SUNS 59 & 60 ‘VALUES EDUCATION’ and ‘SCHOOL ATMOSPHERE’
These columns were published in the Suns Newspapers in September 2014. Readers are welcome to quote from or refer to these columns. Acknowledgement of the ‘Suns’ as the newspaper in which they are published would be appreciated.
CRYING NEED FOR VALUES EDUCATION
When the Howard Government introduced the chaplaincy program a decade ago, it created a contentious initiative. A major concern is that of indoctrination. Members of school communities worry that chaplains may unduly influence children in a religious context. The program has recently received another funding stimulus from the Abbott Government.
For many NT primary schools the issue could be superfluous because religious instruction is part of the school program. Some primary schools have a short period of RI each week, others a three day program once a term. In these cases, clergy and laypeople work with children who belong to their particular faiths. Those not attending RI sessions, generally do busy or catch-up work under supervision. With the passing of years, more and more children are opting for the non-instructional use of that time. Is this time well spent or wasted?
While the present approach to RI may pass into history, the substitution of a chaplaincy program with its accompanying limitations is questionable. However the appointment of suitably qualified counsellors to engage with students around values, ethics and the building of character would meet a real need.
We live in times where confusion reigns, Young people have their senses assailed by propaganda coming at them from many different sources including social media. Students and classes need quiet times and the chance for meaningful exchange with counsellors who can help, when it comes to establishing priorities and revisiting values. The need for ethics awareness and the building of honesty as key characteristics is often overlooked. It is true to say that in these modern times, many young people are disquieted about unfolding events. Class, group and individual conversations with counsellors would go a long way toward overcoming their concerns.
The chaplaincy concept is an Australian Government initiative. Funding is available to schools applying to join the program. A prime aim of the program was to build a values culture within schools. At the same time, limitations imposed upon chaplains meant this became an impossible task and the program has largely floundered.
Maybe the Federal Minister for Education, could consider discontinuing the chaplaincy program. Training of counsellors to work with students in schools could instead be implemented. Qualified counsellors are scarce on the ground. To include ‘counsellors’ as a specialist category in teacher training or re-training programs would help meet this dire need.
Australian and Territory schools would greatly benefit from the appointment of counsellors as school staff members. This initiative has been talked about for many years, but never actioned. Northern Territory needs were canvassed with the Education Minister Sid Sterling when the Martin Labor Government was in office . An attempt to go some way toward counsellor provision was made, but the program quickly evaporated.
Our students, especially primary children, have a desperate need for counselling guidance. Without counsellors a support vacuum continues to exist within our schools. Many of our needy students are left to flounder.
SCHOOL ATMOSPHERE IS PRECIOUS BUT FRAGILE
Schools are perhaps the most scrutinised of all institutions. Teachers and staff are always under a magnifying glass held by parents, members of the community, employers, social welfare groups and government departments. Examination of schools and teachers by registration boards and performance management units is constant. Processes by which schools and staff administer education are being constantly updated and applied. Curriculum priorities are forever being altered. ‘Compliance’ and ‘accountability’ seem to be the most important key words within school action and teacher performance plans.
Government demands are poured upon educators. Expectations, many of them constantly changing, cascade upon schools like torrential rain. These pressures can become quite destabilising.
This is especially the case in situations where principals and leadership teams feel that everything demanded of schools by the system (and of the system in turn by Government), has to be instantly grasped and wedged into practice. Knee jerk reactions cause inner disquiet for staff who are often reluctant to change practices without justification, but are pressured to make and justify those changes anyway.
Before change is put into place, school staff, council and community members should have the chance to fully understand new policy and direction. ‘Making haste slowly’ is wise but difficult when government gives little time for response.
Constant change in educational direction does little to positively enhance the way those working within schools feel about what they are doing. Staff become ‘focussed by worry’. Is what they are doing, good enough? Teachers may maintain brave faces but beneath the surface suffer from self doubt. This in turn leads to discontent and unhappiness.
Positive Atmosphere A Must
It is essential that school principals and leadership teams offer reassurance and build confidence within their teaching and support staff groups. This does not mean lowering standards, but acknowledging and appreciating staff effort. Making that appreciation public can help through sharing the efforts of teachers with the wider community.
Well-being cannot be bought as a material resource. Neither can it be lassoed, harnessed or tied down. The ‘feel’ of a school is an intangible quality that generates from within. It is a product of the professional relationships developed by those within the organisation. School atmosphere, which grows from the tone and harmony within is precious. That feeling can also be lost if positive recognition and appreciation of staff is discounted or not considered important.
It is up to Principals and leadership teams to ensure that positive atmosphere, precious yet fragile, is built and maintained. It is easy to lose the feeling of positivism, so necessary if an organisation is to grow and thrive on the basis of its human spirit.
I recommend the wisdom of building spirit within our schools. It will add to feelings of staff satisfaction and well-being. Stability and happiness within school workplaces, embracing staff, students and community, will be the end result.