Friday, December 22, 2017

Mental Health - The unwritten story in WA Education

Mental Health (particularly depression and anxiety) is one of those things that cannot be written about or discussed freely in the staffroom.  It adds a level of complexity to teaching children and a level of complexity to the role of a teacher.  Being labelled with a mental health issue is not something that is easily moved on.  It is an underground issue that can change how a child is perceived and limit the progression and career of a teacher.

2016 was the year of challenges for boys in education.  The fear of leaving school was palpable with little in the way of career opportunities for boys, both in the mining sciences through tertiary study, through building and construction or through manufacturing industries.  The path to a wage or salary position was unclear, as were pathways to white or blue collar work.  Students saw parents in long term unemployment.  The number of mental health raised issues rose in schools, as did neglect and behavioural issues in classes.  The meaning of why students should seek education as a path to employment was blurred as increasingly specialised schooling did not provide the promise of first jobs and the value of a generalised education for the future was not being sold to students that knew better through observations of society and the freedom of information available.  Everyone is an expert in the Facebook and Google age.  The validity of information and truth itself became increasingly questionable and fake everything became the norm, fame the object rather than the result of success and narcissism the new black.  Add to that students that have achieved D/Es in math for their entire schooling that are progressing at a high level but know that they are not at level though mandatory use of Australian Curriculum grading really did not help.  Worryingly recreational drug use appeared to be rising again leading to further mental health issues.

2017 was the year where mental health in teaching staff reached the limit of what could be supported.  The question was not who had mental health challenges, but who didn't, who was still able to cope regardless and who had to be nursed through until they could cope again.  The demands of an education system with limited discipline support, where engagement was the only real answer, where curriculum was alienating large parts of the student cohort, where curriculum modification required teaching three to four years on either side of the curriculum set, where the teacher had to have the answers or be deemed incapable placed additional pressure on teaching and administrative staff.  Tie this together with budget measures increasing class sizes, reducing access to behavioural programmes and diminishing external support (the loss of headspace and other programmes had an effect) was a bit of a tsunami in terms of stress in the classroom.  Supporting and managing staff with emerging or with diagnosed mental health issues is often a thankless task.

The positive is that private and charitable organisations are starting to fill the need but it adds an additional level of management required on an already stressed administrative system.  Where three to four people in a school now manage staffing, timetabling, behaviour, analysis, strategic planning, marketing, performance management, finance, community standing - it is not always clear how they can also focus on academic performance, course counseling and wellbeing of staff and students - leading to a feeling of a tokenistic approach at times.  This was always going to be the challenge of de-centralisation and the independent school system - the same resources to achieve local agendas, a grand but difficult plan to implement.

Engagement of students is always the ultimate aim, in a world where schools drive the wellbeing of the local community, I'm not sure schools are sufficiently resourced, either with adequate trained manpower or financially to achieve societal aims.  With the influx of career teachers and the diminishing number of vocational teachers (who are burning out trying to achieve what previously could be done with a little effort), next year could be a tough one both in dealing with the inevitable turnover that comes from time to time and some tough cohorts that are travelling through the system.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Professional Development - Connect use in 2016

I was asked to do a Connect beginners session (a social networking/LMS/feedback/calendar/submission portal developed by the department) at the local group of high schools PD session.  I said ok, I can train anyone in anything given a little knowledge of the product and how it is applied.  Generally speaking, people like the sessions, will sit through them and try to learn.

Connect though is a funny beast.  It's reasonably mature and is being used by students and teachers. It works now, it's not a bad time to adopt it as long as there is a commitment to keep developing it by the department.  There are issues with it though that have nothing to do with the software.

Firstly, teachers need to understand it does nothing without a commitment to it.  By this I mean if you want it to work, you (as teacher) must clearly define what you want it to do in your classroom.  When I used a similar portal (Edmodo) successfully I had a clear idea of what I wanted it to do for me.  I wanted to extend my reach beyond the classroom to assist students when I was not physically present. 

I had a commitment to Just-in-time intervention, a strategy that requires responses when the student requires it.  This required my solution to evolve as needs arose.  The skill I required as a teacher was to keep these intervention events in the classroom and maximise learning time outside of the classroom.

I started by attempting a flipped classroom and blending my learning with ICT.  Edmodo (like Connect can do) provided the glue between the instructional sessions (designed by me a few lessons in advance on a tablet and posted online or during instructional periods in class on an IWB later posted online) and response sessions.  I made a commitment to my students that I would respond out of hours (if I was available - generally after my kids went to bed) to provide solutions to problems students experienced in attempting classwork.   Simple things I could prompt with short text answers, curly ones I would explore using a graphics tablet and record my voice to show how I explored the question and derived an answer.

Now that they were familiar with the programme I introduced materials from other sources that they could access with new topics, Khan academy topics and mathsonline were great for this.

Then I added quizzes to provide formative feedback, things like exit statements from lessons or readiness percentages for tests and assignments.  As other teachers became aware of the success, they tapped in and started answering questions for my students and I did the same for theirs.  This also provided prompts to revisit topics where confusion reigned.

The great thing about one of the classes is that my time teaching reduced considerably, the students would ask me to sit down and not teach.  I think this was because we managed to plug more holes this way, they started to answer each other's questions more frequently and they were more capable of independently learning, confident that if they became stuck, help was available.

Each step, I explicitly taught to students.  They had to understand what it was for - there was no learning by immersion or osmosis - if they didn't know it was there or how to use it, it might as well have been just another useless page on the internet.

Going back to Connect - this is the sort of thinking that has to sit behind it's use.  Connect is useless if it has not purpose in (or out) of the classroom.  I used all sorts of tricks to get them using a portal initially, but with some perseverance they became the easiest to teach and the highest performing class I have ever had.  I'd like to think what I learned could be used by someone else.  I know at least one person has it figured out and continues to evolve their own solution.

How do I teach that to 60 people?  When I was researching it, my supervisor concluded it was me not the ICT use that was successful.  I'm not sure I agree with him, but enthusiasm for teaching is infectious - it could be the forming of a synergistic class/teacher relationship (with high levels of confidence in their teacher) is the result of ICT usage rather than any benefit derived from the usage itself.

I don't know.  Wish me luck!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

2016 and the move to Administration

It's two or so years since my last post and a fair bit has happened.  From Head of Department to Dean of Studies to Deputy Principal of senior school.  It would appear that my career has gone from strength to strength.

Perhaps on paper, but it sure has had its ups and downs.  The hardest part about the transition to administration by far is the loneliness that goes with it.  In a small public high school there are 5-6 administrators, generally dealing with different issues than teaching staff.  First and foremost, you are by necessity distancing yourself from teaching colleagues.  You now have a line to carry, whether you believe in it or not, in order to provide a united front for the school.  Disunity among admin is tantamount to a dysfunctional school.  The vision for the school starts here.  Managing friendships and management is not easy to do, and it is often more practical not to try and draw a line in the sand.  You work long hours with limited contact with anyone other than discipline cases and parents that are highly defensive and in many cases feel powerless to positively change the situation.

Next is the management of staff.  Vocational staff are lofty in their ideals and don't mind how many hours they work, career staff are there to collect a wage in order to provide a livelihood for their families.  Most teachers fall between these two extremes.  The way both staff are managed are completely different and requires a deft touch to massage egos and be mindful of family commitments.  Some are purely burnt out, others ineffectual, others outstanding but require careful stroking.  To be honest this is where I get criticised because personally I believe we are paid a lot to do a job.  The bare minimum expectation is that you do it.  I'm often a little too black and white about this and this causes me trouble.  Stroking staff is not an attribute that I have been required to develop in the past, and I find it mildly distasteful.  We do what we do due to personal motivation, lack the motivation and you are not doing your job.    Unlike with students, motivation has always been the problem of staff themselves.  There is an element of motivating staff required, but when teaching philosophies are so diametrically opposed, reconciling yourself to saying what needs to be said to maintain a status quo rather than dealing with the issue I find difficult.  I feel I am learning, but on this front I appear a slow learner.

Perception is always an issue.  People cannot see what you are doing, and judge you based on how well you do their task.  Sure it may not be the most important task that needs doing, but it is to them.  That student that did not pick up a piece of paper, that is late to class, has not completed homework can be just as important to resolve as the incident where a student has been assaulted.  Talk in the staffroom forgets all the good done and focuses on the current issue as if it was the "thing" wrong with the school.  Sentiment changes and your popularity with staff changes likewise as policy that is implemented is not always popular.  You are rarely judged on how well something is implemented or considered, the only comment I can recall said to me is that "you are a good operator".

The last two years were hard, transitioning from a job that I had done well for some time (as teacher and Head of Mathematics) to a job that was challenging due to staffing constraints (as Head of Math/Science) to a role that I found difficult and was initially ill defined (as Dean of Studies) and now temporarily to Deputy.  In each role I assisted the person moving behind me into it by improving process, building a functional team (or improving a dysfunctional one) and providing a foundation to build upon future success.

Physically and emotionally there has been a toll, one that is still being paid.  The returns from teaching are harder to find away from the classroom - there is a high from teaching that is poorly understood or recognised.  Take that high away and I see little to recommend in the job other than a wage that sends my girls to private schools - somehow from being a vocational teacher, I have become a career administrator.  My task now is to find the reward and vocation in the job in other areas; be that strategic development, staff development, staff managment, timetabling, career counselling, student counselling, curriculum development, marketing, behaviour and risk management or the other ten hats a Deputy or Dean of Studies wears.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

2014 Achievements and the IOTY

2014 was a difficult year in that it lacked the proactive measures that we have achieved in previous years.  Loss of a valued staff member and the care and ultimate passing of a loved one resulted in reduced capacity to implement measures that were in the pipeline.

We did achieve a few things though:

- research is done for organising teaching observations in 2015.
- the 6th summer school has been organised and is over subscribed again with 48 students.
- Mathematics Academy classes have run for the 7th year.
- new staff are integrating well and capacity is growing in Math/Science.
- the Fogerty leadership programme helped develop stronger planning measures for the school.
- we're looking at a number of fun behaviour management schemes.
- transition went well and numbers are looking good.
- implementation of the new behaviour management policy.
- implementation of the formal streaming process.
- implementation of the ICT plan and rollout of 200 units of ICT across the school.
- made connections with like minded schools to ensure issues faced with small groups are diminished in 2015.
- plans have been presented to further enhance the mathematics programme through an engineering and public speaking focus in 2015.
- Australian curriculum implementation is progressing well.

The IOTY award for 2014 goes jointly to the teachers union, our beloved premier and the media for repeatedly reporting that we were on the list for closure or amalgamation during year 7 and 8 enrollment times.  A close second goes to the commonwealth for mandating inflexible A-E grading when it is not appropriate for schools with significant delays such as commonly found in low socio-economic schools.