Before reading this post a word of warning. If you are easily offended by expletives or graphic descriptions please avert your eyes. If not – welcome to my world.
Our school carries a wonderfully bureaucratic euphemism – it is a “difficult to staff” school. We operate in one of the poorest areas of town. Many parents who send kids to our school have not been rewarded by the system of education and they hardly instil the values of importance of education in their offspring.
Last week, one of our students got assaulted by a former student of ours at a bus stop waiting to go to an excursion at a neighbouring university. I stopped the assault only to be assaulted myself. This afternoon, on the way to the bus stop I was called, loudly and in my face, a “fucking cunt” by a Year 10 student after calmly disposing of a piece of plastic hurled at me few moments earlier. He had sat in my class just a few hours before. This school term alone, I have lost track of the times I was told either directly or indirectly (but clearly) to either ‘fuck off’ or ‘piss off’, or was simply and completely ignored as a person, let alone some sort of person invested with authority and responsibility to care for and (forbid!) teach, role-model or ‘inspire’ as the quote garden would have it. About half of my Year 11 Economics class openly say that they are ‘dumb and don’t care about the grades anyway’. My colleagues could recount dozens of stories just like this or worse as part of their ‘regular day’. Yes, we have a reputation of a ‘bad’ school and, depending what measure you look at, we have numbers to prove it (hello bean counters and ‘performance managers’ out there!)
We accept all comers – dumb, smart, poor, rich, talented, deaf, disabled, spoiled, abused … name a box and we have them in. We nag about the uniforms but sometimes quietly agree that it is a good thing that a particular kid has actually come to school, even if unwashed, out of uniform, hungry and sometimes bruised. We may not celebrate Sorry Day with big hoo-ha but we do an awful lot of good for the population on 20% of indigenous students at our school (2nd largest in Perth Metro area, State public school average 3%). Our teachers may bitch, groan, nag and complain but they/we support each other and the kids on countless occasions and often to an amazing extent. I could go on about the many wonderful acts of humanity we as individuals and a school community perform year in year out.
One of the hardest things at our school are not necessarily the things you often hear teachers complaining about – too much admin work, paperwork, bureaucracy, assessments etc. Yes, these certainly are a pain but there is something bigger and more insidious. We juggle and negotiate, consciously and unconsciously, difficult ethical choices every day, particularly at times of student misdemeanour or lack of effort. Do we favour a ‘rights based’, consequentialist, flexible approach that favours positive consequences over adherence to rules, or do we believe in duty and equality and simply never bend the rules so people can and must be responsible for their actions?
Is it (not) morally wrong to dismiss the life chances, dealt to students outside of their control and follow some arbitrary, impersonal rules? Is it (not) equally morally wrong to believe that our fate is completely sealed by the life chances and the system, therefore washing away any responsibility to turn anti-social, self-defeating, fatalist “I’m dumb and this is a crap school” thinking to something that would help reach one’s full potential?
One thing is saying ‘let’s give students more voice and freedom’, only to see staff literally abused, physically, verbally and mentally. Another thing is saying ‘if we only had strict rules and we simply all followed them’, then finding the policing of rules overwhelming while pissing off some pretty highly strung teenagers with constant nagging, plus getting upset about them reacting in ways they probably see normal at home (“What the fuck is wrong with swearing Sir, we do it at home all the time.”).
It’s a juggling act that takes it out of the toughest of drill sargeants and the softest of nurturers. And it happens at our school every day.
I read posts of fellow bloggers, particularly those with an ICT, ed-tech bend like Lauren O’Grady, Tony Searl, Chris Betcher, Dean Groom and others, about their projects, ‘flat classrooms’, goosebump days (Lauren, love your work to bits, couldn’t resist the punsy title sorry) their frustrations etc. “Phew” I often think “I yearn for kids who aspire, who don’t think they are dumb, who prefer to ask questions rather than expect to be spoonfed the answers to avoid (responsibility for) failure, who want to confidently think, create, stand up and say ‘this is good, I’d like to share it with someone”.
There are many moments when I look at my iGoogle, Twitter, blogs, network, Moodle, file types and other ICT thingymejiggys (a very Australian word, a possibly shorter synonym is ‘thingymebob’ – am I right here Aussie-borns?) as a peripheral sideshow in all of this, a trivial concern that has nothing to do with real people and the problems they face in their lives. But then something strikes me and keeps me banging on about ICT … its potential for change.
The sole reasons why I personally push for and like ICT (so) much are the enormous possibilities it provides for better engagement, care, confidence, freedom and ethics. It has the possibility for changing the numbingly ineffective system that clearly has not and will not reward many students in our school, but who are creative, smart, and caring. It has the possibility for staff to pay less attention to the ever-changing bureaucratic concoction called “the syllabus” and stop chasing grades and other external factors we so often falsely assume students are motivated by. Not only the students but we as educators are likely to be far more motivated internally by sound relationships, care, wit, humour, real learning that is personal, challenging, relevant, and has the potential to be creative and inclusive. ICT tools ain’t going to do that by itself, we need confident, supported, creative and passionate teachers and students to use them.
Yes, like in many schools we do some hard yards. But some of the things that we have done at our school on the ICT front like Moodle, collaborative forums etc. are opening the door not necessarily for better academic results (quite likely though) but for a different ethic of living and acting as a school community. It’s the stuff that drives me and a growing number of my colleagues and students. And a supportive principal Trevor Hunter definitely helps.
To have 21st century learning we need to negotiate 18th century system of education, based on false meritocracy. Schools still reproduce society, they don’t reconstruct it – as much as many of us would like to think otherwise. Maybe ICT is the Trojan horse of change that will allow schools to reconstruct and create rather than merely react to societal changes. But ICT will remain a tinker if the change is not structural and if Education Revolution (a version of NCLB for those of you reading this in the United States) is followed, despite all its riches in computer equipment.
Having a computer ‘on tap’ is not going to stop a teenager calling me a ‘fucking cunt’, setting fire to the toilets or get his mother to stop sticking needles in her arm. But being part of something successful, personally meaningful and human through the interactions ICT can afford beyond the walls of the classroom may just curb the impulse at first, then make him think and act differently, confidently, freely and responsibly.
And who knows, that teenager may want to teach one day too.