Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Essential reading when missing school

Mixed emotions about my decision to leave teaching, Anxiety levels high. Like a balloon spluttering around the room cos some idiot didn't tie a knot in it. The balloon, not the room. Have had flashes of panic, heart pounding, wondering whether giving up the security of fortnightly pay, routine, students and teachers who've become friends is a huge mistake.

I'm Red in Shawshank Penitentiary. (I've written about The Shawshank Redemption here.) There's a telling shot of Red amongst the gravestones. Andy's already made his great escape. Red's 'an institutional man' at that stage. Thinks he's never going to leave the walls and routine of Shawshank. He's been inside for so long he's perhaps afraid he might fare no better than Brooks Hadlen on the outside. And we all know - if we've seen the film - what happens to Brooks. Red, after the cynical speech that saw him paroled, needs to 'get busy living.'

So do I. Doesn't matter that I could keep teaching; that kids still enjoy being in my classes - well, most of them do. I need to go.

Before I get even more mawkish, this is what I've been doing to hold back the tears as I've packed up my desk and office and done all the final things that you do when you're leaving. As you know, if you're a teacher who's not just paying off a mortgage and actually likes teaching, along with the good there's plenty of bad and loads of hard work.

I've been listing things I won't miss in no particular order.

Marking. I've had a long standing arrangement with Mr Incredible, the work husband, that should I die on the job, he will throw a pile of marking on top of my coffin as I'm descending towards my imminent vaporisatiion. He won't have to do that now.
The letter H pronounced as 'haitch'. Yeah, I know. Common usage. But it's something that makes me cringe. (Me to class: 'Are you 8 aitch?' Them to me: 'It's 8 'haitch'! Oh my god! She said aitch. It's not aitch it's haitch.' Did I mention that year 8s are often sure of their own rightness about everything?)
Incursion used to denote a visitor, or visitors, to the school. Announcement at briefing: 'It's the Medieval Day incursion on Thursday.' What? The Visigoths are attacking? My principal told me to get used to it because everyone in the education department uses it. In my book an incursion will always be  a hostile attack. And yes, I know. English is a changing language or we'd all be speaking Chaucerian. Or grunting.
'Pronounciation'. A colleague - teaches English - argued that this was now acceptable English usage. I think not, sir. I put a sign on my wall for the benefit of language teaching colleagues who had classes in my room. To pronounce is the verb but the noun is pronunciation, not 'pronounciation'. Who knew? Doubt whether anyone read it, given the regular mispronunciation of the word.
'Compliance': Scope and Sequence; Victorian Curriculum (until the powers that be decide to change it again. The one thing you can be sure of: change.) "Visible learning"..."darda" - not data. Guaranteed Viable Curriculum. Documenting 'units' of work that no one ever reads for accountability's sake.
NAPLAN. Oh-oh. Just vomited in my mouth.
'Reading is shit. I don't do reading. Why do I have to read? Reading's boring.' And so on.
'I'm not racist but...' Won't have to facilitate those necessary but ugly class discussions where I'm fighting all the hate fomented in students' homes and by tabloid media.
Morning briefing. An email would suffice.
Sports reports at morning briefings, after which we all dutifully applaud, cos we're 'strayan'. (That's Australian. We apparently love sport.) I've often wanted to say, 'Costa wrote a really good essay on the class text. It wasn't an HD - a haitch D - but he really made an effort. If you see him around the yard give him a pat on the back.' Enthusiastic applause follows.
Meetings. Because meetings. God forbid that anyone should have a spare hour after teaching all day to do some preparation and marking.
'Can I go toilet?' (Only if you say Can I go to the toilet.) And why do they have to say, and act out, 'I'm busting'?
Can I have a tissue? Don't get me started on the snotting and hawking.
Can I get a drink?
You didn't tell me I had to do it. The passive aggressive whine of the kid who hasn't done its assessment task.
You said it was due tomorrow. 'Didn't she?' 'Yeah, she did.' Strength in numbers. All agree that it was due tomorrow, except for the eight kids who did it by its due date.
You failed me. It's all my fault.
I'm telling my mother/father. Ooh, I'm scared.
PDPs. Professional development plans.
Pending Ns, for kids who haven't completed work requirements and therefore risk being Not Satisfactory.
Phone calls to parents of kids receiving Pending Ns
Parent teacher interviews. Hoo-freaking-ray.
Professional Learning Teams.
Daily form assembly. Unnecessary.
Weekly Whole School Assembly. Power trip. And get a new version of the national anthem.
Delinquent disruptive kids from damaging families.
Whole school approach to discipline. The 'token economy' where you have to pay kids for doing the right thing. Documenting how many tokens you've issued so middle management can gather 'darda' to prove - pretend - it's working.
Uniform checking.
Kids barging through me. In the yard. In doorways.

I could go on but that will do. If I get depressed next year, missing teaching, I'll read the list.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Trial separation.

Notice how I haven't been blogging much about school lately? It's because I'm caught in a loop. Same shit, different day. So after 37 years, I've decided I need a trial separation. 

I've been agonising over this for months. In fact, it's the hardest decision I've ever made in my life. Getting evicted from 'our place' at school probably gave me the shove I needed.  So too did turning sixty. When you get there, dear reader, remember this: you still feel the same inside but everything around you makes you conscious of your age and time running out. Especially having a couple of dads die – mine and my husband's -  and a couple of eighty-something demented mums in aged care.  

Ah, normal vicissitudes notwithstanding I've had everything I've wanted in my teaching career. But it's really hard to give up something for which you intuitively prepared throughout your childhood. I liked the whole idea of teaching from the minute I became a student. Not a student teacher, a kid at school. School felt comfortable. I must have had some good teachers. Some weren't, but that's another story. 

A week ago, after much deliberation and an emotional pain in the core of my being - drama queen? - I called my principal and asked whether I could see him the next day regarding taking twelve months leave. After I made that call, I stood outside the green grocers in the local shopping centre hyperventilating. Because until I suddenly made the decision to make that call I had no idea I was going to leave.  

Despite having largely relished my teaching career, I'm generally under-stimulated by teaching year 8 and 9 students. Careful what you wish for. Back in 2011, I wanted an easier life – less responsibility and less marking. Thus I went part-time, relinquished English coordination – a role I was enjoying 'at the governor's pleasure' - and gave up teaching my regular allotment of two year 12 VCE classes. It was a great relief to reduce my full-time load to three days.  

Back to those year 8 and 9 students. I'm assuming you're all teachers reading this so you know how challenging class management can be at this level. Yes, I really like most of the students I teach but I teach about ten students over my three classes who are very difficult to manage. Of course they all have their own back story and we work with that as we try to educate. But really. Sheesh.  

Many middle school kids, even those without difficult home lives, are hard work. They are wrestling with hormones and drives they've never experienced before. They're emotionally charged, histrionic and will argue that black is white. (If they read that last line I'd be accused of being racist. I kid you not.) They argue and bicker amongst themselves and their allegiances are constantly shifting. Suddenly, almost overnight, they are sure they know everything, much more than any adult, particularly one of my gender and age. It is incredibly difficult  to educate these kids. But we do it, year after year. And when it's working – as it has been every day with one of my year 8 groups this year, it's magic. 

Then there are those adversarial -'oppositional defiant' - students. Usually it's girls in my classes. They're always there waiting to pounce on any perceived transgression. They can be downright rude, and when they gang up, holy mama, it takes all my wiles to ameliorate the situation. (I'm not bad at this. I can make them feel like I'm issuing a detention because I love them so much! You know the line: I care about you too much to let you think that your behaviour is in any way acceptable, and words to that effect.) One rude, bold student who's 'not afraid to express her opinion because she's going to be a lawyer and earn lots of money', can instantly destroy the learning of an entire class – sometimes for the rest of the year if it's not skilfully managed. (Ah, memories.) If one loses patience with this type of student, one is fucked. They can, and will do or say anything but one must keep calm and follow one's management plan, but by god they push the buttons. Some of them will grow out of this behaviour but some of these students will just grow into older ignoramuses, constantly convinced of their entitlement to their own opinion, loudly voiced, no matter how self-absorbed and ill-informed they are. You know the type. 

There's a lot of anxiety in a teacher's life, isn't there? You're constantly on stage and expected to perform. You're judged to within an inch of your existence. Anyone else have anxiety dreams at the start of a new term? You know the one. You're totally unprepared and you get caught out. Or is that just me? One of my recurring dreams involved variations on a scenario where Mr Incredible and I have been evicted from our classrooms and office. I've dreamt that our area has been trashed, bulldozed and reconfigured in some unsuitable way. Meanwhile I'm floundering around the campus facing the impossible goblin's riddle of trying to find my way home to my class, but my home is gone. 

Well, in real life on the last day of last term, my nightmare having eventuated, I'd packed my car with my swivel chair and boxes of stuff I thought I couldn't manage without. It was pouring rain and I was alone unpacking my car at 5pm, trying to make my new office – no heating or cooling but more space – look less bleak. There was something premonitory about it.  

First day of the new term, I didn't know where my period 1 class would meet. My nightmare again. Turns out my new classroom for six periods a week would be a windowless converted former locker bay. My challenging year 8s, in a classroom situated in what we call Siberia, went ape-shit in their new room with its different seating arrangement. One day I puzzled over the unusual absenteeism, marked the roll, wrote my goal – don't get me started – on the board, got twenty minutes into the lesson before about ten kids emerged bright eyed with hilarity from a back office where they'd secreted themselves.  (Everyone's a winner: I enjoyed the twenty minutes without them.)

But we all got used to it and life went on. On the up side, I probably walk an extra k a day getting around the campus. On top of my cycling commute to and from school that's a good work out. 

Now when I'm up at briefing in the main staffroom, I look out through the windows at my fenced off, former haven standing forlornly amidst the rubble incurred during a major school renovation. My nightmare realised. Having coped with that change I'm hoping I'll cope even more easily with a trial separation from teaching. 

I'm interested to find out who I will be if I'm not a teacher.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Curriculum day. Another day in paradise. First world problems.

Warning: there are no educational tips on classroom teaching to follow. This is just a bit about my life at school and probably gives some insight into how I'm dealing with being the fourth eldest person on staff. (I was the youngest once when I began teaching aged 21. Let's have a cheer for me. I'm still teaching after 37 years. Raise your glasses and throw me another pile of marking.)

So, Mr Incredible and I have 'lived' in these two portable classrooms for nigh on 15 years. They are basically two grotty classrooms, a couple of storerooms and an office that we call home when we're working. This space is very important to both of us. While we're close to the admin block and the main staffroom, we're also in the corner of the school campus, not adjoined to any other building. Neither are we on a walkway. People don't interfere with us out in our space. We teach out there and can do our own thing without being in the fishbowl that comprises lots of the rest of the school. It's good. It's also our safe space where we say what we want to each other in confidence and let off steam if necessary. I admit to doing more of this than Mr Incredible. He's calmer than I. He's also a huge part of me staying sane in the workplace. We get each other and are good friends. Hence, he's my work husband and I, I suppose, am his somewhat old work wife.  

Imagine our chagrin, then, to have it announced by the acting principal, at the plenary at the beginning of a curriculum day, that when a new admin block is constructed, we will lose our rooms. There was no consultation about this. Nor any 'heads up'. We, and the rest of the staff, who, incidentally, couldn't care less, were simply told. It was just the acting principal taking the podium and unnecessarily sharing some 'important' news the purpose of which was to remind us that he is acting principal. Possibly. 

I was devastated. Mr Incredible was upset. 
"Pull yourself together, idiot," I rebuked myself. "It's a room. It's not that important. You can cope with this." (And you know, it is just a room, a person and a place and I can and will cope.) I was giving myself this little pep talk as I headed towards an English meeting at which my presence was required, it being curriculum day and all. On the way, one of the young male staff, who'd noticed my reaction to the news, decided it would be fun to tease me about the impending move. I'm normally a jocular sort of person, so I get it. However, I told him, very clearly, that I was upset and asked him to stop.  

"Can you not?" I pleaded. "I'm really cut about this."  

Somehow, this was red rag to a bull and he upped the ante.  

"We can have farewell drinks in your room when you retire," he joshed. Oh, he's hilarious. Not. "Invite your family and friends. It'll really be fun." Ah, he's a riot. 

At that stage, tears spilling from my eyes, I raised a hand in his face and withdrew, again trying to compose myself to tackle the sodding Victorian curriculum and year 9 language analysis.  

Well, I nearly coped. Sat up the back of the English meeting. Breathed deeply. Distracted myself by turning on my computer and finding the requisite documents so I could start my work. Then, unfortunately, the coordinator asked me what I'd be working on for the day. (Don't know why. She'd emailed me to tell me what I'd be working on. Suppose she was checking to see that I'd received my instructions.) Suddenly, I was tongue-tied and every bit my pathetic almost 60 year old self. (Fuck, yeah.) I started crying. At a meeting. In public. Grrr! 

Let's put it down to the emotional lability of the 'elderly'. 

And then I got over it. I mean it's not all doom and gloom on the week where you are given a brand new note book computer, courtesy of the education department.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Teaching now. And then.

It's been an easy term of teaching, freed as I am from the massive workload of senior English.
Oh, there’s lots of burgeoning bum-fluff on the downy faces of my year 8 boys. There’s a bit of swagger; a mini-potentially-swarthy character in the back row. Watch him. Quick to take umbrage; hyper-aware of his power as a student with all the rights. Printed dark tee-shirt visible and hanging down a couple of inches beneath his white uniform shirt. In a couple of years time, gypsy-boy could be brutish and challenging but for now, for this old campaigner, he’s too easy.

Same with mischievous Martina. She stirs the nearby boys; a surreptitious swipe and their books and pencils fly off the table. She’s out of her seat again. Quickly kicks the shin of the same boy. ‘Miss, did you see that?’ He pretends outrage but can’t wait to retaliate. She rocks back on her chair, swings her legs coquettishly. The seating plan nips that one in the clich├ęd bud.

Kids are kids this year in my year 8 and 9 classes. It seems to me I don’t have any severely damaged students.

Touch wood.

I’m following the school GANAG protocol and writing the goal of the lesson on the white-board at the start of each period. I’m encouraging students to assess their own efforts and achievement at the end. Well, generally.

But basically, I’m largely doing the same thing with my middle school kids as I was back in 1979. We called them juniors in those days. Reading, writing, speaking and listening. They were more inclined to read given they weren’t BYOD-ing. That’s ‘bringing your own device’. Or devices, given the ubiquitous mobile phones. The government has stopped giving out free computers. Final drafts of their work will generally be word-processed and printed out. There will be the inevitable submissions on USBs because printers will have run out of ink or won’t be working. I’ll be incurring extra work marking on line, or, to expedite the marking process, printing them out at the school’s expense.

Am I really doing the same thing as I was in 1979, aged 22? At its fundament, yes. I'm the teacher working with a number of students; reading, writing, speaking and listening. However, the previous paragraph reveals that things have indeed changed. Being able to draft on a computer is a huge difference in itself. And what's more, I'm a vastly improved teacher.

In 1979, I taught an all girls class. Thirty-two students. The commercial stream. That is, they learned typing - on mechanical typewriters - and shorthand instead of some more academic pursuit like another language. They sat in four long horizontal rows facing me. I would usually stand on the dais, given there wasn't much room to move among the students. If they needed my assistance, they came to me. My wooden desk was in the corner in front of what had been a fireplace, now sealed up.

In the middle of about the second row sat Vicky, an unruly, threatening fifteen year old. It was early in the year. Arms crossed defiantly, Vicky was sprawled back in her chair, sneering at me. She scared me. Think I'd already told her to remove her feet from the desk. She was wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses which she refused to remove claiming they were prescription.

'What are you staring at?' She snarled, because I'd dared to look in her direction.

'Don't know,' I quipped. ' I haven't got my animal book with me.'

This was one of the lines I'd throw at my sister, or vice versa, when we were fighting. At the time, in that class, it was hilarious and even Vicky joined in the laughter. The class dynamic improved immediately because I'd somehow got Vicky, the disruptive girl, on side.

At 22, I was still a kid myself, seven years older than these year 10 girls. I was teaching instinctively. I'd been raised on sarcasm. My teachers training hadn't taught me how to build students' self-esteem, rather than insulting them, nor how to manage a class without somehow subduing the students, which I found I could do through humour rather than terror.

I certainly wouldn't make a comment like that in 2016. I don't think a graduate teacher would either. 
I know better now. (Thank you, years of experience, professional development, self-education and parenting.) You need more in your teaching repertoire than a good sense of humour, but it certainly helps.

However, one thing remains the same: if your students don't respect you, you can't really teach, no matter how qualified you are. And if you don't really like kids, please leave the profession. (Educator Rita Pierson, says it far more eloquently than I.)