Tuesday, May 25, 2004

VATE Review day 'retrospective'

This is the text of my contribution to the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English (VATE) Review Day.

Once a year this organisation, which is obviously a professional association for English and Literacy teachers, holds an organisational 'review' day. After the IFTE conference in July 2003, those of us involved in the planning of the Professional Identity and Change (PIC) strand estalished a relationship with VATE as a 'working party'. As a corollary we were subsequently asked to prepare and run the review day. I'm not sure why 'they' (the VATE Council) let us do this, but it gave the PIC another 'project' to work on and toward - more opportunity to talk and get together to engage in some excellent professional learning.

I was 'assigned' to be a 'participant' and 'member' of a 'fishbowl' panel discussion designed to kick off the discussion and provide stimulus for the rest of the day. We asked those involved in the panel (we chose a variety of people, represeting different groups - an academic and science teacher educator (female), a bureaucrat and ex-teacher (female), an older teacher (female), and a young early career teacher (male) and me). We asked these panel members to prepare comments around two questions:

1. Could you share a story about a moment in which involvement in a professional association was important/valuable in your professional career/journey?

2. How do you see a professional association contributing to a teacher’s professional life?

So anyway, here is the text I prepared, what do you think?

My involvement in IFTE was certainly of central importance. But it didn’t start there – of course it rarely does …

I was sitting with Brenton at the Monash ‘Den’ over a coffee when he raised the possibility of having some ‘beginning teachers’ involved in the IFTE Professional Identity and Change strand. At the time I was half way into an honours degree – examining my ontological assumptions, reading stuff about teacher knowledge and professional learning, and getting lost in Bakhtin's Dialogic Imagination.

Grappling with research issues and trying to formulate an honours project that felt as if it had ‘something to say’ and somehow connected to what I was doing with the rest of my time. I began teaching last year too.

So I had my head in two places at once – or at least that was the plan (there are always other things going on as well – and perhaps these other places or things are just as important – but they are for another day – my biography and history perhaps). Some of you might think that sounds like a luxury – only two places? Try 22, young’n!

And so it was a real challenge. To begin teaching, with all the inherent complications, challenges, brilliance, fun, and dispair, but to add to this a first real attempt at researching – and to research my own practice and learning – and now that I was ‘teaching’ for real, I could call my learning ‘professional learning’ and not just ‘learning’. And what a difference!

So I began an attempt to bring these two things together. The teaching and the research. And if we are truthful, we must recognise that the two have an interesting relationship, to say the least. But I do not want to go down that track too far. And then of course, there is the question of VATE or of professional associations.

I guess what I want to suggest is that as professional association should somehow embody the same tension I am trying to describe.

VATE was important for me because my involvement in IFTE and in PIC helped me to realise that this ‘teaching – research’ tension is a productive one and should be developed. My involvement in IFTE and PIC helped me understand the necessity and reward of engaging in both these activities – and also the difficulty of doing both.

That understanding the difficulty of doing so was just as interesting as doing so. And on this point I keep coming back to C.W Mills. I love what he says about this kind of thing,

Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues and in terms of the problems of history-making. Know that the human meaning of public issues must be revealed by relating them to personal troubles and to the problems of the individual life. Know that the problems of social science … must include both the troubles and the issues, both biography and history, and the range of their intricate relations (quoted in, Bullough & Pinnegar, 2001: 14)

So I guess I was tired of listening to the ‘teaching-can-never-mix-with-research’ naysayers. Those voices that told me I was at fault, or that kids were at fault, or that teacher-education was at fault, or that ‘soft’ research was at fault, or whatever. That the conditions of my work were natural and ‘just the way things are’.

I don’t like that idea.

And here I must avoid painting myself as a naïve, young, inexperienced idealist. And of course if you don’t like what I’m saying you can always pass me off as this – just some young dumb kid who wants to change the world. (I don’t think I want to change the world – but I’ll settle for a little understanding!)

The conditions of my work (and yours) are not neutral. Perhaps everyone else figured this out a long time ago, but they are a construction, a shifting complex mass of interrelationships and compromises. A network of actors, desires, policies, timetables, directives, technologies, buildings, histories, texts etc.

I don’t know about you but I am interested in better understanding my own professional learning experiences, and how these are 'co-authored' or 'co-constructed' as part of wider human, institutional, historical, political, economic and technological relationships.

I mean, we don’t learn as individuals apart from the world – as if we can separate ourselves and just learn, work and live in some kind of vacuum. We are all players - actors - in many different 'networks' and 'systems', all of which are important influences on our learning, work and lives. (that strut and fret their hours upon the stage and then is heard no more! It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing).


And so this dichotomy is one way to approach this question about the importance of professional associations for me.

(I'll have to add something here about these two elements being important to my professional growth as a teacher. Struggling with classroom teaching and all that, and studying for my honours and working collaboratively with other colleagues, being mentored by older more experienced educators.)

Of course, I always come back to the same issue – time and the many factors that conspire to sap and drain it from us. Perhaps we have two choices then – get rid of VATE altogether and just struggle on the way we do in schools presently (or as many of you have for the last 1000 years), or we take VATE in a new direction altogether. What direction? Well a powerful, intellectual and organisation. Of course you can always dismiss my words as the ravings of an inexperienced, idealistic and young man. And you’d be right. But I also understand that change on the scale that I see necessary does not happen in huge shifts or movements, or in revolutions, or whatever, but ...

... I guess what I’m trying to get at here is the different things that VATE means to me and the different levels my involvement operates on. At one level (I don’t like the levels metaphor, but anyway) I think VATE needs to provide some kind of discursive space where big ideas can be discussed and thrown around and argued and marvelled at and all that kind of thing – a space for the intellectual life that is so often crushed out of teaching. I was never comfortable accepting the words of other teachers when they told stories about the luxury of uni life for navel gazing – can’t teachers engage in intellectual debate about their work? Of course this means critiquing the kinds of pressures in schools that box people in and isolate – that debase teacher collaboration and professionalism and construct teaching as ‘delivery’ of content and teachers as some kind of Asimov dystopian nightmare. There are a thousand different pressures all with a biography and history, a tangled web, an actor-network where we are not humans, but ‘actants’

2. As providing a intellectual and critical focus on issues that effect English teaching.

I want to tell another story.

As an English faculty we occasionally go out for lunch together; of course you have to eat fast otherwise you’ll miss period five. Last week while sitting around a table at Café Oggi in Nunawading, I imagined our own Beer Hall Putsch.


Well, KB (our head of faculty) relayed to us an experience she had had that very morning. She had been ‘called into’ see Alex our principal (who incidentally, was an Economics teacher in a former life). Let’s just say he didn’t congratulate her, in fact they discussed (or he discussed – all by himself) some ‘alarming’ figures showing our ‘terrible’ performance in VCE English compared to other ‘like schools’ in our region and across the state.

‘Don’t try to rationalise the figures, Karen. They mean what they mean …. Just tell me what we need to do?!’

This is the general refrain when anything is being discussed. A few weeks before I sat in a small group at a staff meeting where we were supposed to be analysing student survey data. Same story here – don’t try and explain the figures, don’t rationalise them – just give us some strategies for fixing the problem. Like giving the kids a GPA, getting them to write it on their diaries and look at it each day, while humming to themselves, ‘I can do better, I will do better!’


So, anyway, we are at lunch in a nice café surrounded by corporate and business types – this café is in a ‘business park’ – right near the Eastern Region Office actually – and were getting louder and louder as we get more and more upset. The business types are casting odd glances at us and looking worried.

‘Alex wants us to life our percentage of students scoring over 40 for English – the goal is 5.9 %. He wants us to identify who achieved an A or A+ last year and work with these students specially to make sure they receive 40 or over. He doesn’t want too many, just around the benchmark.’

‘He says he cannot understand why we are doing so badly in English at Y12 when there seem to be many more students succeeding at Y11. He wants to know what is happening. I think that he thinks we are perhaps marking to easy in Y11 or too hard in Y12, and that we are not preparing students well enough for the exam, as our kids coursework scores are often marked down.’

So we talk about what we can do and some arguments we can use against this kind of oppression. We also talk about that great versatile line, ‘It’s the teacher that matters most and that makes the most difference.’

But things have continued. The school is in the throws of writing a new charter and English has been singled out as a concern. If something is ‘wrong’ with our VCE results then there must be a problem with our 7-10 curriculum; fix this and you’ve solved the VCE problem - that's the extent of the thought process!.

Despite this, I guess I have noticed some GOOD vibes emanating from some of my colleagues. We are talking more as a faculty. KB and I are always at it – every chance we get, (the dialogic thing that is ... ) but others are not so interested.

But things are changing. Discussion is building and good reflective conversation is beginning to occur.


At 9:23 pm, Blogger Scott said...

just testing this new comments function


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