Saturday, May 01, 2004

Conference notes ...

This is the text of my panel presentation .... Of course, it came out slightly different at the time;

Tales from the Blackboard (or should that be ‘whiteboard’?)

I’ve wondered long and hard (well kind of) how to approach this panel. The three of us did attempt some online discussion about what we might talk about, but this didn’t get us very far. In the end it always seems to come back to time. Time, time, time. There is never enough of it – and when I have some I tend to sit and daydream (or watch CSI, or write in my blog – even as the marking pile grows before my eyes).

So because time is so valuable to teachers (to most people, of course) I have wondered about what to talk about. Probably a natural thing I would think.

I was here last year. What had I come expecting? Maybe the prospect of a day off, and time to think and talk to others who were doing the same thing I was? Maybe to see friends and colleagues from uni - to catch up and tell some stories (we are English teachers after all).

As I think back to last year and what I remember, I realise a key that might help me understand my students better as well. I don’t remember much of what was said, but I do remember how I felt (Sure I took notes and all that, but I can’t find them now and probably don’t have the time to read them). I also realise that in these days of VIT portfolio assessments, increasing accountability measures, standardized testing, essential learning frameworks, and all the rest, that talking about ‘feelings’ is probably very soft.

So as a way of promoting some discussion – if only with myself and my computer, I have phrased my ‘topics’ as questions.

1. What can I realistically expect to achieve in my first year teaching?
I really have no idea. That is a question you will have to answer for yourself as you go along. Perhaps this is not something you can really know beforehand. It’s more fun if you don’t know beforehand anyway. My first year was huge and I often wonder how I made it through still sane (some would say I didn’t). You just do what you have to. I began teaching and studied for my honours degree I education at the same time. It worked for me (I mean I didn’t sleep much, and didn’t see my wife much) so perhaps the question is what do you want and what are you prepared to do?

2. How do I go about creating good relationships with colleagues? How can I use these good relationships with colleagues as professional learning opportunities?
There are some things that made my first year (and this year) much more rewarding that it would have been otherwise. Good conversation. You can’t go past good friendships, especially with someone who really understandings what is going on – another teacher – another English teacher. Possibly from another school … someone from your degree program with whom you share an affinity.

Make sure, that despite whatever you are going through at home, school (work) or whatever, you can meet with this person or persons regularly and just talk about stuff – whatever – work (school), weather, football, education research, your VIT portfolio, that cute new Drama teacher, your wonderful year 9s, that insane librarian who keeps giving you Manga to watch, Tyrone the friendly Sri Lankan cleaner who used to work in the RAAF and is now your friend because no one else stays at school till 6pm – whatever. Mix in some good coffee or hot chocolate, and some cake, and you have yourself some quality professional learning.

With this little strategy tucked under your arm you can go anywhere. (apologies to Andrew Niccol and GATTACA)

There are many other things you can do of course. We could TALK for hours on this one. Maybe we should …

3. How do I take on new opportunities and learn to say ‘no’ at the same time?
Contrary to popular advice, don’t put your hand up for everything. It might be better to sit back and watch for a while. Regardless, you will be noticed eventually, whether for your ‘cutting edge’ and ‘innovative’ teaching style, or your intimate knowledge of ICT pedagogy (you know where the power switch is!) you cannot hide.

It may seem strange but even stranger jobs will come your way without any pro-action on your part. This year they gave me the VASS job (VCE administration software system) because ‘he’s good with technology’ – what they didn’t tell me was that I was about to become a glorified data entry pawn. By day I fight at the barricades against the use of statistics to push me and my colleagues around, and by late afternoon I’m printing the reports that the administration use to hit us with. I’m still coming to terms with this odd arrangement. Schools can be places of uneasy alliances and clandestine operations. In fact, a colleague suggested I mention here today, that he thought we should all be watching Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’. He figured teaching was often akin to being thrown behind enemy lines by some crazy chopper pilot (the principal, of course) and then struggling to find your way back. I haven’t seen it.

The other part of me says, just load up and see what happens. If you crumble, you will probably be passed off as a young inexperienced beginning teacher anyway, most teachers are forgiving and patient types.

4. How do I engage in “reflective practice” and what does this actually/really mean?
Just what exactly does this mean?

5. What is the role of research now that I don’t have to read it?
First, I must say that I absolutely loved my teaching degree. I believe it prepared me for teaching better that I could have hoped. I completed a B.A/B.Ed at Monash. I/m not saying that everything about the course was valuable – but that in the end I came away feeling very lucky and privileged to have had a such a great opportunity. If you can, I would encourage you to keep ties with the teacher educators you know. I have managed to do this and the rewards have keep flowing in various ways, all of them rich.

Don’t rule out returning to study. I believe this is a fantastic way to renew teaching. To claim a discursive space to engage in the big issues related to teachers’ work. To give space to the “intellectual work” of teaching that so often gets sidelined through lack of time and energy.

Now I want to go out of a limb here and say that I am an unashamed theory lover. I believe that the best teaching is reflective by nature and has a kind of intellectual underpinning – not so that it becomes a dry intellectual pursuit – but so that good teaching becomes an invitation to continually enquire after the why, hows, and wherefores. For me anyway there must be some sort of critical edge, some form of intellectual engagement.

Studying for my honours degree in the evenings, getting up early to prepare lessons, or to write about my experiences, then heading off to teach a full day of classes is tough, but that is where my best learning experiences came from. That is where I lost myself in the joys and pains of the job. This is where I struggled to make the connections between what I was reading and hearing and then what I was seeing and doing – a valuable experience. Many people argue that theory (and by implication most research), has at best, a tenuous link to practice. I don’t like that assumption, for me it smacks of anti-intellectualism. To these people I would recommend some John Dewey (Experience and Education), Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society) or Neil Postman (Teaching as a Subversive Activity).

Teachers are valuable knowledge producers. To often they are seen as just deliverers of curriculum and content material. To often they have PD ‘done to them’, rather than designing and participating in professional learning with other teachers (and there is a huge difference). Our professionalism is often under threat.

All this kind of talk, brings me to the next question,

6. Does it really matter what goes on outside my classroom door?
Mostly, I am not satisfied with just operating alone and ‘doing my own thing’. Teaching can be fairly isolating work, but it is more rewarding when efforts are made to bring teachers together, despite the many difficulties and obstacles.

How can we teach year 12 students, helping to prepare them for their futures, and not be interested in the design of the new English course? How can we be concerned about the success of all our students, and not wonder about the social inequalities that are stacked against the poorest and most in need? How can we lament the lack of time in our workplaces to talk and gather as interested colleagues, and not be concerned about increasing workloads and poorer working conditions? How can we be concerned about our students critical literacy needs, and not be concerned about the corporatisation of education and projects that allow big business to slip under the classroom door and be become part of the hidden curriculum. How can we be concerned about our own professional learning needs (you are all here at a VATE conference after all) and not be concerned about how the performance review process, and VIT portfolios for ‘full registration’ offer poor professional development opportunities for a new generation of teachers now entering the profession?

My history method lecturer summed this up nicely – and I need to modify slightly. To be an English teacher is to be a political animal. Teaching is an unavoidably political act.

7. How can I explain and come to terms with all these difficulties, pressures and competing interests?
Well, one way to do this is to understand that many of the ‘problems’ we face as early career teachers are not really our ‘problems’ – that is they are not all our fault. Sometimes it is easy to feel inadequate or inexperienced or responsible, but there are many problems that existed before we arrived on the scene and many more that may be there for many years to come. Feeling unable to make much difference in the lives of students is not necessarily a personal problem, or a lack of experience or a lack of expertise, it is also a function of many other factors and relationships, timetables, bells, curriculum, buildings and rooms, resources, culture, history, health, economics, etc.

The teacher is not the only important factor in student achievement. We should know that even though we are intelligent, caring, well-dressed, well trained, funny, cool, and hip, we cannot solve all these problems – not should we beat ourselves up about them either.

8. How do I go about finding a voice as an early career teacher?
In the end, as always, I am left wondering what to make of all this for me and those that share my practice setting and classroom. Obviously it is important to do more than just reflect and talk. So while professional learning for teachers is often about ourselves, we must go on to ‘organise ourselves for future action in our classrooms and schools'

What education system do we want to have? How do we go about REMAKING it? That is one question that perhaps we can talk about together.


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