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Let Teachers Teach

Approaching nearly 50 years in the classroom, I sat in our Staff Development Day last week listening to a number of inspirational speakers (including our 2018 Head Girl), reflecting on what has changed since I began teaching in my mauve body shirt, purple flares, matching tie and pointy shoes way back in 1973.

The answer is a lot and not very much.

The reason I am still teaching is that it is, quite simply, the greatest job on earth. It’s why I keep returning to it after “sabbaticals” pursuing other interests. It’s why there are thousands of new teachers rifling through their wardrobes preparing for their first day in the classroom this week. Notice I didn’t say “young” teachers because quite a few of them are people, like me, who have worked in other professions. You will also notice that I didn’t make any distinction between private and public or secondary, primary and early learning. If I’ve learnt one thing from teaching in the bush, in the city, at an Indigenous Performing Arts school as well as stints at universities and in the TAFE system, it is that teachers are teachers. They are attracted to the job because they are interested in imparting information, developing minds and offering opportunity. You might even be able to say that they are people with a passion for changing lives.

Teaching was and is about relationships. It is a people job. It’s what I love about it. Seeing someone grow from a nervous Year 7 student into a rebellious Year 8/9, on to a (hopefully) maturing Year 10 and then into the final years of Years 11 and 12, when you are more often than not working together, is very special. Then there is the joy of seeing these young adults develop into adulthood and often becoming lifelong friends and even colleagues.

Teachers never stop learning. About themselves as well as about their subjects. They are constantly searching for better ways to teach. The challenges are often technological and often, for someone like me, almost amount to learning another language. As society rushes forward so must we. We are constantly developing, searching, explaining, finding the best way to teach. If you don’t keep up with change in teaching you’re dead meat.

Every moment of every day is different. We embrace difference.

None of this is new.

What is new are the roadblocks to teaching that prevent us from doing what we are good at. That is, communicate with our students. Disseminate information. Encourage learning. Foster self esteem. Offer support. Help where we can.

At the top of the list of the roadblocks are the piles of paperwork that increasingly stand in the way of good teaching. The teachers starting out this week didn’t become teachers to fill in endless forms. They became teachers to change lives.

Over the last four or five decades we’ve become obsessed with accountability. There is nothing wrong with teachers being accountable. From the beginning of time teachers have been held accountable by their students. By the fact that if they’re not on top of their game they’ll have a riot on their hands. Or parents knocking down the staffroom door. Or Head Teachers chewing them out.

No, it’s not accountability that’s the problem, it’s that everyone from politicians, to education bureaucrats, to the myriad of “experts” wants to be able to measure educational “outcomes” so they can point the finger or push what ever barrow they are pushing. This has resulted in teachers literally ticking endless boxes instead of doing what they are there for, to bring out the best in their students. We’ve replaced relationship building with data collection. Data won’t help a child suffering from low self esteem feel better about themselves. A relationship with a teacher might.

Focussing on data collection in tests like Naplan, particularly in primary school, is not only counter productive, it is counter intuitive to good teaching practice. It makes no allowance for the fact that children develop at different speeds and that pigeon holing them at an early age might inhibit potential growth.

The new teacher, keen to start a sporting team or take a class to see some theatre or to an art gallery will quickly discover that the “risk assessment” forms they have to fill in often makes such activities prohibitive. Not only that but they may well have to organise their own “cover”.

When I started out all those years ago I was pretty much given a free rein to open up the world for my students. All around the country new teachers are dreaming up a range of activities to excite their students and bring out the best in them. Some of these activities might be outside the square but that is no reason to hold them back by creating unnecessary roadblocks.

There is no magic recipe for bringing out the best in children. Every child and every teacher is different and that is what makes the job so exciting. That’s why I keep coming back to it and why so many new teachers are hopefully embarking on the ride of their lives.

We need to find a way to remove the many obstacles that have sprung up over the last forty or so years to prevent teachers doing what they are really good at.

Forging relationships, making children feel good about themselves and maybe changing lives.

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