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.


Jane said...

oh, the empathy! as a fellow teacher I applaud you for your honesty and courage.Re the year 10s how well I remember my baptism into my new job when I was hauled into the yearmaster's office on allegations of 'touching' a senior girl. Whaaaa? Oh yes, now i remember, we had to check the pockets of the students as they hopped off the sport bus because a mobile phone had gone missing. As 60 girls filed quickly past me one of them took exception to having her jacket pocket scrunched (she wasn't wearing it, you understand, it was over her arm, like a waiter's tea towel). We didn't even have eye contact! Next thing I know her psycho mother is demanding an apology or else 'I'll report you to the authorities'. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I should have said 'do your worst', not 'I apologise for inadvertently saying or doing anything that has caused you offence...' at which point the girl walks out of the office saying 'don't you ever touch me again!' Perhaps I did molest her?
yes, let's give it up for all those teachers who genuinely do give a damn in the face of fierce opposition. We are vulnerable. We do face a mob of potential disaster everyday, but we keep on going because of the one or two students who 'see the light' and become better citizens of planet earth due to our influence.

Anne Mitchell said...

Hi Fraudulent Teacher,

I'm a new member of the VATE PD Committee and I was disappointed to read that you were less than satisfied with the workshops/forums that you attended at last year's conference.

I urge you to complete the evaluation form that is available for each session and/or speak to one of the VATE people at the end of the day.

I've taken your comments on board and I'll raise the issues at our next committee meeting.

Thanks for your blog, by the way. I'm enjoying reading it.


Fellow teacher, Anne Mitchell