KEEP, CELEBRATE OUR SPECIAL DAYS

Published in the NT Suns in June 2017. This is the unedited text.

 

WE MUST CELEBRATE OUR SPECIAL DAYS

School principals and staff members are increasingly confronted by the issue of recognising and celebrating special days on our Australian calendar. Christmas and New Year coincide with school holiday periods and do not impact during term times. Others, including Australia Day, Easter, Anzac Day, Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day take place during the school year. They are acknowledged in classroom programs and by schools.

Historically, there was no problem with celebrating these occasions. As a matter of course, classroom teachers covered them as days of significance. Australia Day, coming at the start of the school year, was a day recognising a period of changing direction in Australia’s history. Acknowledging and appreciating contemporary Australians and their contribution to society became part of the celebration. Easter cards, letters and cards for mothers and fathers and ANZAC commemorations were regarded as thanks and appreciation opportunities. Easter was about Jesus’ character of sacrifice and forgiveness. ANZAC recognition focussed on our defence force, their families and their selflessness in upholding peace and security. Mothers and Fathers days are timely reminders of the important part parents play in the upbringing of children.

In recent years, community resistance to celebrating these days has been rising to the surface. Some people see Australia Day as having negative connotations for Aboriginal Australians. Easter, in recognising our traditional religious base, could be embarrassing to migrants and others who have alternative belief systems. Others may use ANZAC Day as a chance to comment negatively on the roles played by governments in denying entry to some who would like to call Australia home. Finally, the celebration of mothers and fathers is seen by some as failing to recognise single parent families and families of same sex parents.

The character of Australia’s population has changed. We now have a truly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic population. The definition of ‘family’ is changing. Our evolving society has become more empathetic and aware of the role filled by Aboriginal Australians which was misunderstood for a long time.

While some modifications may be wise, there is no way our special days of celebration should be vacated. Abrogation would be very unfair on people and their need to rejoice as Australians in the country we call home.  Part of this is recognising values, beliefs and people who contribute as family and societal members, to the growth, progress and well being of our country. Broadening the scope of celebrated days to incorporate our diversity would be a wise option.

 

EDUCATION FUNDING SHOULD BE BALANCED

EDUCATION FUNDING SHOULD BE BALANCED

Over the years, “steady state” advancement and predictability have not been hallmarks of education. Nowhere is this better illustrated then in respect of providing physical facilities.

Prior to 2000, it was extremely difficult to obtain capital works money for major school improvements. Budgets were limited and competition for building programs quite fierce. Rejection and deferments of funding submissions were common and approvals rare. It was not unusual for a program costed at say $4 million, to be funded to a level of $2 or $3 million without the full amount being approved.

Applications for Minor New Works had no guarantee of being approved. Repairs and maintenance money carried qualifications and could not be used for everything that needed fixing. In total, the amount of money available for capital needs was strictly rationed.

This all changed when the Gillard Government introduced the ‘Building Educational Revolution’ to support and upgrade school infrastructure. From that point in time onward money has been poured at schools, but with the proviso that it be used for construction of physical facilities.

In the NT, Gonski funding came unattached to requirements that it be spent on classroom focussed programs. This allowed the NT Government to use the money for capital works. Henbury Avenue and Bellamack Special Schools were constructed using this money, while Acacia Hills (Alice Springs) was significantly upgraded.

Weekly reading of tender invitations in the ‘NT News’ confirms bountiful dollars still being found to support the extension of school infrastructure

Most recently, the Northern Territory Government has promised $300,000 to each Northern Territory school. However that money has to be used for physical upgrades and capital expansion.

There needs to be more to education expenditure then supporting the construction industry. While good physical facilities are necessary, so to are programs that best support students and staff in teaching learning situations.

It’s ironic to consider that schools have to constantly and minutely scrutinise internal budget management for the sake of teaching and learning. If the recent $300,000 per school allocation could be used to support these programs, that may have been a wise investment. It is the way in which students are educated now that will translate toward the future of our Northern Territory.

Educational expenditure needs to be balanced. Facilities are important, but teaching and learning programs are really what education is about.

REMEMBERING ANZAC IN OUR SCHOOLS

Published in NT Suns in April 2017

REMEMBERING ANZAC IN OUR SCHOOLS

Anzac Day remembrances taking place in our schools this week are particularly poignant. Many of our students have parents or relations serving in Australia’s Defence Forces. For them, Anzac Day is more than a recall of historical valour; it emphasises the fact that they and their loved ones are part of today’s defence cohort. Anzac Day is very much a reminder of their present situation.

Anzac Day remembrances are very close to the homes and hearts of these students. That is especially the case in Darwin and Palmerston. Our schools and communities have enrolled large cohorts of defence children. They are members of families who have to live their lives around the requirements of Australia’s defence leaders. Family rotations and parental assignments are part of their life.

Contemplating these issues can result in children feeling both unsettled and worried about the future. For defence families the issues of peace and conflict and the way they can impact on home life are very real.

Defence School Transition Aides (DSTA’s) have been appointed to schools with significant numbers of services children. They help both students and families settle into new schools. They also support those about to leave on family rotation. Rotations mean that children will sever friendships they have built during their time at the school. Included is help offered children who may have learning difficulties caused by leaving one educational jurisdiction and entering another. Tutorial support is available to these students and can be accessed with DSTA support. This extra help is available at no cost to parents. DSTA’s help defence families and students come to terms with these and other issues arising because of relocation.

Multiculturalism

The nature of our multicultural society needs to be interwoven sensitively into Anzac remembrances. There are formalities including flag raising, the Ode of Remembrance, the Last Post and Reveille that form part of school ceremonies. They add both dignity and solemnity to the occasion. Delivery of the Anzac Message could be hurtful if it had a ‘them’ and ‘us’ theme. The theme should be about a desire for the betterment of all people. There are no winners and losers in conflict situations, rather a loss for everyone.

Anzac Day remembers the valour of those who have given their all for others. If the remembrance can build oneness and unity, strengthening the resolve of our young people toward living good lives, it will have achieved its purpose.

MORE TO EDUCATION THAN YEAR 12

Column published in NT Suns in February 2017.

Education is for the whole of life and the foundational years of schooling are the most important. Year 12 is one year of and along the continuum of learning and development.

MORE TO EDUCATION THAN YEAR 12

Year 12 is often portrayed as the pinnacle year of education. Stories and conversations lay stress on the importance of this final year of secondary schooling. The years leading toward year 12 and those following, are often far less illuminated.

Year 12 is important as a year of study culmination. Stress is placed upon its importance to young people as they reach this crossroads in their education. Inability to earn a satisfying TER score is portrayed as a frightening concept.

Year 12 does not have to be a frightening year or threatening period. Neither should it be regarded as a stand alone year on the educational pathway.

Every year of school is important. Perhaps the most significant years are those from preschool through to year three. These early years are the foundation period during which key principles and precepts of basic learning take place. For schools focussing on holistic education, it is when principles of social, emotional and moral/spiritual development are added to a focus on academics. When undertaken in partnership with parents, this approach is one offering a stable base upon which character and educational development can take place.

Early childhood is sometimes discounted as not being all that important. This is entirely wrong, for the building blocks of education are set in place during these initial years of schooling.

Wise students are those who build upon previous learning year by year, gaining the most from school. This positive attitude will ensure that each educational challenge is met with fortitude, not worry or fear.

In the years leading to year 12, students have the opportunity to choose either academic or technical/vocational pathways. Appropriate choices will open up future options, academically or in trades occupations.

Year 12 is often portrayed as presenting new, possibly insurmountable challenges to students, but this only applies in cases where students have not made the best of their years leading to this point in time. While parents and teachers can help young people keep focussed, it is their inner motivation that counts. And those attitudes are born during initial schooling years

Our Territory needs young people who become future contributors to the economy. Whether or not we ever achieve statehood depends on our ability to consolidate the NT on a sound, sustainable economic footing. And that largely depends on today’s students.

AVOID TECHNOLOGY PITFALLS IN CLASSROOMS

AVOID TECHNOLOGY PITFALLS IN CLASSROOMS

Computers were introduced to school classrooms during the 1980’s. Initially, schools set up dedicated computer rooms and classes were rostored to have one or two periods each week. Students learnt about computers and how to develop documents for print-out.

Schools then moved to a number of units in each classroom and more time was devoted to student use of these tools. With the advent of iPads many schools encouraged each student to have their own personal device. In 2017, we would be hard pressed to find a school without computers or iPads. When electronic smart-boards and other supports are added, schools almost drown in technology.

The cost of purchasing and maintaining hardware has increased, becoming a major cost item for schools. As well, items purchased are often outmoded within months of being bought.

Additional costs are significant. Software is not cheap and neither are licences needed to authorise multiple users. When maintenance needs are added to purchase costs, schools are faced with significant and ongoing budget commitments.

There are classroom pitfalls that need to be avoided.

Students tend to digress from what they should be doing with computer and iPads, drifting from learning to entertainment sites. It is imperative that students sign agreements about use of search engines, with teachers monitoring that commitment. Engaging with inappropriate sites can lead to big problems.
Games sites need to reinforce and extend student learning and need to have an educational purpose. Entertainment programs without educational merit distract students and waste learning time.

*Children sometimes play with networks that have been set, causing programs to crash or corrupt.

Misuse of technology by students can lead to cyber bullying and other inappropriate online conduct. Cyber bullying has reached epidemic proportions.

Students working on topics can be lulled into thinking that googling the topic, then cutting, uploading and pasting segments from existing sources into the text they are developing is fine. It isn’t! It is important that students think about and own their work, in order to understand topics. There is a distinct danger they could become plagiarists, taking the ideas of others and using them without acknowledging their sources.

Spell-checking and grammatical correctness are automated tools in many software packages. It is entirely possible for students to create and edit text, without understanding what they have written.

Computers, iPads and other devices can help support learning. However, they should always be used with care by students, under teacher oversight.
There is every chance that gadgets can become relied on to the point of detracting from genuine student learning.

POLICY CHANGES SNEAK IN DURING HOLIDAYS

This column, my first for the Suns this year draws on our Northern Territory experience. But this happens everywhere.

POLICY CHANGES HAPPEN DURING HOLIDAYS

Schools are closed and teachers may be away during the Christmas holidays. However, policy decisions and priority setting does not stop during the festive season. When school leaders and teachers return for the new year, they are often introduced to new initiatives apparently developed during the holiday season.

That has again been the case during the past few weeks. Urban school staff begin the school year on Friday January 27. Their counterparts in rural and remote schools return to duty on Monday January 30. They will be greeted by new educational initiatives.

During the past few weeks, there has been a renewed focus on the importance of teaching Indigenous languages. There is a strong move in place to have traditional language study added to the school curriculum. Part of this is based on language being a support for cultural understanding. A parallel concern is that of Indigenous languages vanishing into history. The need for their preservation is one of the reasons driving this position.

Introduction to a language other than English (LOTE) is now an Australian Government priority for all preschools. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham is keen to have the program introduced as soon as possible. There is an anticipation that LOTE will also focus on older students. This initiative has been tagged as compulsory.

A third push is for the study of NT History to become obligatory in NT Schools. Former NT parliamentarian Matthew Bonson has urged that Territory history should be brought into focus in our classrooms (Sunday Territorian 26.12.16). Past administrator Ted Egan stated that it is ” … a big mistake that Territory and Australian history is given so little respect by not making it compulsory.” (Op cit)

Curriculum changes should never be based on ‘spur of the moment decisions’ about new priorities. The volume of teaching content confronting teachers and schools, demands that add ons are fitted in by dropping some previous programs. That should happen in order to make things fit and is also a matter of common sense.

Unfortunately, there is systemic reluctance about dropping curriculum content. Obligations on schools come with the expectation that staff and students will cope. It will be expected that extra content announced during this holiday period, will be managed within existing staff resources. Staff preparing for 2017 may feel the academic year ahead is a glass mountain they have to climb.

Holiday pronouncements about curriculum change should cease being a standard practice.

TEACHING CAN BE TOO CHALLENGING

Written for the Suns Newspaper column in  August 2016.  While this fits to the Northern Territory, the tenet of this column has wide applicability.

 

TEACHING CAN BE TOO CHALLENGING
Teacher turnover and short term teaching appointments are regularly raised as issues in the Northern Territory. Northern Territory education is seen as being far more fluid and mobile than elsewhere in Australia.

While dissatisfaction plays a part in teacher resignation everywhere, there are local factors that come into contention. Chief among these is the considerable number of teachers who have been recruited to the Northern Territory on short-term contracts. This was seen as necessary to fill vacancies in remote and “difficult the staff” schools.

Just a few years ago, advertisements placed in the newspapers invited teachers to come to the Northern Territory to “try the place out”. Generous relocation expenses were offered, with paid southern return guaranteed after a relatively short period of time. Such offers created the impression that teachers are doing our system a favour by being here. The idea that minimal teaching effort would be good enough, became an issue.

Fortunately, this recruitment methodology appears to have been curtailed. However, there is heavy reliance on interstate and overseas teachers taking up vacancies in “out of town” areas. Part of this has to do with the lack of remote area appeal for those who undertake teacher training at the Charles Darwin University. Many preservice teachers are mature age persons with family commitments precluding them from working outside urban areas. Others are distance education trainees, preparing to teach in their home states. Unless and until we are able to reach a point of training a higher percentage of Territory grown teachers, turnover will continue to be an issue.

Training opportunities for Indigenous teachers are provided through the Batchelor Institute attached to the CDU. There have been many initiatives over the years aimed at graduating fully qualified Indigenous teachers. However self-sufficiency in teaching terms is still a work in progress.

A factor contributing to short term teaching careers is that of disappointment with what graduation offers. Many graduates are put off by system priorities . The requirement that they teach in a way that is so focussed on formal testing and assessment outcomes is off-putting. Their wish to teach holistically, seems to be at odds with prescribed system realities. The need to spend significant amounts of time on matters ranging from discipline to paperwork accountability are also disincentives. Both graduate and experienced teachers become disenchanted. That can and does lead them to resignation and the seeking of alternative careers.

Knowing about short term teaching issues is one thing. Fixing them, is another.