Friday, December 10, 2010

More VATE conference reflections

VATE 2010

The VATE conference reached my expectations this year; provided stimulus to kick start my thirty second year of teaching.

1. It was really good getting away from school for two days.
2. I had a like-minded colleague – and driver - to hang out with.
3. Saw a couple of my writing idols, Shaun Carney and Catherine Deveny.
4. Participated in an intimate master class led by Deveny.
5. Got some new insights into Elia Kazan and On The Waterfront.

1. The end of the school year is invariably fraught. The senior students, in many ways my raison d’etre, have gone. I’m left with my small dose of year 7 and 8 students, most of whom are yet, through no fault of their own, to reach ‘the age of reason’. I have to watch myself to avoid encounters like this:
Scene: I’m showing the DVD of Holes using laptop and data projector. The DVD is damaged – unbeknown to me prior to starting the lesson. The DVD keeps freezing. The only remedy is to eject it, insert it and try again in a different place. Kayla, a sullen, usually benign 14 year old, is telling me, repeatedly, how to fix the computer, as only a 14 year old who knows everything can. Like I’m an idiot. Other students, from their vantage point of strength in numbers in a dark room, join in the meddlesome, unhelpful chorus. I’m equally frustrated by the faulty DVD as I’m leaning over my laptop, peering at the dimly lit keyboard, vainly trying to find a solution. The patronising adolescent know-it-all non-advice is getting right up my wick. I lose my temper. Oh-oh. I ask the stupid question. “Kayla, do I look like a complete moron?” “Yes,” she titters, delighting her friends.

And then there are the replacement classes which one picks up. Mostly hell. Reports are being finalised. People are leaving, some against their wishes. Positions of responsibility are being assigned for good or bad for the following year, and at our place, some bad decisions have gone down. It’s good to have time out at a conference.

2. My “driver” – KD, a colleague - picked me up at eight for a nine o’ clock start. An effortless drive, well, for me anyway. As he negotiated the peak hour traffic for an hour, I allowed my inner monologue out and KD listened and contributed appropriately. This luxury seemed to add to the whole package. He probably had to hug a tree at the end of it all, but what the hey?

3. My writing idols. Too much to say. It’s a personal thing.

4. Perhaps Catherine Deveny was, for me, the most stimulating person at the VATE conference. I attended her master class on Tuesday morning. I saw a different person from the person I’ve seen before. (I’ve attended Deveny’s book launch, seen her God is Bullshit show and have relished her writing in The Age until her infamous sacking.) Suppose it was a more intimate and personal setting. She was enthusiastic; full of passion and good ideas; extremely generous and personable. “Perfection is the enemy of good,” she said, amongst other things. This is her exhortation to just get on with one’s writing. She’s rarely satisfied with her writing, she says, but it doesn’t stop her getting on with it and getting it out there. Wish I could be more like Deveny. She bounces back. Things that would have made me livid and ready to attack or retreat don’t seem to faze her. Deveny spoke on a panel following the master class. She was witty and commanded the audience. Obviously riled some participants including ‘Dr Glenn McLaren’, another panel member. “Unlike Catherine,” he said, beginning his speech, “I want to make people think.” Prick. He certainly made people bristle. Such an insult – from an adult - would have rendered me impotent. I’d have been unable to function. But not Deveny. She evidently registered the remark but continued to listen respectfully, even throwing in a ‘hear, hear’ when he mentioned something about increasing teachers’ salaries. I’m so impressed by this resilience; this boldness that allows her to damn the torpedoes and get her ideas out there.

5. The final session I attended on the second day was led by Rachel Kafka. It was called Kazan’s America. This woman had a tough gig. People are tired after long days of concentrating. Some don’t even make it to the final session. I was just about keeling over with exhaustion. Happily, this presenter was great; erudite, lively, well prepared, passionate about her subject. What’s more she generously emailed her PowerPoint the next day.

I'm not sure I write so well when I'm being positive. Seem to do cynical better. But it's only fair to pay credit to VATE when it's due.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Random thoughts on VATE 2010

Arriving at Deakin Uni, my colleague, KD, and I headed straight into the keynote. No time for coffee. First, the inaugural Ian Maxwell address delivered by his grandson, Roland. Nicely nostalgic and anecdotal. And brief. Breathed a sigh of relief thinking this was it. But this was the Jubilee Conference; a self-congratulatory name-dropping conference, it seemed, when our revered speaker took the podium, striding out confidently in frock, blazer and high heels, despite the prodigious weight of her CV. Down hill from there. Aunty Doreen’s quasi-religious gumleafy earnest Welcome to Country had already given me a push. It’s just me. I’m irreverent.

The incredibly well-credentialed keynote speaker read, and misread, a tedious potted history of VATE. Her misreading and subsequent apologising was almost punctuation. Couldn’t see from my seat whether or not she was wearing reading glasses. If she wasn’t, she should be. If she was, time for an upgrade. Was a bit surprised that she seemed to have written in her speech “And now perhaps with my principal’s hat on”. Thought those remarks were off the cuff. Apparently not.

It was about this time that someone in the control booth turned on the massive slideshow so we had Deakin Uni spruiking its stuff behind her. Maybe she flicked a switch herself to wake us up. It was a bit hard to concentrate, even though I know it’s important that VATE has achieved all this stuff. At this point I opened my notebook and started focusing on the woman in front of me in her puff sleeved beige patterned shirt with a Christmas decoration pinning up her hair. Quite diverting watching her fumbling to get a rattly Eclipse mint from her little tin without making a noise. KD was playing with his iPhone and around me people were poking through the contents of their show bags.

The only way to proceed after this was up. I wasn't disappointed. More later, perhaps.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Writing a memory

I teach a Year 7 creative writing class and occasionally I write while my students are writing. I was using Andy Griffiths' Swinging on a clothesline and the word 'parka' in one of his pieces sparked my memory.

Parkas were in fashion in 1969. Eventually, I got one, probably after lots of pleading. We bought it one Saturday morning at Victoria Market. This was the only place to get a bargain, or so it seemed, back then. There wasn’t the plethora of markets and shopping precincts that we have now. This was before Highpoint, before the late Moonee Ponds Market, now a sleek overpriced shopping complex. This was way back. Shops closed at 5.30 on Friday nights and at noon on Saturdays. Absolutely no trading on Sunday; a day of rest, church for lots of families, followed by Sunday roasts. So Saturday morning was a bum’s rush of driving from Avondale Heights to North Melbourne through Kensington - no freeway back then - Spanish donuts, sacks of potatoes and spruikers of vegetables. And my mum worked full-time , so this shopping time was precious. It would have been an extra effort to fit in a shop for a parka for her middle daughter, but somehow she managed it.

The thigh length parka was navy blue with criss-cross quilting. It had a zip detachable hood with a white fur edging, side slit pockets and long sleeves. I loved it. It was winter so I wore it to school. I was in Form 2 at high school. An outer overcoat was forbidden over our grey gym tunics, grey jumpers and blazers but nonetheless I was wearing it one recess in the B Block corridor by the grey metal lockers. We were hanging around inside at the end of B Block where the Form 2 girls’ lockers were, outside the needlework room and opposite the laundry where I had my violin lessons. (No dedicated music rooms back then.)

Somehow the girls and I got into some stupidity that involved me tucking the sleeves of my parka inside, making a straight jacket of sorts, and putting the jacket back on and getting back into my jacket with my arms pressed to my sides. One girl then zipped me up to my neck. Still in the mood of hysterics, giggling and teasing, they decided to put me in a coat locker. How small I must have been.

I had ceased enjoying the experience but was trying not to show it. I protested but I was still pushed into the grey metal hole. I was helpless in my straightjacket.

I was distressed, almost crying but trying to play along bravely as if I didn’t care; I felt, well, trapped and humiliated.

Friends were very important and one could be ousted from a group on less than a whim.

I begged to be released. And then the bell sounded. Still laughing, my friends grabbed books and headed to class. We were more afraid of authority in 1969. Lateness was forbidden.

The corridor had cleared a few minutes later, when our young and highly respected history teacher, freed me. She didn’t rebuke me. She didn’t need to. I was a combination of relieved and deeply embarrassed to appear such a fool in front of a teacher I held in such high regard.

I wonder if I would have been so embarrassed had I been a thirteen year old in 2010.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Holiday. Celebrate.

Interesting how many of my English teaching Facebook friends have posted about doing piles of marking during the holidays. I have an aversion to this particular holiday torture, but despite working double time for the last week of term, I inevitably end up with at least one pile of marking that needs my attention during the break. This time I had two, unfortunately, but I dealt with them by putting my school bag at my bedside and doing a few hours marking on the first Saturday morning of the hols. My thinking was that if I did the work before I got out of bed, it wouldn't impinge on my holiday time. That is, my holiday wouldn't commence until I got out of bed on the Saturday. Mental. But who wouldn't be after thirty years of this?

Our school has also got with the zeitgeist of making the year 12s do their trial exams during the break. The idea is that the dedicated teachers will dash in, tongues hanging out, to collect the exams and get a head start on term 4 by beginning it with all the exams marked. Well, they can stick that up their jacksy.

Or are you one of those teachers who take extra lessons during the school holidays? I was a little that way inclined back in the day. Not now. If I haven't taught the course effectively during term time, with all those classes and all that extra-curricular counselling/tuition that I do, not to mention 24/7 availability on line, I'm evidently not efficient enough. As such, I get a little miffed when inevitably, at briefing at the start of the new term, 'prin class' thanks those 'more dedicated' teachers who gave up their own time to run classes during the vacation.

For me it's been a bit of travelling/cycling and some light holiday reading. Just finished 'Petite Anglaise', an appealing looking true story that I found amongst the remaindered items in a local book store. It's about an expat English womah blogging, famously (and I thought inappropriately) about her life in Paris. Oh to have a personal life to blog about. Clearly, she's not an English teacher.

Actually, it's not that bad. I did manage to steal a little carefully organised leave this year, without inconveniencing my students too much. Spent a blissful five weeks cycling in France.

Monday, August 09, 2010


Seventy plus teachers and ancillary staff head to various computer rooms for Ultranet training. And thus it begins, entirely as expected. No one can access the Ultranet. But like dutiful children, we persist. No doubt, so do the other thousands of teachers across the state, trying to log onto the system at 9.05 this morning.

Eventually, IT guy gives us a twenty minute break for coffee and asks us to meet in the library for a bit of a lecture on the capabilities of the wonderful Ultranet. During the lecture, which is very hard to follow because we can't access the system, I - and everyone else illicitly checking their in-boxes - receive an Edumail message from DEECD IT support informing us that the Ultranet is not functioning. Hilarious.

Our collective inability to access Ultranet continues for the rest of the day.

IT guy informs me that as the organiser of the day, he'd been directed to forward both his plan for the day with a functioning Ultranet, and a contingency plan, should the system fail.

We all knew it would fail. The My School website crashed on launch day. Myki still isn't working properly.

In the messages from the IT department, reminding us throughout the day that the system wasn't functioning, we were directed, like children when it rains on sports day, to do some other busy work task that didn't rely on the Ultranet.

To borrow from the abbreviated textings of many of my students: LMFAO for much of the morning. But at 1.30 an email arrived from the IT service department telling us the Ultranet was now fully functioning and that we were invited to get on it and do our stuff.

That's when I became frustrated. Because initially I still couldn't get on it. And when I finally accessed my home page, I couldn't move from the home page onto any other site. Like a good girl though, I kept on trying until 3.45.

Meanwhile, our English department has a perfectly well functioning wikispace that already meets all our on line needs. In all the time I've been using it, wikispaces has never failed me. Nor have any one of loads of sites I frequently use that have millions of worldwide users.

But apart from today's Ultranet fiasco, I'm not thrilled with the Ultranet. As head of my department, I've already done some training and have had a play on the site at home. I find it slow and hard to negotiate. When I started using Facebook, I found it easy to navigate. Same with Blogger. All the help readily at hand; really simple to use. So what's the story with the Ultranet, given all the monetary resources that have been thrown at it??

On the positive side, had we not had our abortive Ultranet training day, I would have had a full teaching day, followed by a meeting. And the catered lunch was good. Otherwise, it was an unforgivable waste of time, affecting every state school teacher, and every family with children in state schools. Pretty disgusting all up.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Teaching's not all bad!

I often commemorate the crap on this blog. But it's not all bad. In fact it's quite often uplifting, or I wouldn't have pursued this vocation for the past thirty or so years. Here's part of an email I just received from a student's mum:

...Also thanks for going through Em's
story the other day, she really does appreciate your thoughts,
comments. I think that she would really benefit from being in your
class. I am really hoping she has you next year & you can steer her in
the right direction, Em seems to respond well to you. Your the only
teacher that received a gift from overseas - couldn't wait to buy you
something. You must be a fantastic teacher."

This particular student had a burgeoning talent as a writer; something I tried to nurture when she was in my Creative Writing elective. That was eighteen months ago, so I was quite surprised when she turned up at the staffroom the other day with her latest piece of writing, wanting my advice. I didn't know I'd made a difference - thought she'd bought everyone a gift after her overseas trip.

Something to remember when it seems overwhelmingly negative.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010


I'm feeling overworked and a bit like packing it in, today. First, yesterday's news.

A stranger was lurking with a clipboard in my classroom yesterday. "I'm just auditing," he said, by way of explanation. Just had to trust that he was official, and not about to filch my purse or my laptop from the office. He seemed congenial.

"Hope I don't have to move out of my room," I told him, as if he cared. "Think I'll have to retire if that's the case."
"Not to worry," said he. "Just an audit!" Yeah, whatever that is.

I did freak a bit though, and shared my paranoia with my office companion. "Not to worry, Jude." He didn't raise his eyes from his Age. He's used to me catastrophising.

Three-thirty, the same day, one of the Assistant Principals wanders into our rooms. "You've got to pack up all your things and clear out of your office and these rooms by Friday," he told us. And FARK said the crow, me.

The department has decided that our asbestos-y ceilings must be replaced. They're pulling the ceilings down and replacing them. Yes, I'm glad I'm being protected from asbestosis - hopefully I haven't picked it up in the last seven years that I've lived and breathed in my poisonous classroom and office. But I hate chaos. And this all comes in the middle of marking and cross-marking the first Creating and Presenting SAC, which I organise for all the year 12 teachers. I'm also on countdown to a well deserved short stint of Long Service Leave. Prior to departing for a bit of swanning along the Danube on a bike, I have to organise the whole faculty to operate smoothly during my brief absence: reports, exams, my senior students, my replacement teacher.

It's fraught, but I know I'll cope, despite a bit of pain between the shoulder blades.

Which leads me to what made me feel like opting out of this teaching lark altogether. At our staff meeting this afternoon, with the sky darkening, wind howling, trees thrashing the windows, IT guy told us, in his dulcet tones, about the Ultranet. Now I've rolled with all the changes incurred in secondary teaching since 1978, including the biggie: the introduction of VCE in 1991. I've adapted to the introduction of ICT when I can still remember us all oohing and aahing over a computer mouse in 1984, wondering whether it would ever catch on. But this whole expensive Ultranet thing really got up my wick.

It sounds as though the department wants us to be drones, accessible to parents at their convenience, not ours. Everything - curriculum, assessment records, comments on students' work - must be on line to allow parent scrutiny whenever.

I'm deeply concerned about teachers' rights and teachers' workload. It's just taking some of the spontaneous joy out of what has been a demanding but worthwhile career.

Hope I'm just negative because I've been up to my elbows in dust and cockroaches clearing out my office. Hope the Ultranet really does improve teaching and learning.

Time to connect with my old man and see what he's got planned for Europe. Lucky one of us has time to plan the trip.