By Ned Manning, writer and teacher.
The Gonski Report has rightly recommended that there be a serious injection of funds into education.
One of the best things about this excellent report is that it puts education back where it should be, at the centre of national debate.
One thing needs to be established. At the heart of a good education system is good teaching. You can throw as much money as you like at schools but if the relationship between teachers and students isn’t a good one a lot of it will be wasted.
Before we look at what this means let’s get one thing out of the way. Recent reports have suggested our kids are falling behind schools in the region. One suggested that our Year 9/10 students weren’t performing as well in maths and science as comparable students in Shanghai. That measurement would be statistically based. The kind of statistical analysis that gives us standardised testing and league tables. The kind of analysis that gives us half the picture, if that. As Finland’s much-admired education system has proved, you can’t measure an education system by adding up marks and ranking people.
Would it surprise anyone to know that schools in Shanghai operate slightly differently to schools in Melbourne? There is a different approach to discipline for a start. A lot of people might long for the day when our kids showed more ‘respect’ for authority and did ‘as they were told’. They shouldn’t hold their breath. It’s not going to happen. Certainly not in schools where there is a degree of freedom and self-expression is encouraged. In case anyone didn’t notice today’s teenagers are better informed and more widely connected than any previous generation in our history. In short, they know their rights. Telling them to ‘sit up straight and do as they are told’ is not going to work. So to compare our ‘test’ results with countries whose students do ‘sit up and do as they are told’ is fatuous.
You simply can’t measure good teaching. NAPLAN test results might tell you how well a child has crammed or if they can concentrate for 40 minutes. They won’t tell how well they can communicate or how well adjusted they are. They certainly won’t tell whether a student’s potential is being realised.
We, like Finland, need to use a different approach to realise our students’ potential. That approach is all about engagement. We need to engage our students and that relies on good teacher student relationships – relationships based on mutual respect. Not fear.
The key to this and to the future of our schools, both public and private, is good teaching.
But what is good teaching and how do you achieve it? I’m not sure that anyone who hasn’t been in front of a class of 25 hyperactive teenagers has any idea what this really means. They will quote statistics and talk about raising the standard of teacher training. They will suggest that we need to encourage brighter people into teaching. They will say that teachers need to be paid more. They will rabbit on about raising teacher’s status in the community.
And they will be right in varying degrees about most of those things.
What they won’t mention and don’t see is what is staring them in the face. Our schools are already full of great teachers.
What we don’t do is support them or treat them with the respect they deserve. We treat them like the kids they are meant to be teaching and we do that from the moment they walk into a school at the beginning of term. It is systematic. That is what is lost in the current debate and it is what drives teachers round the bend.
Experienced teachers aren’t utilised. If they aren’t on the executive they are given the same jobs year in year out. If they are on the executive they find themselves doing nothing but administration. The reward for promotion in teaching is to be taken out of the classroom, the very place good teachers want to be.
So, women and men with 30, even 40 years of teaching experience aren’t extended and become bored or worse, bitter. These are people who have fought to have class sizes reduced from the 40s to the mid-20s, who have gone to the wall over salaries and conditions and have been vilified for it. Teachers who have dedicated their lives to getting the best possible results they can for their students no matter how difficult the conditions. For, there isn’t a teacher alive who doesn’t want what is best for their students. It might not always seem like it but it’s true.
Too many great teachers get out of teaching as soon as they hit retirement age. No-one tries to offer them the kinds of challenges that would keep them in the profession. We seem happy to let years of experience wither on the vine.
At the other end of the scale young teachers aren’t given the support or encouragement they need. They are literally thrown to the wolves and in many cases they are eaten up. I have seen countless fantastic, dedicated, well-trained, bright teachers leave the profession because they, like their elders, don’t feel their potential is being realised. They leave frustrated. They go into teaching to contribute but feel their hands are tied from the moment they walk into a school. The one statistic that might be interesting is how many teachers leave the profession after one or two years? And it’s not because they don’t want to work with kids. They discover that soon enough when they are doing prac teaching.
Make no mistake about it, there isn’t a person who goes into teaching because it’s a cushy job. Try standing in front of a classroom full of kids hell bent on testing you out and see how easy it is. If you find your teenagers challenging, how do think you’d go with 25 of them? Or six lots of 25 of them? Twenty five 13-year-olds followed by 25 14-year-olds followed by 25 17-year-olds and so on.
Alternatively, you could try spending all day with 20 six-year-olds.
We need to adopt Gonski’s recommendations but we also need to re-think how we evaluate what education is about. The current obsession with standardised testing and NAPLAN tests only tells half the story. If we want better overall results we need better teaching and we’ll get that if we support the teachers we already have.
Instead of trying to constantly re-invent the wheel we might be better served by oiling the wheel we’ve got.
Ned Manning is a writer, actor, teacher who has worked in classrooms around Australia for the last forty years. His has written a book on his experiences in the classroom called Playground Duty. Read more about Ned and his book here.