Choose Your Own Adventure
31st May 2016
The Staff Room
Here’s an excerpt from the talk I gave at the recent Teacher Development Network Meeting held by the Catholic Education offices of NSW.
Basically my opinion on the Professional Teaching Standards. Let me know what you think. (Remember this is a short excerpt from a much larger piece.)
The story I want to share with you today is a choose your own adventure. Can you remember those books that kept us flicking backward and forward? Making choices and regretting decisions, reading and re-reading to find out what if? We called them pick-a-path books and as a young reader they made me feel both completely in control and completely out of it.
Each day I’ve spent in a Primary, Catholic classroom has been a choose your own adventure. Possible titles may have included:
Staying Alive – a week with Kindergarten – have you caught the virus?
Herding Cats – a day with Stage 1 – how many will you bring home?
Twelve Going on 22 – Stage 3 dramas, traumas and proformas – who will you share your camp cabin with?
But today’s Choose Your Own Adventure I could call:
What really matters to me as a teacher? Professional Standards or Personal Ethics – how do I determine what matters?
You’re adventure begins at 8am. Fully charged with coffee you’re standing in the classroom preparing madly for the day ahead. Nerves jiggle in your stomach as you glance at the clock. The external observation is happening today. You’ve worked tirelessly for several years to reach this point. You’ve collected evidence, you’ve documented, you’ve been refereed and you survived that awkward moment where you had to go back to that one particular referee and explain to them that they hadn’t addressed the standards. You’ve missed many a family gathering to create this work. You haven’t been to bed before midnight since the Christmas stand down period. Secretly a part of you is just over it – you’re sure you’ve learnt something through the process but at times you’re not even certain what it is. You shake your head and straighten the resources on your desk. Time to focus. But then, you notice Mrs Zanthet walking past your classroom window. You take a sharp breath in. Mrs Zanthet is a single mum and she often comes to school seeking money under the guise of a medical emergency. As she walks in your door, you glance over her shoulder and hope the External Observer isn’t arriving. Mrs Zanthet holds a hand over her mouth and with a gummy voice explains that she’s had a dental emergency. She asks you for fifty bucks.
If you tell Mrs Zanthet that she’s lying go to page 30 and lose your job.
If you palm Mrs Zanthet off to the teacher next door, go to page 27 and lose your colleague’s respect.
If you offer to escort Mrs Zanthet down to the office where the Principal can help her access the correct support services, read on and know that you’re a good teacher.
After walking Mrs Zanthet down to the office and after reassuring her repeatedly that you don’t think she’s a flaming idiot, you make a dash back to your classroom. You really want to get the SMART board switched on and calibrated and check that the interactive screens you stayed up preparing last night on your laptop. You hope they will work on the classroom PC. But just as you are clearing the last door of the warren that is the admin building, the AP calls your name. Elouise is warm and thoughtful as a colleague, consistent and patient with the students and you have seen her deliver lessons that are engaging and productive. The school is lucky that she came on board six months ago. Even so, Elouise has raised the bar and there’s a pressure that throbs through the air whenever she takes the floor at staff meeting.
“How are you?” Elouise touches your arm and smiles brightly.
You make a face, admit you’re feeling nervous.
“You’ll be fine,” Elouise is full of confidence. “Have you decided about Brian?” she asks.
You shrug and feel the familiar pulse of anxiety behind your breastbone.
Brian is the one – the student that Glen Capelli would describe as the tiger in your classroom, the one that Sue Larkey would diagnose as being on the spectrum, the one that Bill Rogers was thinking of when he wrote every single one of his behaviour management books, the one who Father Mick (the Parish Priest) says has been sent to test you, the one who Andrew Fuller would describe as The Negotiator and Steve Biddulph would recognise as under-fathered. Brian’s from a low-socio-economic family, didn’t attend pre-school, still cannot read and struggles endlessly to make any progress. So far he has come up just short of being eligible for funding of any description. You suspect some kind of expressive or receptive language disorder – or perhaps the effects of something sadder and more sinister like foetal alcohol syndrome. And whilst the better part of you feels great compassion for Brian, his endless oppositional behaviour, swearing, aggression and blatant disrespect for you means that you have also had some less than Catholic thoughts about him.
Elouise had suggested that Brian be removed from the class for today’s External Observation. The idea – as tempting as red wine and chocolates at four pm on a Friday afternoon – tugs at something bigger and more earnest within you. The idea rankles. It’s at odds. It doesn’t ‘fit’ with the notion of an accomplished teacher. And it doesn’t fit with your personal teaching philosophy.
But then you remember this morning as you left the house. You can see your partner’s face as they wished you luck, you remember their embrace and the talk of a holiday. It’s a holiday you’ve longed for, and the pay rise will cover it, but in order to get the pay rise, the standard needs to be achieved. A flash of uncertainty folds through you and you frown – surely Brian Kobrook isn’t standing between you and a holiday.
If you start dreaming of pina coladas and agree to ship Brian off to Elouise’s office with a folder full of busy work, turn to page 100 and tuck your tail between your legs as you do so.
If you admit to Elouise that you said a full round of the Rosary last night just praying that Brian might have his first day off in eighteen months, turn to page 101.
If you take a deep breath and reassure Elouise that you’d like to keep Brian with your class, knowing you have fifty management strategies in place and a secret stash of jelly beans for bribery turn to page 99 and know that if Brian was capable of thanking you – he would.
As you power walk to your classroom, you pass Meredith who’s out on morning playground duty. She gives you a huge smile and an encouraging wave.
“Today’s the big day isn’t it?” You nod and she rushes over with open arms to hug you. “You’ll nail it,” she says looking you in the eye. “And just think of the celebration you can have tonight once it’s all over!” You smile and nod, but inwardly feel frustrated. It doesn’t end tonight. This is an endless and ongoing process. But it’s important – you remind yourself and watch as Meredith walks away.
Meredith is always so light hearted and happy – even on the most stressful days. She talks about the TV shows she’s addicted to and the rock climbing she enjoys on the weekends. She has been teaching for sixteen years – five more than you – and you can tell she’ll be teaching until she’s sixty… or even the requisite seventy if she can manage it. You once asked her about how she gets all her work done, how she navigates the enormous workload of red tape that accompanies teaching and more specifically the standards. She told you that she decided long ago that she was happy to remain as a stock standard proficient teacher. She said the kids were her top priority.
At the time you had thought that perhaps she was just a stock standard teacher and it was probably a good thing that she stayed at proficient level. But after a year of watching how Meredith works, you’ve grown to realise she’s an exceptional teacher. Last term she had her Kindergarten class cooking and tasting a new vegetable every Friday and later during this term, she’s organising a whole school book swap bonanza. Meredith takes the time to talk to parents after class and always has time for play ground chit chat with the children – even if she’s not on duty. Meredith has every Kindergarten student falling in love with Literacy and Numeracy by the end of Term Three. Her passion for learning is infectious. Meredith is a highly accomplished teacher. She just doesn’t have the paper trail to prove it.
Not for the first time, you question these standards that you’re pursuing like a demon, but then as you move past Meredith you notice Bernard – the school’s newest and youngest teacher – in the Library. He looks upset… again.
If you decide to stop by the Library and check on your colleague turn the page.
If you decide to scuttle off with eyes downcast, turn to page 666.
And that’s where the adventure ends… for now. Let me know your thoughts….
I had tears in my eyes reading this! For every supportive, passionate teacher written about I pictured a colleague I love. For every mention of ‘that kid’ and their circumstances I pictured a student I love. The standards don’t cover what a good teacher is made of- their passion, heart, bravery, strength. Teachers can cover the standards without any of those things. The paper trail doesn’t make you more approachable, more passionate, more involved, more loving. Here in the ACT we pay for that paper trail. Those who choose to spend that money on resources for ‘that kid’ to have in the classroom or even to take home are no less than the person who chose to use the money to have the paper trail. The people with the paper trail are no less than those who don’t have it. We are a community. A support network. We learn from, care about, and love each other. The standards don’t cover that time a teacher caught me on a bad day having a little cry on my release, so the next day she showed up to my classroom door with sunflowers. Or that time I stayed up sending inspirational quotes to a great teacher who was questioning her career choice. The standards keep us honest and working towards life-long learning, but they aren’t who we are. We are teachers. Dedicated, passionate, hard-working, loving teachers.
Oh Coley – so right. So true. So bang on. Well said!