Edited version published in NT Suns on August 22 2017

 

ABSENCE MAY BE UNAVOIDABLE

 

The issue of school attendance in both remote and urban school situations is one continuing to attract attention. That has been so for the past 40 years. Solutions are proposed but often not followed up by authorities.

In 2009 the enrolment of school age children became compulsory. However, there are still many school aged children in the Territory who have never been enrolled.

For children in urban schools, absence for a host of reasons occurs during term time . A major factor is that of families taking holidays during school terms when airfares and accomodation are cheaper. Attendance can be a problem for all schools.

Lead from the front

Principals, school leadership teams and school councils need to be proactive when dealing with attendance issues. One strategy that works, is to encourage students on term time holidays, to develop a travelogue covering their experiences. This helps reinforce the learning children do while on family travels. Using media (photos and videos) to embellish adventures, adds to the written word. Trip diaries can be shared with classes and may even attract commendation and awards from classroom teachers and principals.

With a little imagination and by recognising travel as providing learning opportunities, these times away from school can become significant learning journeys for children.

While some parents request holiday assignments and worksheets, these are often not completed. That does not justify the time and effort taken by staff setting up these individual programs.

More than legislation needed

Legislating to solve attendance problems can be pretentious. The Tasmanian Government has decreed that from the beginning of 2018, no family holidays during term time will be allowed. Families will be liable for penalties of up to $2000 if they fail to follow this attendance directive.

Tasmania could have learned from the NT. We have legislation about school attendance, but when tested in court it has had very limited success. Further, the many steps that have to be actioned prior to any court hearing, are both lengthy and onerous.

There needs to be some follow up for all students on this issue, including recognition of children with outstanding attendance records. Mention in school newsletters and the presentation of merit certificates are two ways of acknowledging conscientious attenders. However, absences which result from family circumstances ought not be punitively treated. Encouraging children toward educational enrichment through their travels is a better option.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

PAY OUT ON SICK LEAVE

This paper was published in the NT Suns in May 2017

UNBROKEN SERVICE DESERVES RECOGNITION

Public servants in the NT have a number of benefits attached to their employment. Included are superannuation and leave entitlements. Teachers and those working in schools often commence as supply or relief staff. In most instances superannuation and leave needs are recognised and built into the terms and conditions of their employment. Because of portability, these benefits transfer with them as they move from one school to another.

Over time, those involved with education are usually offered permanent status. Each year, three weeks of sick leave are added to the entitlement of each staff member. This leave accumulates year on year.

Health and family issues (for instance illness of family members) mean that some people need to quite regularly access their leave entitlements. However, there are many who use very little of their leave. It is not unusual for those who have been working for many years to have accumulations of up to 100 weeks of sick leave, that can be used if necessary.

When retiring or resigning from the public service, accumulated annual leave is cashed out to those who are departing. Long service leave that has built up, is generally included in the employee’s final pay package. Depending on circumstances which include the employee’s age, superannuation is either preserved or paid out.

For government employees, unused sick leave is not included in this package. I know of people who have retired or left employment with up to and over 100 weeks of sick leave credits. When they retire this entitlement is forfeited.

Because this leave provision will be lost upon retirement people may think about taking leave they would not usually consider. This would reduce sick leave benefits before employees leave the work force. It would force schools to employ relief staff or short term contract teachers. That would impact on school budgets and children in some classes, the latter because of teacher change.

It may be time to change the way in which sick leave provisions are treated. Paying a percentage of accumulated leave on a pro-rata basis would be fair and equitable. It would also reward those who have judiciously managed their sick leave.
The payment of a day’s salary for every week of accumulated sick leave would be my suggestion. A retiree with 60 weeks of leave would receive a payment equivalent to 60 days of final salary.

This would offer fair and equitable recognition to all those who have been prudent in managing sick leave.

MONEY SHOULD BE UNDERSTOOD

Column published in NT Suns in April 2017.  Note rthat publisged columns are sometimes edited for the sake of space.  Posting of Suns columns on my blog are unedited.

MONEY SHOULD BE UNDERSTOOD

Over time, there have been many changes in education. Some have been brought about through the growth of technology. A prime example is the replacement of handwriting with computer and iPad keyboards.

In spite of ongoing change there are things that should be retained and reinforced. One of these is teaching children about the value and importance of money. This experience ought not to be deferred until students reach the middle and upper primary grades. Research at the University of Cambridge was commissioned by the United Kingdom Money Advice Service. The research revealed that children’s habits and attitudes about money are formed by the time they turn seven years of age.

Many children have little chance to learn about and understand money. Household living costs are looked after by the adults. When shopping with parents, many children will not see notes or coins being used to settle accounts. Credit cards, PayWay and mobile phone applications are used to pay for goods. This makes money an illusion rather than a reality for many children.

There are ways at both home and school that can help children when it comes to handling and understanding money.

• A weekly or fortnightly payment of pocket money can aid young people in understanding currency. Encouraging children to spend and save from this allowance helps them understand and apply the principle ‘save it, you have it, spend it, its gone’.

• Encouraging children to handle coins, appreciating their size, weight and value encourages familiarisation with currency. Extending this to include appreciation of the value of notes is wise.

• Talking with children and answering their questions about money is part of their home and school education.

• School banking programs encourage children to establish the saving habit. This is important because so much advertising focus encourages people to spend everything and save nothing.

• Allowing students to shop at the school canteen can help with understanding money including item costs and change given on purchases.

• Understanding the use and purpose of money can be supported by classroom activities. Having a classroom shop with shopkeepers and purchasers learning about buying and selling through drama is one approach. Another is understanding through maths problems that are about money matters.

As young people grow up, learning about credit, credit traps and the ease with which debt can be incurred need to be included.

Money is a part and parcel of everyday life. It’s understanding and use should not be foreign to young people.

SCHOOLS ARE PLACES OF HUMAN NEED

 

This column, published in the NT Suns in March 2017, focuses on the NT.  However, in my opinion, there is a NEED FORV THE APPOINTMENT OF A COUNSELLOR to the staff of every school.

SCHOOLS ARE PLACES OF HUMAN NEED

With the frenetic pace of educational issues and priorities, we tend to overlook the fact that schools are about people. Students with aims, ambitions, positive and negative feelings, commit each day to their schools. This relationship begins when children commence preschool or attendance at early learning centres. It continues through primary and middle school years. Schools are centres of important educational, social and developmental opportunities.

Along the way, there are personal challenges and setbacks. Some are of a fairly minor nature, while others have a far greater and deeper impact upon students, staff and the school community. However, it seems the need for counselling support is on the increase. It is at such times that the human face of education is of critical importance. The most recent NT tragedy was the untimely deaths of two students from Darwin High School. Their passing is having an impact upon school students and staff that is being recognised through counselling and other support services. While the essence of education is about student academics and personal development, our department is there to support those in need during times of sorrow. Counsellors offer emotional and moral support. They never quite know when counselling support will be required, so readiness to offer assistance is important.

In a wider Territory context the Department of Education at central and regional level supports those in schools impacted by death, injury or mishap of students and staff. The need for this support may be within our city schools, and those in larger towns or smaller and more remote communities.

There are a number of circumstances within schools that can cause deep distress for students, staff and in some cases parents of school children. One of the most common is bullying in its various forms. Online bullying with harsh verbals and embarrassing photographs is the most insidious and least understood method of causing hurt. It is important that these circumstances come to light, with perpetrators being called to account and victims being given support.

The need for school based counselling is on the increase. Education departments may need to consider the appointment of support counsellors in schools on a one to one basis. Counselling needs are growing; support needs to be timely and immediate.

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.

SPECIAL EDUCATION IN NT – THE BEST IN AUSTRALIA

SPECIAL SCHOOLS CLEAR TERRITORY WINNERS

Special Education in the NT has been boosted by the opening of the new Henbury Avenue School. This upgraded facility adds to educational and developmental opportunities for students with special learning needs.

Henbury Avenue began its life as ‘Coconut Grove Special School’ in the 1970’s. It was a school of two or three transportable rooms. There was a photo in the NT news of that time showing then Principal Charlie Carter pulling a wheelchair bound student up flagged concrete steps into one of the buildings. Henbury Avenue in particularly and special education in general has come a long way since that time.

Priority

NT Governments of both political persuasions and the Department of Education have placed a high priority on special educational needs. Darwin students are excellently supported by both Nemarluk and Henbury Special Schools. Both are new, upgraded schools. Students with enrolment eligibility are provided for in terms of their primary and secondary education. Integration of students into mainstream programs offered by nearby schools has overcome segregation for special school students. This allows them the opportunity to develop educational and social links with peers outside the parameters of their main school.

Palmerston has a special education unit incorporated into Rosebery Middle School. A special unit to meet primary students need operates as an annex to Woodroffe Primary. Integration into mainstream classes is an organisational focus.

Students with learning challenges who do not qualify for entry into Special Schools are supported in primary and secondary schools. Qualified staff support classroom teachers. Special Education Support Assistants are employed as budgets allow, to offer extra assistance to children experiencing learning difficulties in mainstream classes. Individualised educational plan are developed to identify both learning needs and specific teaching strategies for these pupils. Regular in-school reviews involving parents, support staff and teachers take place. This helps keep awareness of student needs and progress to the fore.

Stigma

There is a belief that to enrol children in other than mainstream schools is belittling. That is not true. Parents whose children are eligible to enrol at Nemarluk, Henbury, Acacia Hills in Alice Springs (where $6.5 million is being spent on upgrades) or special schools in regional centres, should arrange a visit. As parents generally discover, the benefits children gain from enrolment in special schools, far outweigh any negatives.

The issue of enrolment should not be coloured by misconceptions. Our special education schools, their annexes and our support programs for children with special needs are the best in Australia.