Thursday, September 10, 2009

The importance of community support

I listened to an inspiring sermon by our local minister last Sunday on the importance of community and how he was inspired by those he had worked with. This is ever so true in teaching as without support of the school community it is easy to become disheartened and contrariwise, with the support of community it is ever so much easier to stay inspired.

I'm hardly a chapter quoting churchgoer, but as he pointed out in his sermon, it's hard to find a like minded group of people honestly consistently wanting to do good in the community outside the church without an agenda. He maintained that you found it in the vocations such as teaching and nursing, but sometimes it feels like the system wants employees because they are easier to manage.

During the week I was asked to address our local parish as to why I teach and how this fits with gospel values. Teaching tends to be a vocation that gets under your skin and doesn't let go. I remember the teacher that made a difference for me - and probably doesn't even know it. He was the one that prodded me and kept me working when I would have rather slept at the back of the room. He had no real reason to try, there were more capable students, more engaged and less ornery. I'm glad he did - without his efforts in year 10, I wouldn't be able to write a sentence, nor structure my thoughts in any coherent manner.

When I entered teaching, I had a strong urge to return to the community what it had given me. Escape from poverty, a wonderful family, a successful career, an education, a home, a love of life and now a beautiful daughter. I felt I had a responsibility and an opportunity to do some good. Although opportunities arose to further my career or pursue further self development - teaching felt like the right thing to do.

My background tends to be what guides my teaching. When I am tempted to focus on an engaged student, I think what my life would have been like if I had been allowed to drift along doing the bare minimum. Giving students a prod, reminding them of their responsibilities, encouraging them. Finding students that have potential to do more. Encouraging a student to finish school. Talking to a student that hasn't been spoken to all day. Pointing out where students have failed to help others avoid the same pitfalls. Sharing my own success and failures. Inspiring as I had been inspired.

Another aspect of the decision to teach was the birth of our first child. As a parent, you are the front line of education with everyone else supporting cast. I needed to be a better parent and understand the teaching process. If I had the opportunity I needed to do something if I intended to raise a child.

Watching Mackenzie around the community, one observes her as a contributing member of society at age 6 months. It takes a very funny show (maybe a couple of times a year) or a talented comedian that has spent years honing his craft to give me a belly laugh yet she can make random people glow with joy with just a innocent smile. Ensuring she keeps that outlook and dodges cynicism and materialism is an awesome task. Teacher training and church involvement is just one element of that responsibility. Teaching is an opportunity to extend that responsibility outside the home.

A simple example is the child that swears without thinking, that makes inappropriate comments for effect or that wears suggestive clothing at an early age. Self image is so important at that age, telling a student to be a lady or giving them back the image that it is ok to play and be childlike (and to enjoy it!) is one of the pleasures of teaching. They look at me strangely when I say, 'you're too young to have a boyfriend - you should be playing with your dolly' or when I sit and play board games or basketball in the yard. It frustrates me when I watch kids play grown ups, iPods in ears or messaging each other via Facebook (don't get me started here - any organisation that redefines friend into acquaintance denigrates human relationships and interaction). Coming from an IT background I've seen the end product of people that cannot communicate - programmers are a classic modern phenomena and usually useless in society. We need to allow and model the framework to laugh and play, communicate ideas and ways of venting frustration in a modern world where both parents work and little time is actually spent developing these skills.

A year 10 student once said to me, in despair, how do I become a nice person. It was a heartbreaking moment. My response was to surround yourself with nice people. She did and it worked, a young child grew into wonderful young adult, that I'm sure has lapses but now thinks of them as the exception, no longer the norm, she no longer seeks to push boundaries unless to find improvement within herself. That has always been my outlook, we're not perfect. Find people that you can grow with, from my grandmother who lived "the gift is in the giving" to longstanding friends I have known forever.

I also tend to think that without the 'do-gooder' vocational teachers in education (as opposed to the 'I'm in it for the money and lifestyle' teachers) we lose something in the public system. Although values based education is 'embedded' in the curriculum, typically it is a token effort or bastardised by lobbyists such as the feminist and environmentalist movements. Values is not teaching care for the environment, it's creating an attitude where it is a natural response to care for others (and thus care for the environment). The value of 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' is much deeper than female salaries are too low, glass ceiling issues etc. Without an underlying message, trendy modern issues are a load of wafty nonsense that is irrelevant to a child's self. The idea of building your self concept on treating others as you would be treated (regardless of how they treat you!) is a fundamental in nonsecular education and something sadly missing in public education. We need to treat the cause not the symptoms. Back to my original point - without our 'do-gooder' teachers students would have little evidence that people do do good without rhyme or reason, only for the satisfaction that it is a pleasure to do so.

That's not to say there aren't big buzzes in teaching too - the moments when the lights go on and the sparkle appears when a students gets something they've struggled with for years, when a student says they're only in school because of your classes, the student that proudly says they want to be the first in their family to make to university/graduate/past year 10 (and does it), a disengaged student argues that they deserve a better grade, a truant starts turning up to school, a student starts offering answers in class, a student says that maths is their favourite subject, when they write you down as their favourite teacher in the yearbook, when you are offered classes others are more qualified to teach, when you design a summer school.. and the kids come.. and enjoy it.. during the school holidays for 5 days!

The interaction with the minister was enough to move my thoughts from issues within the school back towards improving my teaching practices. That's the importance of community involvement - it's a process of inspiring others as 'discipleship' inspires those in the church. Everyone plays a part in the community - especially media (it's why I'm frequently critical of them and their search for sensational byline and headlines)! We have to be careful to not only focus on the negatives and criticise; but to seek ways to make each other better emotionally, intellectually and in developing higher levels of motivation in our teaching practitioners and practices.

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