Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why teach?

Teaching in a relatively hard to teach school seems to be a place to test the mettle of young would-be teachers.  We get a fair amount, they are generally very good and we have to weed out a few.  The first difficult question I ask a wannabe teacher is "Why do you want to teach?"

It's a valid question and one that I still get asked weekly - both by students, friends and acquaintences.   You can predict the failure of a teaching practicum with a fair degree of accuracy with this question.

If the answer is I don't know, or it was all I could do, the motivation to overcome adversity will likely not be there and the student will struggle until they can answer it.

If the answer is I love students, they might make it through, but the "teacher as an entertainer" model better really suit them because teaching for love is a pretty stupid reason that hits a hurdle with the first class that doesn't like you.  You won't be doing what kids want to do most of the time (unless you have thrown the syllabus out the window from a math class) and in classes of 30 it is rare to achieve this.

If the answer is that I love learning or I think I could do a better job than my teachers, then there is hope.  It's not the answer that I'm looking for, but young teachers can get by with either.  One is based in the idea that I can learn to be better (reflective practice) and the second is based on a pre-conceived notion of what not to do.  Strangely enough either of these can work and lead to successful careers in teaching.  I feel for these teachers through, as the end product tends to be unhappiness, as learning is only one component in teaching and competing with a bad memory is hard to sustain.

The answer to my mind is I need to teach.  It is my vocation and my desire, it dominates my thinking and I get a real buzz out of seeing others achieve.  It gives you your connection to your students.  When you find the kid or mature age teaching student that understands that teaching is at its heart a vocation, mentor them, harden them up and find a way to get them through.  The concept is based in a selfless desire,  a fire in the belly that keeps many of us going even when we're battling to get students through and our own personal dilemmas.

Hand in hand with this idea, my grandmother taught me that the gift is in the giving, whenever I feel down, I look for a way to help others.  It's a key element to teaching and ties to teacher motivation.. She also taught me not to be a patsy and that goes together with it.

A more involved question is "why teach in a hard to staff school?"   The elephant in the room is that many will assume you're not good enough to teach elsewhere.  For some it is about ease of access to the rewards of seeing students fly (they've got further to go so it is easier to make happen), for others the ability to right a social wrong, for others the lack of teaching demands and for others it is returning to the community the time put into you.

They're a gutsy choice for young teachers, as they are far from the easy option.  With the right support though it is both rewarding and contributes to society in a way leafy green roles can't.  There is something special about watching a family escape poverty cycles through education.  Low SES schools are not for everyone but are the home for many of us that seek to make a difference.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Ideas vs proven methods

In any organisation my voice will be heard.  I don't fear offering an opinion and over time people learn how to use my opinions effectively.  I'm sure as hell not always right, but can be a good sounding board for ideas.

It always amuses me when someone argues a position and then gets sad when my position moves closer to theirs, undermining their argument.  I'm not as fixed as I should be, although probably more fixed in my ways than when I started teaching.

If someone has a better idea, I try to welcome it and embrace it (it is hard to give up an idea that has taken time to develop).  If someone attacks one of my ideas/ideals/opinions in the spirit it is given, then it is a welcome discussion - it can only create a stronger position (if only to better understand the counter argument).  The only time I really get frustrated is when ideas are attacked purely because of the person that is giving it.  I've been on both sides of this and get frustrated with myself when I catch myself doing it.  A colleague generally taps me on the shoulder to reconsider my position (and if they know me well enough) can snap me out of it.

The ability to offer an idea without fear of reprisal and the ability to develop ideas through dialogue is important to an organisation.  Developing ideas before implementation will increase the chance of success significantly.  Developing ideas in a vacuum can be a frustrating process of reinventing the wheel.

I feel to some degree I am doing this at the moment.  In developing better support for teachers, I am working with teachers with many years more experience - offering an opinion can either scratch wounds, state the obvious or sound naive.  Many of my ideas feel simplistic, to counter this I am actively looking and listening to successful strategies currently being used in our school in other learning areas and in other schools where I have colleagues in similar circumstances.

Creating a Math/Science department is also problematic, as I am trying to bring two teams together and I lack science experience.  Gaining knowledge of the needs and wants of the science team is drawing attention from the math team, also needing help, development and guidance.  I remind myself that I'm 10 weeks into a new job and can only do so much - yet it's obvious I need to do more to get the job done, and new responsibilities are on their way shortly.

I need to keep thinking about what I am doing, and do it better.  It sounds obvious, but if I keep focus on the big picture over time our learning programme will improve further.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

End of Term

It hasn't been an easy term with structural projects within the school being navigated whilst teaching programmes needed to continue.  Whilst the process has been traversed as well as it could be, these things are not pleasant to be a part of and finalisation of them such that the focus of driving learning can  be re-established will be a welcome change.

My first term as HoD is now nearly over.  The departmental focus has been implementing resolution processes to ensure that a mutual understanding (teachers and students) of issues and consequences is effected.  The issue is at the heart of teacher morale and having a HoD where responsibility lies seems to be making a difference. The outcome should be that teachers feel better supported and clear boundaries are set for students to work within.

There is an inbuilt conflict built into the HoD role in a small school as it has elements of student services (the "you'll be all right" care team type stuff) and the discipline ("this has gone on long enough, understand the consequences that follow") side.  With struggling students you can be on both sides within short time frames.

Whilst doing the role I have tried to keep development of the teams going, working with teachers to develop skills, encouraging others to demonstrate their leadership capabilities within teams, develop behavioural support structures, identify professional development opportunities and allow staff time to demonstrate skills learned before intervening.  With a challenging group of students, I always seem uncertain that I am doing enough, whilst the image seems to be that I have a lot of time and can be doing more.

The disappointing part is that I have not been able to achieve my core objectives for term 1, the completion of the math learning area plan and implement RTP in math/science.  The learning area plan is incomplete although is evolving in structure to meet the needs of the school, but RTP is mired in the structural change, until classes become settled and administrative capacity available there seems little point to implementation.

There is a always a need for those in leadership positions to lead.  With reduced numbers of L3 positions in the school I am mindful that this is ever more the case.  Morale of staff is sometimes about pointing out the obvious achievements, keeping a focus on learning, identifying the positives, dealing directly with issues, discouraging negative perceptions and generating a culture around sound student achievement.

In the last few weeks in my own classes I have focused on student engagement, developing clear connections for students between assessment outcomes and the need to take ownership of results.  It is evident that students often do not realise the need to utilise resources available, but it is equally evident that they need reasons made explicit to utilise these resources.  One example was a test that students did poorly in - I provided two options for them - attend after school classes voluntarily to improve or I'll make calls to parents and make it involuntary.  Needless to say they were empowered to turn up after school and enjoyed the well planned extension class (well done team!).  It's ideas like this that can keep a group engaged and improving.

Having my computer stolen was devastating both in a loss of trust in my students and organisationally as it is a core element of my teaching.  We had been working on iPad deployment with it, and without it we have had to stop.  It's taken time to register with police and liaise with admin, time that would be better spent on learning programmes.  I'm also disappointed that the work for the 1-1 iPad deployment was discarded for a shared model.  This too has wasted a lot of effort in developing resources and deployment infrastructure.

The structural changes in the school will evolve the idea of HoD at our school and the school will have to decide whether my abilities fits the role.  I'm doing my best to listen and enact changes as I see possible, but I need to recognise I can't be everything to everyone.  It's week 9, and not a time to over think stuff - just execute and recharge over the holidays.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Supporting students after graduation

I have witnessed many wonderful things evolve at our school, but one of the most promising is the development of effective support structures for ex students.  Developing Win-win situations for ex students and the school is very important to make these relationships work for all involved.

When I first arrived six years ago, graduating students often came back to the school and looked a bit lost.  They said hello to teachers that barely remembered their names and I would get the feeling of loss that they would feel, coming back to a place where they were happy and felt safe that was now closed to them.  This loss was heartfelt, as school is a launching pad for these students, a support that after graduation is lost.

Over the next few years we have looked at ways to engage ex-students, provide a level of support going forward and use the skills gained by students in navigating school to assist students within the system.  It's a way of leveraging the goodwill gained during the 'best' times of their lives (though if it truly is the best, I'd be sad as it is a very small part of their lives).

The most obvious way was to encourage tertiary students to help at summer school.  Students entering ATAR make mistakes preparing for the final two years and won't always listen to teachers as to the best method for preparing for one of the most stressful situations in their lives.  By coming to summer school after graduation, they can share their experiences and have clear evidence of how far they have come in comparison to their fellow students.  It's downtime for most students, so it only has minor impact on their commitments.

The recent emerging structure is seeing students come back as paid tutors after school. Students in first and second year university are finding that ICT is decreasing the number of required contact hours and they are now more free to engage in work related activities.  We have found that our graduates are happy to come back and help out in after school programmes for high performing students and tutor.  As effective tutors have typically been very difficult to find, it has been welcome to utilise they students as a resource (and fulfil a need of theirs to both belong and support their income).

A welcome aside is to assist our university bound students complete their courses.  Our success is truly measured in their success and being able to give graduating students effective post-school support at critical times in their university journey may be the difference in completing their courses and failing.  Assistance may be helping them through a first year math course and adapting to a more text orientated learning style with clear language differences than experienced in school.  Support at tertiary institutions that work for a green leafy students, may not work for our headstrong students, who either do not fit in with peers well, or are too headstrong to engage in help structures and typically do not work well in groups.  It takes them time to realise that there are students less intelligent that are completing successfully their courses and that they have something to offer beyond cynicism and self deprecating comments.

I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of students seeking math teaching as a pathway into the workforce.  Having employed two of our mathematics practicum teachers in our team of four and having more on standby means that we have a pool of culturally aware teachers available to develop our mathematics department that can hit the ground running and avoid common issues found with our students.  The fact that some of these are ex-students developing their peers is a whole of community bonus.

Much of this is officially non-core to our mission, but we know that many low-socioeconomic strategies have failed to increase tertiary engagement and effect social change.  Post school programmes tied back to effective in school processes may be a factor that has not been sufficiently considered.