Thursday, March 20, 2014

Education always requires more money or does it?

Another long-forgotten document from my files, timely in light of the Gonski reforms.  The new federal government and Tony Abbott.  Will he or won't he come across?

Dear Ms. Leahy (Australian Business Council)

Having heard this a thousand times, I am not surprised by the same old saw (ABC Radio) this morning from you about throwing more money at schools and teachers.
Being a maths/ science teacher I can tell you it is not about money, its about working conditions in a system that is broken, and money has very little to do with it. 

Last week I was at a meeting in which Christine Milne and the local Green candidate (both teachers) were discussing how more money had to be thrown at the state schools instead of private schools because everyone wanted their kids in private schools. I said I put my kids in a private school; having taught in the state ones I wouldn’t send my kids there either.  What a conversation stopper.

Here is a short diary listing notable events in my last three (short) jobs.

________ High relief.  (one day) 

To begin with there is a staff meeting in which principal explains about the ____ sisters who (this is a good news story) were not giving oral sex to ALL the grade nine boys under the bleachers, just two or three, their parents have been notified and are suitably horrified. 

Grade 8 Maths class.
Beside the usual obscenities a large pair of scissors are thrown in anger by one student at another. It is pandemonium. I do a time and motion diary and calculate my instructional cost to the state is three times my hourly rate.  Most of my time is spent pulling the metaphorical monkeys off the chandeliers.

I could sort out these kids in a second, but instead I have to decide whether to give them some kind of coloured card, send a runner or run to the office myself for help.  None of us in the room are so stupid as to misunderstand my options: any such course of action beyond the obligatory card will make me a total loser which I will never live down at this school at any rate.  In terms of my own survival or general educational outcomes the  ___ sister's efforts don't even rate.  Maybe they are even positive. 

 High School relief  (another school)

Day 1 lunchtime

I have mistakenly sat down in an a small section of empty chairs in the staffroom and end up having a conversation with the deputy principle. He is a big strong blonde man in his late fifties and his hand is shaking while he swallows little round yellow pills. The doctor has told him he has to retire because the stress is killing him. But if he does that now he will lose a large part of his superannuation potential. If he stays he will die and lose all of it.

Day 2. First period Grade 7 maths

The children are opening their briefcases at the start of the class. A nice looking, well-groomed little kid at the front row begins dancing around with a sharp fibre point type pen. He thrusts it toward my face, close enough that it disappears under my nose and says ‘You see this?’ swings around and slashes a line across the cheek of a girl standing next to him. Then he is in his seat, wide eyed; my instant reaction having been to give him a light, contemptuous backhand across the ear to remind him of who and where he was, and that dangerous acts would not be tolerated. The class froze.

He hit Edward, ‘ said a girl and they all dove into their cases and began working furiously, silently for the whole period. It struck me that if this had been my class I would have been easily able to treble my effectiveness for the whole year- on the strength of that one small incident. But unfortunately none of them dared ask me for help on their assignment. I thought nothing more of it, a minor thing compared to the scissors.  Of course I was an over-confident fool, I should have sternly asked the kid how he would like it if his parents found out about his misbehavior.  But I did not and  presumably Edward told his parents that he had been assaulted.
The school informed me that I had done the right thing but I had to make a report in triplicate which I declined to do, which meant the end of my career in the state school system.


I was asked to teach a maths class to a group of older welders and boilermakers (because I am one of those too, having gone back to blue collar work after the above) while a friend went on holiday. These guys think they are going to be vaulted into a $100 thousand a year engineering job from their fabrication welding positions on the strength of a high school maths class one night a week.  The program is not very advanced but the syllabus over the time  allowed is punishing; they will have to spend the other nights of the week working at it to learn even this much.  But they don’t and half are unable to get pass marks on their ridiculously easy exams which I could pass with my eyes closed, without having looked at the stuff for years.   

After four weeks of Tuesday nights I am called into the team leader’s office. 

This is an educational institution that aims to provide customer satisfaction.”

(Which means revenue is a function of student numbers)


There have been some complaints. You haven’t been giving enough personal attention to the people who are having trouble so you can finish up tonight. Do you want me to tell them?”

No, I’ll tell them.”

Which I did, including my feelings on their prospects as engineers.  When I went through college an engineering degree was a full-time four year course and a lot of those guys started out bright and then  worked ten or twelve hours a day at it.  And that was the end of my career there too.

The ‘team leader’ did the same thing to another temporary teacher a month later known as ‘Big __’ who came over the desk at him, and beat him up along with a janitor who tried to intervene.   Big ___ was suspended indefinitely at full pay for ages while investigations were ongoing.  I had certainly done the wrong thing.  About the ***head across the desk I mean, but then I don't have a 'Big' prefix on my name. 

When I did my teaching diploma at UNE they made it plain that it was the worst job in the world. 
I should have listened.  But its also to be one of the most rewarding – when you can help someone who wants what you have to offer there is nothing better in anyone's professional life.  And there are some great teachers out there, I am probably not one of them but the world of desperation that exists out there knows no lines of demarcation.  Life is too short to put up with the crap - people with options tend not to stick around  and these are the very ones who should be attracted into the profession.   So I decided not to waste my life cajoling others into humanity because it can’t be done that way.  Perhaps with unlimited manpower but not for any amount of money.

The science or art (call it what you will) of pedagogy did not evolve in a vacuum. For hundreds of years it turned out useful members of society from a varied lot of dubious material. Beyond academic learning - these are just kids; young pack animals - trying to find who they are, where their boundaries are in the world and if you don’t or can’t supply that at least you are betraying a whole generation.  And it was so easy before well- meaning fools intervened to cut off our metaphorical balls.   The kids know that from grade seven, and they taunt you. 

"If you touch ME my mommy and daddy will have you charged with assault and you will lose your job!"  That's a quote. 

My grade- school teacher taught 5 grades in a one- room unpainted weatherboard community hall.  She was a wonderful, thin grey-haired little woman who kept order with a sharp tongue augmented by a 12 inch ruler from which a recalcitrant might get a rare whack on the palm.  Everyone understood these things, even the slowest and already-bigger-than-her farm kids .  Sadism and brutality were never a requirement.  Everyone came out of there both literate and numerate with no more teaching aids than a blackboard and a small library.  Sorry, there was a little wind-up record player, inkwells in every desk, a large barrel heater in the centre of the room and an ancient piano in the corner.   I, my brothers and several others ended up with university degrees.  Maybe more than one even had illustrious careers.  That wasn't me which is beside the point.

Because somewhere out on the steppes and deserts is a hungry race, with nothing to lose who care nothing for our fine feelings, entitlements, moral, spiritual or territorial integrity. That’s how the world works and its not to conjure up the old threat of sampans across the Torres Strait, only that the tides of history flow with little regard for our fashionable indulgences. If we can’t even make easy decisions on the future of our children, like supplying an unflinching quality education, it will be for some other nation to force harder choices upon us.

Best wishes


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