Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fight Club & media beat up


Here we go again. Another beat up by the media of a topic that will waste immense amounts of time within schools. Here's a forum post on the topic.

Amount of research done by media? Positive outcome for the community? None.

I feel for John Forrest SHS as they were just the poor school that was focused on this time. Morley kids in fight after school - hardly headline news..

I wonder if the genius that suggested keeping all students in school until the end of year 12 (especially those students too lazy to get a job) thought through the consequences properly. Couple this to increased scrutiny on suspension rates and we end up with the situation of dangerous students being kept within schools and encouraging/bullying students into situations like the 'Fight club' scenario. How long before we have metal detectors looking for knives, police required on school grounds, security guards patrolling a regular occurrence and schools feeling bullied with little support, with blame pointed squarely at schools? Oh that's right - it's already happening.

We (parents, media, community, government) need to support schools not finger point. We need solutions (exclusion of troubled students is a starting point) not blame. That means parents taking responsibility for their children, programmes that empower social workers with real consequences (such as removal of welfare payments), society taking responsibility for ill prepared parents (like removal of the baby bonus), support for academic students (whether aimed at low or high ability students with grading on progress rather than state based comparison - abolish the smartie chart and myschool!), and no in-school baby sitting programmes (students, not clients/customers).

Senior school is now effectively many things: pathway to university, pathway to vocational studies, home of unsure students and a dumping ground for kids that don't wish for a job nor to study further. There is no pressure on these latter students to perform away from home and little leverage to ensure that they enhance the school environment by contributing to the school. They are disenfranchised, lack enthusiasm, see little in their future beyond today. They need babysitting to prevent them from causing social ill. This is a social problem, not an academic one; worse still it only defers the problem by two years and has significant negative impact on schools. Children that cannot be directed into contributing students (despite all attempts) of the school community need to be directed out of school so that they either come back wanting to be a student or find a new pathway.

Teachers are not social workers, entertainers or babysitters, they are academics there to guide the learning of students and should be valued as such. Schooling is a privilege and a responsibility offered to all but should never be seen as a right. If a student brings a school into disrepute - they should be looking for a new school with fairly tight restrictions placed before re-entry into the school system. If we want better schools we need desperately to make schools academic centres of learning with spotless reputations, place clear boundaries around students, provide power to principals to act; and empower teachers effectively as tools of learning.

Class load next year

I don't know if I like or dislike my proposed timetable for 2009.

It looks like I will have 3 dot periods in a row next year (on a Thursday) which will make life a little difficult. The saving grace is that most of my class sizes are around 15 with taking the level three year 11 classes, modelling in year 12 and some of the alternate eduation kids. Only my year 10 class bodes to be larger than 17.

This time only 3 of my five classes are first timers rather than all five (I've taught year 10's and modelling before). The level 3 classes and the alternate education kids have the potential to draw a lot of time.

So far I'm one period down, which will make me a lightening rod for reliefs too. At least I'm not teaching out of area!

Upper 10's and exam preparation

My upper tens have begun revision for their exam. I've pushed them over the last week, getting them to complete twice as much work as my normal expectation per class as a prelude to expectations in year 11. Next I wanted them to experience the expectation of exams and model how to study in year 11. I set aside four days for them to revise and they did the following:

Day 1: Identification of material that could be in the exam
Day 2: Finding of resources (where in texts, portfolios) and identification of areas of weakness
Day 3: Preparation of notes / judging detail required via marks allocated
Day 4: Review and identification of material to study over weekend

Key findings
Students tend not to use contents pages in texts very well. Even when given words to find (solve, substitute, trigonometry) they can't find where in the text to examine. Students also need to consider that higher order questions are more likely to be in the exam therefore they should make sure they can answer questions at the end of exercises.

It was interesting to note levels of anxiety from the beginning (a couple of students with high levels) and the anxiety decreasing as they realised that they had mastered most of the content already. I look forward to next year when I can show them the progress made from year 9 to 10 by showing them their own year 9 exams and comparing it to their year 10 exam.

Students can now produce notes quite well and after a year of reinforcement they can see how to both use and benefit from them.

Students are starting to see that exam hints can be used to improve marks and how necessary it is to follow up and fix any areas of weakness.

Probability & statistics

I have running battle with my lower tens getting them started but found that a game of craypots generally helped. I've bought some foam cubes from Clark rubber (2 for $3.50) 125cm x 125cm x 125cm.

I've labelled the sides storm, storm, last, fine, fine, fine in red marker so that the students can see what the weather is and decide how to play their craypots to maximise the chance of profit.

It's been great to see students find the maximum possible value, the quickest way to get out of the game (eg. the riskiest route), see their mental mathematics in action and their ability to follow a process. It's a game that's easy to set up (it needs a worksheet and a teacher with dice) and one where the class highscore can be kept to be aimed for. Here's a copy of the online version. When I remember I'll bring home my worksheet for upload.

A fair few other dice games can be found here.

It's also a bit of fun to throw the foam cubes around the room near students not paying attention.


For the first time we reached 500 hits for the month and already have over 500 unique visitors this quarter - well up on last quarter and we still have a month to go. I attribute all this success to the rabbit banner and his joke.

Most popular topics this month were:
CAS Calculators (by far)
Performance pay


Monday, November 24, 2008


Sometimes teaching year 10's you get so caught up in your lesson you miss the bloody obvious.

Today we were looking at distance from origin, Perth to Meekatharra, Perth to Newman and so forth using trip counters and odometers. My students were finding it hard to find the distance between two locations (I forget the real distances so please excuse my made up ones)..

They could understand that the 259km and the 1600km indicated distances from Perth but could not understand how to determine the distance between Meekatharra and Newman. So I tried something similar but with smaller numbers.

When asked the distance between Mary's house and the shops, this time students were able to say 1km. I asked them how they did that and they gave me the answer 9+1=10. I asked if they could think of another way. A sea of blank looks from the new kids in the class. I think to myself OMG. No wonder these kids couldn't do the previous problem. I showed them that subtraction could work and they were able to complete the exercise finding distances between various destinations. By the end it was obvious that they could learn the pattern for solving the problems but did not have an understanding of the underlying maths - thus had forgotten the method by the next problem.

So I went a bit further and used my favourite diagnostic tool. I wrote the following on their page.


And asked them to add one to each number. Thankfully only one student couldn't do this. Then I write 10526 and 52679 at the end of the list and moved to each asking them to say the numbers quietly to me. This was not as successful. This was the trigger to split the class (again) and start these kids on a different programme of work.

The integration of low ability or underschooled students into the mainstream and removal of dedicated remedial classes has meant that many students are falling through the cracks. It is no wonder that some of these kids can be disruptive, disheartened and are having confidence issues. Students that cannot read numbers above 100, can't identify simple operations or understand place value have little chance in mainstream classes. It's enough to make you physically upset and reminds me why I originally intended teaching year 7 rather than senior secondary. The impact of intervention is greater at an earlier age than now.

I have many of these kids next year and have identified areas of focus, we're designing entry tests for new students and aim to improve numeracy with low performing students. It's frustrating the amount of time that it takes to find these issues and detect the underlying factors behind avoidant behaviour. Time will only tell how much success can be made of it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Building a better future for our kids

Getting kids to see opportunity rather than negativity is a key objective for 2009. As times get more difficult and unemployment rises, it is ever so important for kids to use their education for a new start in life and bring hope not only into their lives but into their families.

There are inspirations in every year group, the child with a terminal illness that strives for A's, the child that works every spare second to send money home to parents in Africa, the student that couldn't read two years before and now is able to contribute to mainstream classes.

Once an opportunity is presented to a student we get limited opportunities to demonstrate that effort leads to success. Any success with some kids needs to be celebrated, even staged to ensure that they get on the right road. If they are going to fail at a task (and they must learn how to cope with failure) they need to be supported, prepared and lead by the ear to see the achievement gained in failure. The learning of resilience is important beyond any skill.

We need to believe that they can do things. They have enough doubt in themselves, it does not need to be reinforced. Push them hard, see what they can do - it will always surprise you. Work to drive them to a better place - a good work ethic is an an achievement in itself.

The little darlings need to learn that boundaries are ok and are there to protect them. The world may not be fair or cheering them on, but generally it's not against them. All of us old folk fight for a better future for them. Learning the rules is a precursor to learning how to interact with others and the community - simply modelling polite language can save them from being instantly judged the minute they open their mouths.

Value systems now that religion is no longer impressed on kids are lacking. Without a value system kids lack a knowledge of right and wrong. In a world where everything moves so fast and knowledge is valued over experience, it is hard for them to see that there is wisdom in older folks. This is of course every generations fate - but with the rapid pace of the information age it is being exacerbated. They don't believe in our values (what would we know!) and lack a better system themselves.

Parents, rather than argue at the end of a hard day at work, just give in to an argument - kids do not understand no as an answer being used to the last word. At least until they do something that has a consequence that cannot be overlooked. When this happens, the gentle leading of them to their errors is a hard task that requires patience that I need to develop further.

We need to protect students that have good qualities from students that are developing them. Once an academic student is identified they need to be driven forward. Students developing good qualities need to have champions that mentor them through and help them through difficult times.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reflecting on streaming

We streamed the year ten mathematics classes this year. To our mind it was a success. Other learning areas had heterogeneous classes and had a lot of difficulties with behaviour management issues that streaming helped us avoid. We have our 3A, 2C, 2A and 1B classes for 2009 where many doubted whether they would occur.

The success that we have had has put some pressure on the lower school to stream classes to better cater to our more capable students. There has been some regrouping in lower school classes and teachers have reported improvements in the ability to teach mathematics topics.

The start of the Maths/English streaming debate started this week. Should we stream on mathematics results or English results? Being a mathematics teacher, to my mind it requires little consideration. English teachers on the whole don't want to stream - after all English is a subject that lends itself to the heterogeneous approach - an essay can be assessed on many levels. Mathematics on the other hand tends to be hierarchical with a concept impossible to learn without the building blocks before it. Therefore stream on mathematics.

It doesn't need to be that black and white either. Some clever timetabling was done for us and now Maths, English, SOSE, Science can use a good compromise. We have grouped all yr 10 students into two bands, an upper ability band (class A & B) and a lower ability band (class C&D). A&B's are timetabled at the same time and C&D's are timetabled at the same time.

So for the situation above, in the first example maths students in period 1 are streamed into four classes (movement of students between A&B or C&D can be done freely for each learning area). In period 2 for English, the upper ability group is mixed into two classes and the students from C&D are mixed.

The main issue occurs when students in the C are not streamed correctly (eg. maturity raises their output, students are not assessed correctly etc.) and need to be promoted to the upper ability block. This involves the changing of many classes. All four areas have to be flexible in the promotion of students and the consideration of who can move to the upper band. We try to avoid movement by setting entrance tests before the start of the year and re-examining students after four weeks at the start of term 1. New students are to sit the tests before entering an ability block. The main advantage is the reduction of the level of teaching diversity required - there is less gap between the top and bottom student in each class.

It is not perfect as students may not settle into classes as well as they constantly encounter different student configurations (as typically happens with options classes).

Furthermore, it would be interesting to know if our success would have been the same if students had been streamed in all classes. Maybe the novelty of the streaming process is a factor in the success itself.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The undeserved power of gossip in the staffroom

Gossip is one of those things that is rife in most staff rooms. It always makes me laugh how people assume something is true just because they heard it from someone or multiple people - especially from those in the know (wink... wink...).

I hate gossip. Most of the time it creates cliques where being in the know becomes an important part of the job and increases your status. The easiest way I've found to diffuse the power of gossip is to disseminate absolutely ridiculous gossip to all and sundry. It is hilarious to hear your own make believe come back as fact.

The most irritating type of gossip is the talk about such and such. Her clothes.. his hair.. his attitude to students... the voice.. what the students think.. what such and such said. Everyone has their own idea about the perfect teacher. A diverse culture is the best thing for students.. creating teachers in thy own image is not only short sighted but is detrimental to a school.. Type A personalities take note!

Discrediting gossip has three key effects.. firstly no-one believes any gossip that you have and stops commenting or asking your opinion on things that have little relevance to you.. secondly it makes people think twice before they believe any gossip going around.. and finally by laughing at how gullible people are with gossip, it reduces the ability of those "in the know" from influencing decisions by creating a ground swell of support via the silent network - especially prior to unpopular concepts being implemented or popular concepts being discontinued.

Avoiding staffroom gossip is usually quite simple - avoid the staffroom during lunchtime gossip sessions as much as possible and be known as a little preoccupied with your own learning area. Have interests outside of school to talk about. Most of the time gossip just creates angst, undue tension between staff members, can blow up otherwise controllable situations, creates conflict and is generally just unnecessary for the job.

Time is needed to develop, implement, analyse, continue or discontinue processes within an organisation. Anything that can undermine legitimate organisational processes and structures should be discouraged. Gossip as an undermining influence is number one on my hit list to be stopped wherever possible.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Idiot of the year award (IOTY)

Chris Sarra you are my idiot of the year. You are a candidate for idiot of the century.

Calling those unfortunate souls that get country postings "White Trash" for their efforts in bringing education to the outback is nearly as bad as the Australian publishing this sensationalist tripe.

The article is here.

It takes a special sort of person to go to the outback and teach. Even in hard to teach metropolitan schools it can be difficult. At my school there are at least two people that put their careers aside to teach students like we were, and hopefully we make a difference.

I would suggest that if Chris Sarra feels so strongly about how indigenous students are being poorly treated he should get out there and encourage aboriginal students to become teachers in the outback.

"If I'm an incompetent principal of an Aboriginal school, lacking in courage to challenge parents about why their children are not attending school, it doesn't matter. Aborigines get the blame."

Teachers and schools cannot control whether students come to school. They can encourage students, work with elders in the community and implement government programs. If Chris is seeking to alienate all of us trying our best to help these kids, involved with tutoring and mentoring, policing and medical services, he has succeeded. If Chris thinks making schools into community policemen, reporting who should and shouldn't get welfare, I would suggest that he is attributing the wrong role to the wrong organisation. To do this would increasingly make schools a negative influence in family life rather than an enabling one. The whole ethos of schools is to advise and empower parents and students, not enforce community will onto the unwilling.

"They should tell the parents, 'If this goes on, I can refer you to the authorities because you're in breach of the Education Act. "

Chris clearly has a strange view on the ability of truant officers and community police. My understanding of what the authorities are empowered to do is check that students are OK and encourage parents to return students to school.

If a community does not value education and resists attempts to engage with education, they will become second class citizens - some elders understand this and drive their communities - schools can help but cannot be the driver.

"Dr Sarra says his success was due to challenging students to be strong, smart and act like 'Aborigines' instead of delinquents."

I feel for Chris in some little way as he has been successful in one community, I think his mistake is attributing his success to schooling rather than his ability to act as a community leader - by my reading of the article it was by encouraging students to be aboriginal and proud. It would be great to see this tempered with Australian and proud too. Connection with the community needs to become an increasing goal - with both sides reaching out to make our nation proud.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Entrance exam

Having an entrance exam or pre-test for new students creates an opportunity to discover a lot about a new student. In low socio-economic schools it is very common to have transient students that pop in and out of schools often result in being ejected due to behavioural issues. I am told this is a requirement in other states, but not so in WA.

Transient students typically have little in the way of past reporting and schools can be cagey or lack solid information (especially if it is a local school referring them) about their ability and attitude to schooling. The need to immediately settle these kids into class and give them age and skill appropriate work is essential to establish good working routines and break the cycle. If they don't settle quickly they can ruin a carefully constructed class that is working and reduce it to behavioural problems.

The exam we wrote for year 9 (mentioned here), could be used as an entry test for these kids. It would be an indicator of attitude and ability. As it is two hours we could watch their progress through the test and monitor their attitude to work. The results of the test would give an indication of their skill level. This would remove some of the guesswork and misleading information that can sometimes be put forward by parents that overestimate the skill level of their student. It would also be fair - as it is aimed to be one of the main criteria we use for the initial streaming in year 10 being an exam for completed year 9 coursework. It would also note any key deficiencies that need attention.

As the exam is easy to mark, it could be done by the year coordinator and be free of teacher and parental bias.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Practical application of effective leadership

Today we wrote the test to help us stream the year 9's into year 10 classes for next year effectively. We decided on two one hour exams testing number facts & space/Measurement then Algebra and problem solving.

If I was to write the two exams, I'd have to sit with the outcomes, read half a dozen books to find questions that adequately test the outcomes, do the test, record how long it would take me, estimate how long it will take students, re-evaluate the order of the questions, write a marking key, ensure that the test adequately covers the material originally intended and then two days has passed with little sleep.


Our curriculum leader wrote the exam on a bit of paper off the top of his head, completed the answer key, allocated marks, I typed it up and it was done in two hours. Looking at it, it is far better than what I could have done alone. I worry that the difficulty level is a little high but I am happy to see what happens. If the students underachieve it will be easier to show their progress by the end of year 10 next year.

Experience always tells. There is no doubt, when writing the exam, in the instant between brain and hand, he had done all the things that I would have had to do; and even if I had written the exam knowing that our curriculum leader would look over it and make suggestions is a relief and takes away some of the pressure. Having someone you respect looking over things can make the difference between a new idea being accepted or rejected out of hand. That level of support and challenge is so necessary in your early years.

It is more than just experience though.

We have come up with a heap of hair brained schemes that you could see he doubted would be effective, but rather than dismissing them out of hand, he let us try. Sure enough, some of them had limited effect, but others have helped us understand the students better (like morning classes), others helped organise classes more efficiently (using more common assessment tasks and assessment schedules), others aim to assist students next year (like regrouping the 10's into their COS classes in term 4), helping us by bailing us out of duty when we have over committed (and need extra time to spend with students) and support our school wide initiatives (like a marks book for all classes or detailed programmes for junior school).

Earlier in the year we had moderation and intervention was needed to make sure the material we were presenting was demonstrative of our performance. The material I had prepared was inadequate and he suggested a number of things we had to do with presenting assessment prior to moderation, fixed the issues and our course was judged spot on.

Experienced staff commonly know who to talk to, what procedure is required, how long something will take for approval and what shortcuts are possible. They can save embarrassment from suggesting an idea that has been tried and failed or an idea that is unsuitable for a number of unthought of reasons.

Experienced staff tend to know what resources work and can lay their hands on them - in maths this is especially true with logic puzzle/investigation/problem solving activities that are hard to source.

Our curriculum leader likes to come into my room and takes great pleasure in finding mistakes with my board work (not one of my favourite habits) - but... I'd rather someone that had a clue than someone that didn't care enough to check that the senior school teachers are doing the right thing.

So to sum it up.. good leaders have superior content sequencing & resource knowledge (expert power), be willing to intervene where required and advocate to senior management for junior staff (management expertise), have respect of fellow staff (be charismatic), understand process (administrative expertise) and encourage risk taking (be entrepreneurial).

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Negotiation replacing leadership

When I was at my old school and raised that I thought that some issue was unfair, I was told to negotiate my way out of it with other teachers. I was interested in this concept as in the workforce, if you were told to do something it wasn't a case for negotiation, you just did the job. You relied on the person in management knowing what they were doing and just did the job.

In teaching it's a bit like a flea market. What you are told to do is the first offer. Then you say what you would like to do. Then you find someone who wants what you have been offered and perhaps do a deal to make it happen. A lot of back scratching and deal making commonly hides an old boys network where everyone is looked after with a bit of a wink.

Where this started I have no idea, but it doesn't make it easy for those that genuinely want to make things happen. For someone to lead, others must be inspired or at least willing to follow. Negotiation just slows things down. The person leading needs to know what they are doing and those confident have to follow and preferably want to follow and those dragging their feet or passively resisting have to know there are consequences for such action.

Otherwise, where is the management? Where is the leadership?

To get around convoluted management styles I look for projects that can be managed by only those with a particular skill base and try to make it happen. Design a course of work, have before school classes, assist with after school tutoring, examine calculator usage, run a summer school, realign student groups, create my blog, assist with student events, organise resources, design reporting and assessment schemas. Ideas like this don't need committees and can be a genuine contribution to school results.

The bane of leadership is the committee. A committee is a way of distributing work to many that meet infrequently, rarely get anything done and no-one is to blame if everything fails. If someone does get something done it is usually because the group is overwhelmed by a dominant personality who does all the work (or delegates effectively with the fear of authority) and unfairly has to share the credit because some plod thinks they contributed an idea to the process.

When I'm on a committee, I rely on the principle, don't suggest an idea unless you are willing to do it. And if you suggest something be aware that unless someone else says they can do it better or the group thinks it is a negative idea, you will be doing it. If you don't contribute, you will be removed from the committee. Easy.. instant effective committees. I have never survived long as chairman and even more rarely get asked onto a committee. Which suits me fine :-)

The idea that a participant on a committee is there to get support for senior teacher status rather than a genuine interest in the committee makes a mockery of the process. Jumping through hoops is not the path to progress. Just poorly crafted committees.

Developing problem solving, reading and comprehension skills

My little challenging group of year 10's can be quite difficult to engage at times. A real issue with their maths is getting them to read the question effectively. Completely out of character, they have loved exercises in the book Logic Mysteries by Jane Molnar. Although it misleadingly states grade 3-5 on the cover, the year 10 students have loved the idea of reading these problems and solving them. When I first introduced it, I abandoned the rest of my normal planned lesson as I had not seen these students this enthused and engaged since the algebra topic.

Each mystery has a story and is solved by eradicating options that do not exist. A grid is set up to record the findings as they go through the mystery.

Many great mathematical concepts can be investigated. For instance complementary events become obvious, if she has a bird - all the options in the bird column that are boys can be eradicated. Inequalities can be investigated through clues like Jane's age is less than Mary's. Sets can be investigated through concepts like Mary's item fits in a school bag... and so on..

The main thing is that it requires the students to read the clues that are not necessarily in order, requiring reading and re-reading until they are all done.

A similar book Quizzles or More Quizzles by Wayne Williams has proven very successful with my upper class of year tens. These logic puzzles are multi dimensional and can be quite difficult so be warned!

For these to be successful I invited students to attempt them themselves for 5 minutes then modelled how to complete a problem. Then the following day I gave another problem at the start of class.

Either way, improving comprehension and reading ability is more and more important in mathematics (the temptation to enter into a diatribe as to why we need to teach English in maths here is near on irresistible - I shall try though!). These three books have been some of the more enjoyable methods of developing literacy skills thus far.

Ethical reasoning and streaming

Streaming is a difficult topic as it raises a number of questions regarding student capture, teacher judgement, assessment, and social justice.

Student capture for me is the most critical aspect of a classroom. Capturing a student's interest is a perpetual task, a combination of selling your subject and moving fast enough to keep their interest, yet slowly enough to allow them to fully grasp a subject. For some it can be done through connections with the teacher's personality, others through mathematics success, others through contribution to the class and others by connections with peers. If you can capture a student and get them to consistently have a positive attitude towards your subject then this is the first criteria met for a student to be placed into a difficult mathematics class. Streaming captured students into a class can greatly assist in improving possibility for success.

Teacher judgement is the next criteria. Does the student have the intellectual horsepower to complete the work? No amount of mathematics tutoring will assist a student that has extreme difficulty in reading a question, has too many holes in their skill base or takes too long to understand a new skill. A teacher needs to be able to identify that bit of extra practice that will move the student from being able to use a skill when directed, to be able to apply a skill undirected, to be able to identify the right skill from a range of available skills. It is possible that having to continuously assist a student on a continuous basis will destroy the flow of a class and disadvantage all within it especially in upper range classes.

Assessment is the next criteria. Assessment supports teacher judgement not the other way around. To stream purely on assessment is a recipe for disaster. This is especially true for students riding the end of their ability curve and coasting or loafing. These students, when they hit the wall and finally need to study can be hurt, confused and looking for those to blame for their lack of performance. If these students have not been properly coached before the 'big drop' in results, they can drop morale in a class at a rapid rate. Sometimes (especially in this case or the case where students are having external difficulties) it is best to ignore assessment and use the first two criteria to stream students.

Social justice is the final criteria and it has to be very carefully applied. An injudicious use of social justice to students when streaming will produce weak streams and deprecate the benefits of streaming. Just because a student has a legitimate reason for underperforming does not mean that in time a student will perform. Some say that streaming a class is a social justice issue in itself but watching students being unable to complete work that the rest of the class is working on and suffering self esteem issues or dumbing a class down to the lowest common denominator is not a solution to my mind.

The hardest part of establishing a stream is that it is not an exact science. A student performing at an optimum level with one teacher may not perform at all with another (this is especially true with boys). When creating a stream (especially in small class sizes) team dynamics play a large part - if you can create a team of peers and the teacher anything is possible. It's why I think traditionally the upper classes have been sought after - despite requiring the most skill to make work - they are the ones where there has been most flexibility in construction.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

If that's culture.. you can have it.

Today I sat through Aida. Normally I can handle a little live Opera. I'm sorry, act three of Aida should be classified as grade A torture. Forty minutes to say the army is over there, get caught for treason and be sentenced to being buried alive. Three hours for the whole thing. It felt like forty years.

Want to get someone to talk? Need to know where that bomb has been hidden? Easy peasy.. Stick them in front of that dull as dishwater, repetitive, boring Verde nightmare. By the end of it they would be trying to poke their own eyes out and have their arm buried to the elbows in both ears.

I'd rather eat my own leg off than see it again.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Teacher turnover, teamwork and classes for 2009

The generation of school spirit comes from the school, focuses through teachers and into students. Harmony between teachers is a key component to the generation of that aura of success in a school.

Part of this is ensuring that there is balance between the needs of students and the needs of teachers. At this time of year tension arises between staff regarding the classes teachers would like to teach to further their careers and what is in the best interests of students. What is in the best interest of students is not always the best option. This takes some courage to say, as it has always been my position that students come first - but I think it is naive to think this is always the case.

In the real world, knowledge management issues of a revolving staff are well documented. When staff leave it does not only cost in terms of vetting and rehiring staff but also in the content knowledge loss, training investment and organisational understanding that is only gained through experience with customers.

Teaching is no different. Reduce turnover and the school benefits. An organisation that considers the needs of staff to progress successfully in their careers is an organisation that cares for its staff. To do this staff members needs to have their progress clearly illustrated and documented.

In mathematics, this means careful consideration of the new level 3 MAT and MAS courses. If there are a number of teachers vying for these classes it may be a number of years before teachers are given access to them. Being offered these classes (or knowing that a course has your name on it two years hence) can be a clear motivating factor in staying with the school and fully embracing PD opportunities until that time.

Conversely not being offered these courses or seeing the courses offered to those 'less worthy' can be a demotivational factor. Similarly being continuously asked to take lower school or low ability senior school classes can be disheartening for those seeking to enhance their skill base or for those seeking rapid promotion.

This ties very close to timetabling as many promotional opportunities rely on staff having access to senior school classes. Timetabling can often make or break the way a teacher sees their classes. Teaching out of area, sharing classes with other teachers, large class sizes, behaviourally 'difficult' classes can all be contributors to negative staff morale.

For a maths team to be successful they have to work as a team, support each other and find new and innovative solutions to student behavioural, content delivery and motivational issues. When class distribution for the following year is being considered, it means that careful thought has to be made as to what will satisfy the majority of the team, motivate members and ultimately prevent turnover.

Union president and lack of representative integrity

Anne Gisborne, president of the SSTUWA, is again out whoring the latest EBA attempt. Her actions are disgraceful.

A person in a representative capacity should not have made this comment in the media:

"Teachers union president Anne Gisborne admitted its members were running out of reasons to end the long-running pay dispute with the Government after the in-principle pay agreement."

Who is she to decide what her members should think? That is why members have a vote. She has been elected to represent members views even when member views are not her own (the last vote proved that members do not share her voice and thus she should keep it reserved until she again has member support). If she does cannot represent members and put her own views aside when it disagrees with members then she should step down.

It doesn't take blind Freddy to see that this union faces extinction if it continues to not heed the mandate given by its own State council and continue to act irresponsibly towards its members. The acts of the genuine few believers will not be enough to stem the tide of those leaving the union. Unfortunately the outcome will be no true public school system (other than a safety net), pay per use education and further movement to a multiple class society.

Monday, November 3, 2008

EBA4 Teacher pay rise and the new offer

Here is a link to the DET summary of EBA4

General opinion seems to be to accept the offer which is around 20% over three years (including the 6% we already have) with the next pay increase scheduled for October 09. No back pay to the last agreement. No 15 hrs unpaid overtime (eg. compulsory PD).

I can't say that I am excited - but will be glad when I can focus on teaching and all the fuss about wages and conditions stops.

I suppose I think back to the original questions posed at the start of the campaign.
  • Has the new EBA created a profession with salary and conditions that will attract new teachers? No.
  • Does the new EBA create conditions that will keep existing teachers within the system? No.
  • Has the new EBA energised teachers within classrooms by making a statement that they are a valued part of the community? No.
  • Should we fight further? No. In an economic downturn we should lick our wounds and stand aside.

To my mind the whole EBA process has been a lost opportunity, but now is not the time to resume this fight, it is a time to regroup, accept the small gains and prepare as one (DET, teachers, union, community, media, government) to create a feeling that education is the most critical element of our society.

When we better appreciate, evaluate and express publicly the positive contribution education makes to the community, then and only then will large increases to teaching budgets and salaries be justified.

Changing role of senior school

Senior school, years 10,11,12 have traditionally been the home of the most experienced teachers. These teachers generally have a vast amount of experience that is tapped from time to time by other teachers when need arises, either in behaviour management, content knowledge and generally are aware of how things work, what has been tried before and how to get things done. They have the experience to guide our students through to TEE, university entry or into VET pathways where necessary.

Now I say this as an observer (as I am neither experienced, nor the most capable in senior school). I have no ambitions for a HoD role and actively promote the idea that the HoD should teach the most capable class and other senior school teachers should do an apprenticeship of sorts with mid range classes to hone technique and pedagogy first. ... and I enjoy classroom teaching too much to get involved with the admin required to do the job properly.

Somewhere along the line I think we have lost track of what senior school teachers bring to the school. We have lost our heads of department in Mathematics/English/SoSE/Science to other areas such as literacy experts and careers guidance, L3 adminstrative roles. Responsibility now for the performance of learning areas has fallen to those incapable of measuring success or failure as they may not have ever taught the subject.

An issue that is currently rising is the lack of time to complete yr 12 COS in time for the TEE exams. With 1 term lost to the exam process, it leaves only 16 weeks per semester to complete the course. A possible way to increase the amount of teaching time for COS is to use term 4 year 10 to start the COS process and to start the year 12 course a term early.

Staffing of this is a real issue because if a unit starts in term four, few teachers are willing to take on an overloaded teaching schedule to make this happen. At this time of year the temptation arises to utilise senior school staff to fulfil this role as in many cases they will be teaching these students in the following years anyway.

I think we need to resist this happening especially for our HoD's. If our best and most capable are not given unallocated time to identify and remedy issues within learning areas it is only likely that over time things will get worse. The time that they put into improving staff ability and student output is clearly underestimated and is not being adequately nurtured. It would be good to see the complete opposite occur and HoD's given the time, recognition, responsibility and pay to make things happen.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Class size & the concept of 'Intervention Time'

I have heard many times that reduced class size is not a factor in learning or that it has minimal effect. Reduced class sizes is not the panacea to improved student learning but it is a handy tool when used correctly. To have an early intervention strategy there must be adequate class time for intervention.

If you have a high performing class of motivated students (with 3 levels between the top and bottom performing students), class sizes of around thirty in year ten can be managed. You would need to use a fair amount of skill to keep them motivated as after instruction and settling time (say 30 mins per class, two blocks of instruction, h/w and pack up) it would be hard to get to every student every class to identify issues, correct them (say 1 minute of intervention time per student per class) and maintain their learning inertia. You would more reliant on picking up issues during the homework, quiz, revision, assessment and corrections teaching cycle and complete more marking out of class.

In a mid performing class (with four levels between the top and bottom performing students) with around 20 students and 20 minutes of instruction and settling time you could get to each student twice (eg. average of 2 mins of intervention time per lesson). This seems feasible.

If you have a low performing student group in mathematics (with five levels between the top and bottom performing students), I would say that a class of 30 is lunacy (there are usually valid and disparate reasons why students are this far behind) and would send the best teachers barmy. Under normal circumstances in these types of classes there are not enough corners in the room to separate disruptive students. Each student in a class of that type requires constant attention to fully enjoy and appreciate mathematics. For example in my class, one student required behavioural attention once every 3 minutes (I timed him), each time requiring further attention to settle him. In a class of thirty that would make teaching nigh near impossible. For a class of this type it is preferable to have intervention time around 3-4 minutes per student, limiting class sizes to 13-16 students. This size of class would also promote more collaborative work, especially if other teachers are willing to assist during their DOTT or if a T/A is available.

In practice each student does not need (or get) an individual minute of your time and is normally able to do their work without individual intervention through the teacher identifying classwide issues and modifying instructional techniques (eg. more modelling), by using peer assistance, having effective instructional notes, by increasing participation in after class discussion or by bringing groups of students back to the board. What the intervention time model does is provide a benchmark of performance and can help identify structural issues vs teaching issues with classes that are clearly not working.

Using a model of this nature we could measure the learning capacity of student groups (by creating class sizes and monitoring teaching/intervention/disruption time) and the approximate class sizes required to teach them optimally. This has the potential to greatly assist in designing and justifying appropriate class sizes for our students.