Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reflections on my Saturday at the VATE conference

I didn’t get much out of the 2007 VATE conference.

Perhaps it’s best to examine it in context.

Let me go back a day.

I didn’t attend the Friday session of the VATE conference for a couple of reasons. First, it’s so bleeding expensive now it’s almost extortionate. I’m the English coordinator at my school and funding is scarce. To send teachers to the conference, not only must we pay for registration but we must also pay for CRTs to replace the staff who attend. Second, I would miss double year 12 English and it didn’t seem right to leave them just so I could have a PD day. So I sent two of my colleagues and satisfied myself with attending only the Saturday session.

When my year 12s told me on Thursday – the day before the VATE conference – that they would be away on a careers expo the next day I was a bit put out. The two replacement classes I was given didn’t help. But this is the teaching life, isn’t it?

Last period Friday is Year 10 English. Even on a good day, most of my year 10s are inclined to hyperactive bestiality. They can’t help it. And it’s not my fault. They were like that before I met them. Actually, after the occasional morning session with them, when I’ve put the chair and the whip down, I almost feel that I’ve made some slight progress with them, even after Swearing Emo Girl has effed and c-eed her way through the lesson and Fart Boy has punctuated every five minutes with his effluent wind section ejaculations.

But Friday, they were insane. Not worth describing. My strategy for coping with such behaviour is to tell myself that even if they’ve learnt nothing they will not leave the room until the floor is tidy and the chairs are put up on desks. Pathetic, but it generally retrieves some of my sanity at the day’s end. It almost happened according to plan, but when that bell sounded I was rushed at the door. I managed to intercept two students to make them finish off the job with the chairs.

Blonde Boy was compliant and even wished me a good weekend as he cheerfully left the room.

However, Aggro Girl was not so compliant and tried to barge through me in the doorway. Unfortunately, I have an inclination to resist such students. I caught her by the wrist as she pushed past me and ordered her back to clean up her area.

“Don’t touch me,” she snarled. Of course, I let go of her wrist.

“Because you are not an animal,” said I, “you will go back and pick up your chair.” (Sounds so pathetic when you write this stuff down, doesn’t it? In the scheme of life it’s less than crap.)

Anyway, she complied. I thanked her and wished her a good weekend. Honestly.

So imagine my surprise when fifteen minutes later I’m summoned to the AP’s office because an irate father has demanded to know why the English teacher has assaulted his daughter.

Dad is livid. “It takes a lot to make my daughter cry,” snarls this parent – an imposing dust covered bearded lumberjack of sorts. Aggro Girl is looking smug but won’t meet my eyes. There’s this other kid in there as well, who turns out to be the younger sister. She, too, says her piece, without looking at me. “She ad no right ta touch er!” Who are you? I’m thinking, and why has my esteemed leader allowed you to be present at the interview?

Finally, Dad is satisfied with my recount of events and my assurance that I had intended no physical or emotional assault on his daughter. But it left a nasty taste and made me realize how vulnerable I am – we all are – as teachers. We are at the mercy of such students. And how I wish I had a dollar for every parent who has said to me over the years that his or her son or daughter does not lie, when clearly kids do.

And for this I gave up the VATE conference? Perhaps though, it was a good reminder. Never touch a student. (Let’s face it, I shouldn’t have grabbed her wrist.) And students have no loyalty. But I’m sure that the next time one student starts smashing into another in the canteen queue I will still grab them both by the shirt front and march them to the coordinator’s office. Do you let them beat each other senseless while you stand back vainly blowing your whistle?

So sandwiched between that and a four hour pile of marking today, I had VATE on Saturday.

I felt dissatisfied with my VATE experience this year, apart from Ross Huggard’s presentation on Year 12 Creating and Presenting. He never fails to deliver. However, just one day didn’t do it for me this year, and the negatives obsessed me. I am utterly sick of those delegates in the audience who feel they have to contribute their own anecdotes whenever they get an opportunity; who hijack. I was in a small room with about twenty people and really wanted to hear what Susan La Marca and Pam McIntyre had to say about their new book, Knowing Readers. Yet I was surprised when Dr McIntyre spent too much time reading two picture books aloud to us like she was auditioning for Play School. I found the subsequent class activity twee and useless. It would have been enough to quickly relate Aidan Chambers theory from his book Tell Me, and trust that we’d be able to apply it in our own classrooms. But it took up time. As did three persistent audience members who felt they had to contribute their unoriginal thoughts on everything that was said. Unfortunately, both presenters happily listened, even encouraged these interjectors who were contributing such wisdoms as ‘kids say that they don’t like writing book reports’ or ‘it helps if you share your own love for books with your students’. Well, hello.

The presenters didn’t get through all their material, but three old teachers left the room feeling good about themselves and their invaluable contributions. I wasn’t one of them.

The forum, “Good English for Good Citizenship” was stimulating and one speaker, Mark Lopez, was provocative. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something which suggested that some students feel that they can’t confidently express their traditional, conservative or politically incorrect views to their English teachers, who are PC and left leaning. This was based on his experience as a tutor. It was infuriating to listen to, knowing how I’ve been shouted down by racist, homophobic students who think because there are more of them than me that they are right. He certainly stimulated responses, if not applause.

But the chair of the forum irritated me intensely, especially when the woman next to me mustered the courage to walk to the microphone to make a contribution and he made her stand there waiting while he told his own pompous little anecdote. And then I was trapped while the same chair received his life membership of VATE and I was forced to endure the accolades and his acceptance speech.

Just my opinion, of course. But VATE – and I know how much good tireless work this organization does – often seems to me like an exclusive little self-congratulatory Sunday afternoon club to which I’m certain I wouldn’t want to belong.

Next year, I expect I’ll return to the conference, but I’ll attempt to go for full immersion, instead of one day. If I survive the year 10s.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The art of the pathetic professional development presentation.

First, pay your audience to attend.

Last week. First week of term two.

Principal: I’d really like you and Helen to attend this Literacy PD.

Me: I did get the email about that PD but I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me as I attended a Literacy Coordinators’ conference for five days not so long ago at great expense to the school.

Principal: But they really want people to attend this PD. Maybe they haven’t had many takers because they’re prepared to pay schools to cover the cost of emergency teachers.

Me: But that will mean I’ll miss teaching my year 12s. Ahh, I suppose they’ll cope. They’ve got plenty of work to do. But Helen doesn’t normally work on Mondays. It’s her day off.

Principal: Do you think she might go anyway?

Me: Well, knowing Helen (very dedicated; always goes above and beyond the call) she won’t mind. Perhaps you could pay her the CRT money for working on her day off.

Principal: No. (Laughs nervously.) Well, I’ll put you both down for it.

Me: (Thinks. Hmm. Probably won’t be too bad. Two days off campus followed by Anzac Day on the Wednesday. It’ll be like a holiday week with a bit of learning thrown in. Pollyanna. Fool.)

The PD

A literacy resource has been created for literacy leaders in both primary and secondary state schools. This has been compiled by some hard-working seconded teachers who work for the department of education. The resource is actually useful in that it provides theory and teaching strategies and it’s linked to the Victorian Essential Learning Standards. The department is evidently keen to get it out there into schools. One requires a bit of time to get one’s head around this multi-layered resource; bit of time to read the dense text and work out all the interfaces. The PD time-out could be used very effectively to allow teachers to wrap their minds around it with a bit of planned direction.

But no.

Find a presenter who thinks very highly of itself. (Let’s protect this person by giving it anonymity, after all, this is just about me venting.) Give your presenter free rein to be spontaneous; to have a vague notion of where the day might serendipitously head. Allow the presenter to waste time by talking itself up and advertising its own private enterprise.

Find a presenter who claims to be a master of its field and who spends time explaining how clever it is and how much longer than everyone else it’s been teaching. Allow the presenter to bring in silly hats, bells, whistles, squeezy noise-makers, rattles and wigs. The presenter encourages us to play with and wear these toys. Isn’t the presenter a wag? Isn’t it jolly? Isn’t it so hilariously funny? Aren’t we all so stimulated to learn by this puerile patronizing adult play?

Spend the first forty-five minutes of everyone’s precious time getting them to introduce themselves around the room. That’ll get our presenter half way to morning tea break. Keep reminding the group of the time line for the day, rather than actually teaching them anything.

Tell the group they’re going to do a ‘jigsaw’ activity to share their expertise around the group. But first ask if anyone’s unsure what a ‘jigsaw’ activity is. Everyone knows, according to the lack of raised hands. But go on. Explain what the activity comprises anyway. After all, that’ll take up more time.

Now, give your captive teachers a vague task. They are required to read some brief theory about a literacy guru then share it with others in this jigsaw activity. “Right, you’ve got ten minutes. Right, stop. Time’s up,” our presenter says before we’ve had time to digest the material. Off we go to our allocated tables to try to sound intelligent. Somehow, we manage.

During the morning, we are encouraged to write our responses to the session on post-it notes and stick these to the whiteboard. Our presenter wants lots of notes. After lunch, our presenter – “I’m being very brave”, it says. “I’m not going to go home and cry” – reads out the negative comments. One reads. “This is vague and directionless. I have learnt nothing that I can use back in my school. It’s a waste of time.”

So, we’re made to ‘workshop’ this, and other negative comments, in groups. We’re required to valiantly turn the negatives into positives. We’re amazingly tolerant and kind in our responses. “Now wasn’t that a good activity? You can do the same with your own classes when they’re being negative!”

The post-it note activity takes around forty minutes. What had our presenter planned to do had five people in the group not been brave enough to write some honest comments?

And while all this transpires, our presenter drifts around the tables in a variety of wigs and hats, stating the bleeding obvious and big-noting itself, completely oblivious to the negative body language in the room despite being a self-proclaimed and no doubt masters-degreed expert in neuro-linguistic programming.

And I’ve got another day of it tomorrow. I regaled my hapless pharmacist with the story when I popped in to get another packet of Codral Day and Night tabs after the day had ended. Ironically, I would have had to stay home sick today had I been required to teach. His suggestion for coping with the second day of the presentation? When you get there, take two of the night time tabs.

I’d prefer to set my Year 10s on our presenter. They wouldn’t spare our presenter’s feelings.