counting the days left.

In terms of these issues, it often seems that systems, regardless of location, are more than willing to pass the responsibility buck to schools and teachers. It also seems that those who are ‘home feee’ and excused of all responsibility for students are parents and primary caregivers. The fact that teachers are belted with brickbats and seldom appreciate with bouquets adds to the deep unhapppinmes and sense of frustration many feel. It is no wonder that stress manifests at alarming levels.

It seems to be the reality of the 21st century in the majority of countries around the world the focus is on compliance and accountability. Metaphorically, the student is like unto an object to be tested, measured, evaluated, monitored and analysed ‘ad nauseum’. Education should have soul.
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* Regardless of your position, SEEK FEEDBACK from a critical friend or colleague on thing you do well and elements of your performance needing attention and improvement. Be open to advice – it helps.

* BRIEF DAILY SUMMARIES can be useful. Summary might include: *Activity/project; * How did I feel (+’s and -‘s); *What did I learn; * Implications for study/ work (tasks), people (relations) and self.
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SNIPPETS ON SCHOOL PRINCIPALSHIP (1)

The following nineteen (19) points are ‘thoughts that assail’ when considering school principalship.
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1. A point to consider is the belief we have in our leadership roles. Off-putting is the fact that being instructional leaders is often set aside because of administrative demands emanating from above.

2. Consider ONLINE CONFERENCES and meetings via video link. I did and was delighted at being a keen contributor but a principal who was infrequently absent from his workplace. My job was my school.

3. RETIRED PRINCIPALS with lengthy school experience and system awareness should be encouraged to coach and mentor principal colleagues new to the profession. Linking one to one would facilitate sharing.

4. Principals are the ‘meat in the sandwich’. They have to meld system requirements (based on government commands) with community, parent, staff and student expectations. Negotiating skill is essential.

5. The role set of educators is like an ICEBERG. Observers are aware of the one tenth of our duties ‘above’ the water, but unaware of the nine tenths hidden from their immediate view.

6. Educators are people whose teaching and leadership has a life lasting impact upon students. What we do should come from the heart. Educators make a powerful and hopefully positive impact on students.

I was a regular in classrooms and programmed teaching until the last three years of my principalship years. It them became more incidental but was maintained. Principals need to know their students and the best way to achieve that is by teaching them. I most certainly read all reports to parents written by teachers and wrote my own comments to the child on each report. As a principal I found children valued knowing I valued them. Part of this was possible because I engaged my leadership group fulsomely in the business of school operations. Sharing in this way enabled me to share time with children.

7. Principals and teachers alike should look for opportunities to genuinely thank those with whom they work, for things that are well done. We are often quick to criticise but slow to appreciate.

8. CURRICULUM DOCUMENTS both hard copy and online are voluminous and often written in an unclear, confusing manner. We need simply written and contextually relevant guidance materials.

9. Setting SCHOOL PRIORITIES is important. Genuine education is about preparing children and students for the whole of life. This preparation is about far more than academics and test results alone.

10. So often it seems, systems wedge this ambition by driving into schools priorities that satisfy bureaucracy but disengage school and staff from this aim. Circumvention and continued focus on what the school and its community values, becomes an art.

11. It is one thing to PLAN action but another altogether to successfully conclude and evaluate those plans. We need to be COMPLETERS and FINISHERS of all tasks we undertake. This earns confidence.

12. We should always DO what we SAY we will do. Commitment as principals and teachers to teachers and students respectively, should always be met.

13. Government imposed SYSTEM TESTING is often about conferring bragging rights on governments. It is a case of ‘our students are better than yours’. Bragging rights should not be their prime purpose.

14. When counselling or advising staff or students, be EMPATHETIC. In your mind’s eye, put yourself into their place. Think how it would feel to be on the receiving end of what you are about to say.

Counselling and dealing with behavioural correction means a lot more to students if they know that parents know and care. During my years of school leadership I came to appreciate caring parents because it meant that both they and I were on the same side, keen to work on development of their child and student. I believe it to be distressing in cases where parents do not want to know about these things, or do not believe that correction is necessary.

15. After school hours meetings for the SAKE OF MEETINGS is anathema. Meetings should be brief rather than lengthy and follow a set agenda. They need to be satisfying, not staff wearying.

16. It is when meetings are held for the sake of meetings in order to ingrain a ‘meeting culture’ that problems arise. Meetings re necessary but need to follow set guidelines which avoid meetings by length and meetings which embed extraneous and irrelevant issues.

17. When talking to parents and members of community, be clear and straightforward. Don’t tarnish your conversation with jargon. Neither be disparaging or belittling by ‘talking down’ to them.

18. SOCRATIC DISCUSSION is a method of engaging principals, teachers and students in great discourse methodology. It is superior as a way of developing shared learning and empathetic understanding.

The Socratic method of discussion helps students think logically and in a problem solving way. It focuses on issues and messengers rather than messengers. It uplifts debate and brings everyone into the conversational frame. If the discussion area is appropriately set, it ensures everyone is on the same level, with all participants able to see each other’s faces. There is no talking to the back of hears, rather the opportunity to engage in meaningful visual and eye contact.

“Great tool to use when intending for the students to take ownership in the learning. Students really carry the load in making meaning, stating and defending ideas, and synthesizing learning. Even better, the students really enjoy the fact that there is not a single right answer, but they must state and defend their ideas. The fact that text is usually utilized in a seminar increases rigor because the students identify and expand upon key ideas, not simply record and regurgitate what the teacher believes to be important.”
By David Zilli

“Of course the teacher must be good at asking relevant questions with well focused objectives. He/She must be able to organize students response logically and probe students answers to make them more specific. Furthermore, if an answer or response is irrelevant the teacher response must be making the responder to think about his/her response. Last but not the least the logical sequence of From easier to difficult, from known to unknown and from concrete to abstract be followed.”
By Mohammad Faiq

19. It is sad that many Principals are UNHAPPY in the jobs they are doing. They are trapped in their profession. Too old to change jobs and too young to retire they are counting the days left.

IS A SCHOOL A SCHOOL OR A CRECHE

Teachers, particularly Primary School teachers often wonder whether schools are schools. It seems that many including parents, politicians and the community at large think of them as creches. According to the Macquarie Dictionary a school is a place where instruction is given for children. A creche is a nursery where children are cared for while their parents work. It seems to many educators that parents and primary caregivers are muddled between the two.

I am not blaming parents for the social malaise of the early 21st century. Talking about parents, schools and children Jeff Wells (Weekend Australian 20-21 April 1991) wrote it is a sign of the economic times that many families have to offer their children to be brought up by institutions alternate the nuclear family because of economic imperatives.

Changes in Educational Perception and School Definition

During the past fifteen to twenty years, for instance, teachers and office staff have become increasingly the minders for sick children, They are sent to school when unwell because parents cannot afford the time off work to care for them. The phenomena of unwell children spending their days in school medical rooms is exacerbated by industrial relations laws that either don’t recognise or are unkind to the needs of parents. This is still the case, notwithstanding the changes to legislation that has lead to some apparent enlightenment and added employee entitlement under the Fair Work Act.This puts school staff into a position of being minders, with school too often like unto health centres.

Front and centre to this are children who will endure as much as they can when sent to school ill, because they fear consequences if parents are contacted by the school about their unwellness. Over my years as a school principal, I became all too aware of this phenomena.

It is during the past twenty odd years that vacation school care, outside school hours care (before and after school) homework centres, school extracurricular programs for sport and so on, have sprung up. I have the greatest respect for the support these programs offer, but make the point that their necessity has been occasioned by parents who are increasingly obligated to work and occupational commitment. The modern world and economic necessity have prioritised their time, largely taking family destiny out of their parental hands.

Expecations coming down from On High

Added to this role expansion (some would say distortion) are in-school imperatives increasingly driven by Australian Government compliance requirement setting detailed agendas which put a real squash on school, learning and teaching time. principals and teachers in schools are feeling the squeeze like never before. Be it wise or not, school based educators appear to be increasingly supplicant to these demands; rarely if ever is debate about the wisdom or otherwise of imposed agendas initiated at school or system level. Schools and staff are expected to ‘stretch’ and cover curricular demands.

I recall Jim Spinks, a prominent Tasmanian school Principal and ‘practical academic’ advising that if things are added onto the school curriculum, items have to be dropped off in order to enable sensible accommodation. This exhortation is rarely followed meaning that schools and staff members become overwhelmed by requirements.

Metaphorically, schools are like sponges, given more and more to soak up: The capacity to endlessly absorb responsibility is reaching toward a perilous end-point. Confirming this is both anecdotal and empirical evidence attesting to teachers leaving the profession in increasing numbers. There is only so much a body can take and there is a huge lack of appreciation offered schools and staff members.

Aspiration and Actuality

Caring educators believing in and practising quality education always aim to meet the needs of learners. However there is an onus on society, its governments and its institutions to make sure schools and educators are affirmatively recognised and appreciated. Meeting the needs of children and students will be more likely to happen if education’s key servants – teachers and support staff – are given support, credit and recognition deserved for they role they play in educational and developmental partnerships.
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Note: Published in original form in ‘NT News’ in 1993 and undated in 2013.

VIGNETTES TO GUIDE TEACHERS IN CLASSROOM AWARENESS: SERIES ONE

VIGNETTES SERIES 1

The following five vignettes are short descriptions of attributes and ‘awareness factors’ that can help teachers in setting classroom scenes
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VIGNETTE ONE : IMAGINATION

Imagination – teaching and the ‘inner eye’. Appealing to children’s imagination and having students walk round inside their heads.

Imagination can be a powerful tool. Having children simulate situations through appeal to their imagination can be a very powerful supportive learning aid. Having children put themselves in the pace of literary characters, into a historical situation, using the ‘mind’s eye’ to imagine life in another country, simulating situations regarding applied maths … the list goes on.

Imagination can run riot in terms of the richness of variables and probabilities that light up the minds of children. Keeping students focussed is the role that belongs to the teacher. It is a quality that adds to the vibrancy and ‘life’ in lesson situations if allowed the opportunity for development and use.

With oral texts, shared reading can be enhanced if students are asked to use their imagination for the sake of predicting, considering consequences, analysing characters in readings and so on. This can extend to include drama and the acting out of scenarios. It also has credence in more academic contexts, including Science and Maths if students are ‘invited into’ domains bringing imagination to the classroom. This is situational learning where students are given questions based on real life scenarios. Maths, Science, Literacy and SOCE all lend themselves to scenario learning.

Scenario learning is also stimulation for teachers because it encourages them to use their imagination in order to set the learning scenes.

The imagination of children can be quite boundless. However with the use of electronic gadgetry and games I fear that imagination has become somewhat less and possibly unduly influenced by this gadgetry. The gadgets can stand in the place of children determining outcomes and play by setting the agenda to which day (children) simply react.

I used to say to children at all age and grade levels, that we have three eyes ; the left, eye, the right eye, and the mind’s eye. That eye is the imaginative eye and it sits in our brain behind our forehead. It can ‘see’ in the same way as our physical eyes by taking us to places in our heads.

Imagination can be a powerful tool facilitating teaching and learning opportunities in classrooms. It can enhance teaching and learning contexts and also build memories of the created events and scenarios.
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VIGNETTE TWO : COMPUTER ENCOURAGES TEACHER SEDENTARINESS

Teacher needs in terms of planning, preparation, recording and data inputting, along with other benefits have come a long way since pen and paper, then later typewriters were the only available recording tools. Without doubt, computer and iPad options have been enhancing for teachers in terms of these functions.

With the emphasis these days focussed as it is on data and recording, there is a tendency for teachers to become desk-bound and screen-focussed, inserting data and results onto their electronic records. That is fine, but we ought not forget the importance of moving around the classroom engaging with students. That personal contact is important and can easily become lost because of screen fixation.

Anoppther ‘beware point’ is to watch that children are not engaged in activities that offer ‘filler’ time for teachers for data and recording purposes. Silent reading is an example. There needs to be a focus about sustained silent reading (SSR), an activities outcome. It ought not be a period of time that is provided simply to facilitate administration.

Be conscious of the need to move around the classroom between, among and engaging with students. Children value contact and appreciate teachers who take interest in them individually as well as class collectively.
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VIGNETTE THREE : MAPPING MOVEMENT

‘Location location’ by teachers in classrooms is important. It is important that teachers are ‘boundary riders’, regularly visiting around their classrooms, talking to all children, being aware of how groups are working and keeping up-to-date with classroom happenings. This cannot happen unless they are migratory. Classrooms, metaphorically, might be considered as the estate for which teachers are responsible. The most significant elements of that landscape are students.

When at Leanyer and observing practice teachers, I would take a photo of the classroom, with desks and chairs in their normal places. Part of my appreciation of teachers undertaking preservice was to map their movement around the classroom. Not for every lesson but periodically. Over a twenty minute period, on the blank ‘classroom map’, I would trace their movement patters with a pen or biro. The completed map was part of the feedback given to them. It showed quite graphically their tracking patterns, creating awareness of parts of the room and students upon whom they concentrated. If the aim is to be uniform in terms of movement and engagement, it offered a ‘visual’ on adjustments that might be necessary in order to fully cover all students.

It is easy to over-focus on some students and overlook others. This process offered a tool enabling teachers to consider any necessary changes they might make.

If interested, you might ask mentor teachers to carry out a similar exercise . You could possibly (with the okay) take a picture of the empty room, and print, possibly to A4 size and ask your mentor to track you in a ‘time and distance manner.

After a while, you will become ‘subconsciously aware’ of your movement habits within the classroom. This will automatically trigger adjustments you may need to make.
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VIGNETTE FOUR : TRANSIENT STUDENTS

There is a very high rate of student transience in the Northern Territory. This happens on two fronts.

* Movement of children between territory schools. This is particularly the case and remote areas with families moving to accord with ceremonial cycles and other obligations.
* Transfers of students with their families from interstate to territory and back a game after fixed periods. This applies to the many families in our Defence Forces and also to those who come on contracts for 12 months or two years.

It is important to understand this phenomena, because throughput of students within classes can lead to disconnections between students and also between students and teacher. It can be discouraging to build a rapport with students, then to discover they move on, often without notice. New enrolments come in their place and the enrolment- departure syndrome can continue.

It is important to not become downhearted or discouraged at the discovery of changes resulting from transience. Life goes on and we have to remain buoyed and optimistic for the other students in the class.

Transience is an issue that confronts some schools more than others but it impacts everywhere. The teacher – pupil relationship is best helped in these situations by acceptance of departure as being a fact of life, then moving on with the class and newly enrolled students to new learning.

A corollary for teachers on practice, to leave at the end of the practicum with happy memories, not tinged b y sadness the period has come to an end. In life we all move on (often). It is the way things happen.
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VIGNETTE FIVE : ‘CONVERSATIONAL’ VOICE

The way in which teachers talk with children is an important consideration. Talking ‘with’ children rather than talking ‘at’ them is ever so important. It helps students understand you as being ‘one with them’, not someone over and above them. It is easy to talk down to children and when that happens the respect they hold for you becomes somewhat dampened.

Tone of voice needs to confirm teachers and being conversational. I often think of teachers who in staff rooms and talking to peers are conversational, speaking on the same level as their peers. When those same teachers go to their classes, their voice takes on a ‘tone of command’ that can become almost perpetual. In metaphoric terms, their voice, which has been ‘quiet and car like on a smooth bitumen road’ takes on the grind of a4WD engaged to travel over difficult terrain. That grinding, shrill, load, commanding voice is not something I would recommend as being of help to teachers wanting to engage with children.

Voice can embrace children; it can also be off-putting, distancing you from them and making the student group difficult to reach.

The teacher’s voice is her or his most powerful tool. Use it carefully.

“SUNS” COLUMNS 37 and 38 ON CURRICULUM AND TESTING

These columns were published in the Darwin/Palmerson/ Litchfield Suns in April 2014.

Readers are welcome to quote and use, but I would appreciate acknowledgement of the Suns Newspapers.

POSITIONING STATEMENT

I contend it to be wrong for Australian students to be compared with their Singaporean counterparts and with students from other overseas countries. Such comparisons generally diminish Australian students and system priorities.

In Australian context, the fact that Northern Territory students do not stack up favourably against their interstate peers is wrong. For reasons discussed it shouldn’t happen.

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COMPARISONS ARE UNFORTUNATE

Comparing the academic results of Australian students with their overseas counterparts is both unfortunate and unfair. Similarly, comparisons of students within Australia overlooks the social and geographic circumstances impacting on those in our schools. ‘Comparing’ as it is done should only happen if there are careful explanations which show the similarities and differences between countries and students within the testing fields.

Overseas comparison

We frequently read of the way Australian students at primary and secondary level compare with their overseas counterparts. Rarely is that comparison favourable. It usually points to perceived weaknesses and shortfalls in our education programs. A recent story on the front page of ‘The Australian’ (April 1 2014) serves as an example. “Singaporean kids streets ahead on maths” continues the trend of comparing Australian education critically and negatively with overseas educational systems.

Singapore is a small, insular country providing an intense educational program for Singaporeans. Its prime focus is on key subject areas. Students in Singapore and many Asian countries appear lock-stepped into an educational paradigm that allows for little diversion into social and recreational pursuits. It is a case of study, study and study. We also have a values set that upholds the notion of holistic education with a broader curriculum approach. That was confirmed in the Melbourne Declaration signed by Federal, State and Territory Education Ministers and CEO’s in 2008.

Australia is a country offering education to a large number of students, increasingly drawn from a plethora of language, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Many of our immigrants have had little opportunity for deep schooling in the past. We are also a rich mix of urban, provincial, town, rural and remote people, whose social and economic circumstances influence students’ backgrounds.

Nationalisation

Many overseas countries, possibly the majority, have embedded national educational systems. During a visit to Malaysia many years ago, I was told that students in the nine Malaysian States immerse in a standard national curriculum. Further, each subject was taught in all Malaysian classrooms at the same time each day. Curriculum was prescriptive, book centric and rote focussed. Some reports suggest there is now more focus on interpretive and applied learning, but I suspect this is within narrow confines.

National education systems are understandable. Most overseas countries are much smaller and more contained than Australia. The vastness of this country and its developmental evolution, lent to the establishment of state programs rather than an Australian system. It also meant that as we grew nationally, with communication and transport options lessening the tyranny of distance the breaking down of State and Territory boundaries became feasible. However when it comes to nationalising our educational system, Australia is a long way behind many other countries.

Strengths

Rather than decrying Australian Education and accepting the lambasting often handed to educators and students, we need to reflect on some of the positives growing from our approach. Within States and Territories, public and private schools, the following qualities shine through.

* We are open to new ideas and enhanced approaches.
* We strive to offer equal educational opportunity to all students. We recognise and endeavour to accommodate student diversity, isolation, and background.
* Our schools and staff are overwhelmingly sincere and deeply committed to educational challenges.
* We offer in-depth support to those with learning difficulties and special needs.
* There is awareness and focus on the need to consider social, emotional and moral/spiritual development of students.
* We offer distance education (open learning, School of the Air) that is second to none.
* Education is offered to ALL students. No-one is excluded.

These and many other strengths of Australian Education stand out. Statistics and test results aside and taking account of educational complexities we in Australia are there with the best.
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MORE TO SCHOOL THAN NAPLAN

Along with the rest of Australia, Northern Territory students in years three, five, seven and nine will shortly be sitting the annual National Testing Program in Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests for 2014. Tests are conducted for all students in all Australian Schools on the same days in May each year. The first three days are devoted to test administration, the fourth to ‘catch up’ for students missing on any of these days.

For the Territory NAPLAN week is always week five of term two. The tests this year will be held from 13 to 15 May with the catch-up day on Friday 16 May.

Territory situation

The Northern Territory is in rather a unique place when it comes to NAPLAN. For the purpose of comparison, we are not deemed to have students in “cities” sitting the tests. Darwin, Palmerston and Alice Springs are regarded as being “provincial”. All other Territory students are located in remote or very remote areas.

Thirty-two percent of Northern Territory students are indigenous. A significant percentage otherwise come from overseas backgrounds. Many are quite recent arrivals, people from all parts of the world and often from educationally starved environments. The tests in literacy and numeracy ask many of these students to respond to concepts and understandings unfamiliar to them in terms of culture and background.

Attendance impacts outcomes

The testing program is based on a presumption that all children attend school regularly. For many of our Territory students attendance is sporadic. Efforts are now being made to overcome truancy, particularly in remote schools. There is a belief that attendance is reasonably “regular” if children attend three days out of every five. This means many students sitting for NAPLAN tests do so on the basis of having missed up to 40% of schooling opportunities – hardly a basis for establishing a background of ‘complete’ learning!

Absence from school is not confined to remote area students. The nature of our Territory community means that many children in urban schools miss considerable amounts of time because of family holidays, particularly to overseas destinations. Many families take advantage of airfare and accomodation discounts not available during school holiday periods. This means children miss a significant amount of schooling.

Tardiness and lateness to school also impacts on learning. A student who is 15 minutes late to school each day misses nine and a half school days each year. Missed days and lateness diminish learning opportunities and impact on test results. These factors all contribute to Territory outcomes which generally show us in many areas as being below or substantially below Australian averages.

Considerations

It would be wrong to discount Territory Education on the basis of NAPLAN alone. There is much, much more to educational development than occasional test results.
NAPLAN testing raises the following matters for consideration
* Many students stress out when confronted with testing regimes.
* Those sitting tests may fail to see the logic for testing, especially as lead up weeks are often so focussed on preparation that many other things are set aside. Preparation focussing on narrow fields of ‘testing readiness’ is repetitious and monotonous.
* Students who are unwell on testing days will do less well than expected.
* There can be upsets within their lives that detract from student effort.
* An added pressure is that of students feeling that if they don’t do well, this will reflect on their schools, teachers and families.

National assessment and testing is a compulsory element of all State and Territory systems. However, this regime is by no means the ‘be all and end all’ of education. Happy, accomplishing students and successful schools are about far more than NAPLAN testing.

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