NT EDUCATION MUST NOT BE SEGMENTED

This piece was published in the ‘NT Sun’ on June 12 2018

NT EDUCATION MUST NOT BE SEGMENTED

Michael Gunner’s thoughts about Indigenous Education that could be included in a treaty worry me greatly. If a treaty were to eventuate, the Chief Minister suggests that schools in indigenous communities could be given the right to run themselves. “The Government (would provide) money for education and the community (would take) responsibility for how it is delivered locally. Locals could take control of the curriculum … control of children attending school, teachers employed and seeing even more locals becoming teachers.” (Gunner will sign treaty, Sunday Territorian, 3.6.2018) In her story, Judith Aisthorpe reported that several people in high places thought this to be a great idea.

To declare all remote area schools as ‘independent’ and being able to set their own curriculum priorities would be a step backward, not forward. If still working as an educator in remote areas, schools set up under such loose guidelines would be places where I would not want to work.

Some years ago, a Territory politican who represented remote communities, offered a counterpoint. He said that in a mainstream Australian society, English Literacy and Mathematical understanding were key skills. They were necessary for transactional purposes. They were also skills all Australians needed for communication and survival.

Mr Gunner’s suggestions run counter to advice given to me by Aboriginal people in communities where we worked. They wanted ‘proper’ education. A prominent Indigenous Leader at Angurugu in the early 1980’s put it this way. “We want our children to be educated in the same way as children in towns and cities.” That was the brief with which we were charged. There is a place for bilingualism and for education to be culturally relevant. But to deny the need for competence in literacy and numeracy would be totally wrong.

This can only happen if a curriculum emphasising key academic skills is supported by qualified teachers. It is absolutely essential that families play their part by ensuring regular school attendance.

One of the downsides for Indigenous Education (and indeed for education as a whole) is that it has become politically cluttered. Those with and those without qualification feel it necessary to add their opinion to educational debate. People working in schools are busy reacting to what comes down as directives from on high. They have little opportunity to contribute meaningfully to sharing the realities of schools and programs. To uncouple education from an approved Australian curriculum supported by qualified teachers would further weaken remote area education which is already challenged.

STRESS NEEDS TO BE MANAGED

This was published in the ‘NT Sun’ on 30 January 2018.

 

 

STRESS NEEDS TO BE MANAGED

Teaching is a very stressful job. A great deal of that is due to the increasing demands placed on schools and teachers.

Whenever issues of community concern are raised, schools and staff are expected to be fixers. The most recent example of this is the expectation that schools will take the issue of cyberbullying on board and immediately fix the problem.

This will add to a requirement that on the first day of every semester, principals have to inservice all staff on the subject of any inappropriate conduct they might see happening to any child they teach. All staff and those connected with schools have to sign a disclaimer that they have been inserviced and understand their responsibilities to report any and all concerns about student well-being.

These requirements add to educational expectations held for schools and teachers. Curriculum requirements are being constantly broadened and deepened. Content is regularly tweaked and modified to include changes and this also comes with the need for school staff inservice. Professional development is occupying more and more time for teachers either before or after teaching time. Periods of weekend and holiday time are increasingly taken up by compulsory professional development requirements.

A drive past most schools early on most mornings, after hours, during weekends and at holiday times confirms that many teachers and support staff seem to spend almost more time at work than at home. This may be necessary in order for staff to meet obligations, but it distorts life and work balance.

There have been significant educational developments in the Territory since self government in 1978. While some changes have been excellent, others have been insufficiently considered. One of the major and ongoing issues has been an exponential increase in workload levels for school leaders, teachers and support staff.

This overload is due to the fact that advice offered during the 1980’s was ignored. We were told by an experienced educator, Jim Spinks, that our system and schools were in danger of being overwhelmed if we simply added things into curriculum requirements and dumped on teachers. Spinks said that order to achieve educational balance, we also needed to drop some requirements off school agendas.

The school year should be one where balance is considered. If not, teacher stress and lack of wellbeing will continue to be major issues.

 

EDUCATIONAL DISAFFECTION A REAL ISSUE

 

Published in NT Suns on October 17 2017

 

EDUCATIONAL DISAFFECTION A REAL ISSUE

Rather than being straightforward, education these days has become a kaleidoscope of confusion. Many graduate teachers are quickly disappointed by the realities of a teaching profession that fails to meet their preconceptions.

Rather than finding that teaching is about “teaching”, they discover there is a huge emphasis placed on testing, measurement, assessment and evaluation, often of areas outside their teaching fields. It seems the children are forever being monitored and confronted by batteries of tests.

It quickly becomes obvious to teachers that education is being driven by data. Teaching and teaching methods are dictated by data requirements.

Academic competence is important. However holistic education (the social, emotional and moral/spiritual elements) seem to be given scant attention. Graduate teachers have a strong desire to work as developers of children. Many are quickly disillusioned because education seems to be about a fairly narrow band of academic outcomes.

For many graduate teachers, the gloss of teaching soon wears off. They find themselves unable to cope with the ‘teaching for test’ dimension that now underpins education. The brief years they spend in classrooms are disillusioning. In turn, they may share their perceptions of the teaching profession with others, negatively influencing their thoughts and opinions.

The discounting of their observations is a hard reality for classroom practitioners to accept. Unless verified by formal testing, teacher evaluations are considered to be be invalid.

Preoccupation with the formalities testing and examination are not always priorities generated by schools. Rather, requirements are set by departmental administrators and schools have to comply. In turn, these priorities are not necessarily what administrators want, but are a compulsory response to the demands of politicans.

Sadly, Australian education is deeply rooted in the art of comparing results at primary, secondary and tertiary level with those achieved by students in overseas systems. Often those students are from countries totally unlike Australia, but that is not taken into account. The fact that educational objectives are dictated by comparison to overseas systems is an undoing of Australian education.

Education should be about the needs of children and not influenced by the desire of political leaders and top educationists to brag about how good Australia education is, compared to other systems. Many graduate teachers find themselves caught up as players in this approach, quickly wise up, and quit the profession. Our students are the losers and perceptions of education are sadly discoloured.

This column was published in the ‘NT Suns’ on October 3 2017

 

REPORTING TIMES ARE IMPORTANT MILESTONES

Reporting on student progress is a top priority. It has been traditional for schools to offer parents written reports at the end of each semester, in June and December. Most schools report orally through parent teacher interviews toward the end of terms one and three.

Change over time

In the 1970’s and into the early 80’s, reports for primary school children were standardised and handwritten. They were issued twice each year. Parent teacher interviews either did not form part of the reporting process or were in their infancy.

Since those beginnings, changes have been adopted as schools endeavoured to recognise and report to parents on current educational curriculum and reporting methods. Schools have developed their own reporting documentation, but are required to report on key areas determined by the department.

Handwritten reports are a thing of the past, computer generated reports the ‘in thing’. Preparing the twice yearly reports for printing and distribution should be easy. However, technical glitches that invariably occur can make the exercise quite nightmarish. One of the most common template glitches is that data, once entered, cannot be edited or changed. High levels of concentration are necessary and document preparation is often a fatiguing process.

Reporting priorities

A very high priority is placed on reporting by the Education Department. Reports issued at the end of each semester take many weeks to prepare and finalise. The process is very time consuming.

The reporting focus is on academic outcomes, with achievement being the main area targeted. They are often wordy, but according to many parents lacking in substance. Reports are often criticised for use of jargon and ‘eduspeak’ which make it hard for parents to interpret what is being said.
The inclusion of comments relating to student effort, attitude, conduct and character development is held to be less important than once was the case. That is unfortunate because there is much more to the development of young people than academics.

Accountability

Students need to be held accountable for their attitude and effort toward schooling. Progress and development is personal, with reports showing just how much students are doing toward their personal self development and progress.

The most effective reporting is that which focusses on conversation and understanding between students, parents and staff. Nothing is better than a partnership where responsibilities are shared, appreciation exists and positive outcomes are enjoyed. Ideally, reporting should be about celebrating student progress and achievement.

School Based Policing Needs a Revamp

 

 

 

An edited version of this comment was published in the ‘NT Suns’ on 26 September 2017.

SCHOOL BASED POLICE PROGRAM NEEDS REVAMP

The reduction and diminishment of the once strong School Based Constables (SBC) program available to NT schools is regrettable. A strong element of support was offered to urban and some rural schools over the years through this program. Attached to high schools, each School Based Constable (SBC) had a number of feeder primary schools he or she attended. Constables would visit their schools to conduct Drug and Alcohol Education (DARE) classes with children. They extended their role to include stranger danger awareness and issues such as bullying. Children used to appreciate ‘their’ constable in a way that helped them build positive feelings toward police. In turn, constables learned a lot about community matters of which they needed to be aware. Many potential problems were nipped in the bud because of advanced awareness.

Sadly and with the passing of time, this program has been redefined and significantly dismantled. School Based Police these days are known as Community and Youth Engagement Officers (CYEOS). They are no longer based in schools but visit (a lot less frequently than in the past) from suburban and town police stations. DARE programs have lapsed, along with the contribution SBC’s made to the sharing of children’s learning and the development of their attitudes.

The ‘personality’ of this program, was such that while adults may have had adverse attitudes about police, their children were developing positive attitudes about the force.

The ‘community’ aspect of their revamped role, involves CYEOS in work that has to do with the safety and security of homes. This aims at crime reduction and dealing with issues confronting householders. While necessary, these activities stretch the officers and have meant less time being available for activities in schools.

A point of alarm is that the training of police to fill this particular role has been largely discontinued. It may not be long before the program, one of Territory significance and copied by state and overseas jurisdictions, will be extinct.

A police sponsored program, the Blue Light Disco, has been reduced in urban areas. The program was also been rationalised for schools within our remote communities. The emphasis on Blue Light Discos is a sad loss.
Not only has this program filled an important place in the lives of young people but in social and recreational terms, has given them an enjoyable, supervised outing. I believe in recent times there has been a rescheduling of some Blue Light discos.

The reinstatement of School Based Policing as it was previously organised would be a step in the right direction.

SCHOOL STAFFING A 40 YEAR OLD YO-YO

 

Edited version published in the NT Suns on September 5 2017

 

SCHOOL STAFFING A 40 YEAR OLD YO-YO

It’s on again! For the past 40 plus years, the issue of class sizes has occupied the minds of educators. The subject is one that has dominated the thinking of parents, classroom teachers, principals and system administrators. Documenting the changes that have taken place in both primary and secondary schools, urban and rural over the years, would fill the pages of a large book.

The argument about class sizes grows from educational theory and classroom practice. It includes issues of student age and ability. It differentiates between desk based learning and more practical lessons requiring the engagement of specialist teachers and equipment.

The current Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) between the Department of Education and teachers is due to expire in October. Among changes being sought by the Australian Education Union (NT) is for Territory class sizes to be reduced from 27 to 25.

The NT Government became responsible for administering Territory Education in 1979. During the 38 years since, there have been innumerable expansions and contractions in class sizes. These changes have been endorsed as part of the process attached to policy management and shifts in educational priorities.

The staffing formula once used to determine teacher entitlement took one side of an A4 page. In recent years, that has changed. Calculating exact teacher numbers for schools is no longer a simple process. It is one that has been made more complex by the fact that student classification (including special teaching needs and behaviour management) is taken into account when determining staff entitlements for each school. What was a simple process is now a complex issue.

Practical matters also cloud staffing considerations. When teachers are absent, it is not always possible to employ relief staff to cover classes. There are generally more positions in schools to be filled than relief teachers available for employment. Relief teachers will not always accept employment because of travel difficulties and other problems.

When causal teachers are not available, groups may have to be split, with students adding to the numbers in other classes. For primary, middle and senior schools, teachers may have to forego release time.
Assigning specialist teachers to general classroom teaching duties is another ‘solution’, that while necessary, is certainly not desirable. It can mean program changes and students missing out on art, music, physical education and other specialised subjects.

It is one thing to develop a formula for class sizes and another altogether to make it work.

 

TEACHERS NEED TO REJOICE

 

Teachers Need to Rejoice

 

In 2017, the teaching profession is under more pressure than ever to deliver for students. Expectations have been building for years but have never been more pronounced than now. Classroom teachers, the most vital of all educators when it comes to interfacing with students, feel the weight of expectation because it all comes down to them. It is they who carry the prime responsibility (outside the home) for teaching and developing children.

Appreciation is well hidden

Double edged expectations are held for teachers and classroom support staff. The system and school leaders anticipate that those working with students will do an outstanding job, reflected in NAPLAN outcomes, PIZA results, TER scores, TAFE/VET achievement and a host of other measurable objectives for primary children and secondary students. On the other hand, parents and the community expect that teachers will teach in a way that results in students achieving quality outcomes, regardless of social and environmental pressures. The constant observation and scrutiny under which educators are placed, adds to their burden of accountability. Expectation is front and centre, with appreciation for what they are doing rarely expressed.

While teachers are celebrated on World Teachers Day each year, this positive recognition is a very brief pause in the heavy load of accountability placed squarely on their shoulders. The profession is one heavily weighted with expectations and bouquets are few.

There are many things about teaching as a profession that are misunderstood by the public at large. Neither are these elements taken into account by Departments of Education and those within systems who set expectations for teachers. This is confirmed by the long term and current differentiation of ‘them’ and ‘us’ describing the connection between school based staff and system administrators. The hardly respectful term ‘carpet-land’ is used by many teachers to express the lack of proximity they feel to those developing curriculum priorities and setting teaching agendas. Departments set school curriculum agendas to meet government whim and societal pressures, without taking into account how this will impact on teachers and students.

What they see is the iceberg tip

The work of teachers (and school leaders) reminds me of an iceberg. Only 10% of an iceberg’s mass is visible. The other 90% is hidden beneath the ocean, seen only by marine creatures. In the same way the work done by teachers and support staff is 10% observable and 90% unseen.

Many people believe that classroom teachers work for six hours each day five days a week. This 30 hour working week, reduced by public holidays, is complimented by 12 weeks “holiday” each year. When it comes to occupational comparison, our teachers are deemed to be people on ‘Easy Street’. Letters to newspapers and callers to radio talkback programs frequently slate teachers for lack of commitment and care for students. How wrong they are.

A criticism heaped on teachers, support staff and school leadership teams is that teaching is an easy job, generating far too many rewards. I have heard people say that teachers should go and get themselves a “real job”. Letters to newspapers regularly decry teachers as being too well rewarded for the tasks they undertake.

There are some of course, who appreciate the in depth nature of teaching and education: Sadly the view that teaching is superficial, appears to be held by many people.

Many students and parents appreciate ‘their’ teacher. However, in media releases and public statements about schools and teachers, there are far more brickbats than bouquets on offer. Criticism is often harsh and strident with acclamation of teaching positives being restricted to acknowledgement on World Teachers’ Day.

What is entailed

Teaching is far more than what is visible to the public. In fact, ‘teaching’ is but one small part of the educational equation. Detailed planning, preparation and programming, taking many hours of time, precede classroom teaching and direct engagement with students.
Beyond teaching there is the recording of outcomes, (testing, measurement and assessment), review and then the considerations of revision and extension. These educational elements go well beyond teacher and pupil interaction in the class room.

After hours commitment

A drive past many Australian schools before and after hours, on weekends and during holiday periods will reveal a growing number of parked teachers’ cars. Staff members are inside working on the huge number of tasks that embrace the teaching profession. Salary recognises teachers for around 37 hours per week. In real terms many are working upwards of 60 hours during the same period.

Teachers are one of the few professional groups not eligible for overtime payments to recognise extra hours at work. Police, firemen, and nursing staff work to fixed rosters and are remunerated if extra hours or shifts are worked. This does not happen for teachers in schools. The only person entitled to compensation for extra work may be the school janitor and only if pre-agreement has been arranged.

These days, there are more and more meetings in which teachers and staff members are required to participate. Staff and unit meetings, moderation meetings, performance management meetings and a plethora of other gatherings have proliferated. Most are held outside the scope of the normal working day and week. Teachers organise extended excursions. They coach and manage teams and groups involved in sporting and cultural exchanges of several days duration. Preparation for their normal classes before going is part of the deal. They are part of fundraising activities, school council committees and school improvement planning groups. The list goes on.

Unlike many professionals, educators do not always feel they can leave school at work. Programming and preparation, marking and updating data onto electronic files which transfer back to school records are some of the tasks that move classrooms to lounge rooms at home.

A ‘giving’ profession

Teachers and school staff members should not be knocked. They are selfless, giving and caring . Most teachers are there for others and without the work they do our society would be the poorer. I believe teaching is the most vital of all professions. It is one of society’s linchpin professions and those who work within it deserve to be valued and appreciated.

A Rejoicing Profession

My hope is that school based educators will come to feel good about themselves. A distinct worry is that our teachers under-sell and under-appreciate themselves. It is almost as if they expect to be put upon and criticised, accepting this as normative behaviour. That should not be the case. There needs to be a place for joy and rejoicing in the hearts of our teachers who contribute so much for so many.

At the end of each day, teachers should reflect on their successes along with planning for what lies ahead. Reflective, ‘feel good’ times are important and help in building feelings of confidence. That can help alleviate the stresses and anxieties that too often build up within the mindset of teachers who feel they have no right to rejoice.

I hope that teachers become more valued and appreciated by the community, by their employing systems and by politicans who set educational agendas. Equally, I hope that educators working in our schools feel professional joy from within.

Henry Gray