Category: Teaching

Stories and musing about teaching

Bye Mister


Last period. Hot. Humid. First part of the lesson falls apart completely, no calming down here. ‘Journal writing’ later? Yeah, right. Plan … P?

“15 minutes to see who can keep a piece of paper in the air the longest? Must let go, cannot touch or be supported by anything, launch with two feet on the ground.”

15 minutes of making mayhem, not one child uninterested, withdrawn. Great atmosphere, humour. Clever designs, different approaches to the problem. After that, 15 minutes of launching and friendly, funny argy bargy whose was in the air the longest. The mighty mess all cleaned up in five.

We have a teen who sits on the couch, always quiet, withdrawn, “no good at anything Sir, it’s all luck” lack of belief in any of his abilities, poor attendance record and diagnosed with things he … certainly ISN’T displaying now! He tests, he shows, he smiles, he tries and … comes second, close to the winner and far from number three. Leaves beaming, “Bye Mister”.

Think we have some material to work with there as far as sense of agency, internal locus of control, self-esteem and desire to be included, doing things that are valued? Yeah, we’ll get to the literacy and curriculum thing, for sure.

Yes, he might be in a complete heap tomorrow, no guarantee. All small steps, small steps. Or as the motto of our school goes: “One student at a time.”

PS One of my ‘aspirations’ this year is to briefly recount these little gems (and flops!) that happen in a place called school. I do so publicly not for admiration nor criticism (believe me, I am NOT a good teacher in many a mind based on this) but to simply add to the rich tapestry of understanding of what is it that teachers do. Because the moment you can ‘define it’ – it changes. And I like that in all its messiness.

What is your fish tank?


I have a tank in my class. No, two tanks actually. Fish tanks, metre and a bit long each. I found them sitting lonely and empty as I started my work at my new school.

Took the tanks into my class. Asked a few boys who, I have been warned and confirmed, can ‘be a handful’ to fill both one third with sand. Done, with gusto.  ‘My weakest’ (ah, the labels…) student shows me the best way to empty the crate of sand into the tank without spilling sand. Brilliant, smart, effective.

I produce a bag of toy soldiers, four mini armies in different colours. The glass tanks come alive. Forts, dugouts, trenches are built. Number of boys in different classes just ‘want to play a bit’ with the soldiers. ‘Work and play” take-turn system is born on the go. No walkouts, dramas or inappropriate behaviour when playing with the soldiers. Sharing is turned on.

Strategy to avoid ‘doing work’ ie writing most of these boys aren’t good at? Possibly. Enjoyment from being able to play with toys as something the kid may not have had much in the past? Likely, even more.


“Play with the soldiers, go for it, 20 minutes. Set a battle scene and then describe it. Tell, write down who is fighting who. What is the commander of the red guys saying to his troops? Take a photo and describe the view of the machine-gunner at the back. What about the guy with the grenade launcher? What do you think he wrote to his family last night, before the battle? Think you can do something like that?”


You can’t ‘box’ teaching. It’s too beautiful, too frustrating, too dynamic and complex to do so. Why I teach. Or as one of my favourite authors Arundhati Roy would say

“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”

Teachers, or not, we all have our ‘fish tanks’. What is yours?

What is the role of a teacher?


Yesterday, a student baked this cake. For me. The same student organised a class party but refused to call it that: “It’s not a class party, it’s a party for Mister because he’s leaving us.”

This student is one I waited for hours all up, chased down the hall, argued with, copped verbal abuse from, endured her raging fury and theatrical walk-offs, refused her blackmail, nagged, annoyed with ‘stupid boring stuff’ I had to teach, sent out, warned, reported, gave fail or sub-standard grade, raised voice at countless times and more. When I told staff she’d baked a cake, the incredulous looks said it all.

I also stood up for her when bullied, given her space when needed, sent her out not to punish but to just be when clearly upset, given assessment alternatives, extensions, looked the other way over small stuff sometimes, explained when asked for and more.

Most of all, I never held a grudge. Every day, we started with a clean slate. One of us, or both, just ‘had a bad day’. She knew that, as bad as it got the day before, I’d welcome her without a sigh or frown the very next day. This built the all-important net of safety and trust this student could count on.

There is no box to tick about it. It doesn’t register. There is no ‘tool’ for it nor is it new, ‘revolutionary’ in any way. But it helped us both to learn, be. It helped us not to just get along but sometimes have a conversation, a task, an act to learn all sorts of things from and achieve some, if seemingly little, academic success. The cake says we got something right, with much left to do.

Is this some kind of ‘outstanding teaching’ thing? No, not really. It’s what thousands of my colleagues do, day in day out, around the world.

Which invites the question as basic as it is open-ended: What is the role of a teacher? I invite you to read this ponder by Bill Boyle and watch the outstanding video below (well worth a few minutes of your time, the end is particularly poignant). I cheat here and say ‘me too’ to both these sources because in so many ways they echo my sentiment more eloquently than I can.

Getting the foundational answer to that question right is more important than any of the stuff the revolutionaries, reformers and regurgitators would have us believe.

I hope you have a peaceful and wonderful festive season and, to my Southern Hemisphere colleagues – a case of great summer holidays.

PS For the record … 6 of my 25 Year 10s that bothered to turn up today simply sneaked out of class five minutes before time as I returned a cord to the office, not a kind word uttered or a gesture made. This after a year spent together and loads of effort and considerable expense on my part. I’d rather them say ‘screw you’ than that but … it is what it is. Just so you don’t think I operate in some magic edu-land.

Kid whispering


Horse whisperer (noun)
A person who tames and trains horses by gentle methods and speech.

Recently, I was described by a respected educator as a ‘kid whisperer’, a person who, as the originating definition above suggests, is gentle and fairly attuned with students in my care. Now, those of who have worked with me know I can bellow a mighty shout and a stern look when needed too, let’s not pretend … But overall, the gentle and patient has been my forte. To be called a kid whisperer is, to me, a badge of honour.

I have been asked the ‘what do you do?” type questions. A quick, from-the-hip reply goes like the following.  And please do read the disclaimer too:

Tip #1 Watch what is going on. Listen, watch the child’s body language and your own, know the context, ask, create then keep a SAFE space for expression, whatever the form. If a kid looks hungry, upset, sleepy, sad … don’t ignore it for the sake of ‘efficiency’ but acknowledge and work with what you have in front of you, not what you would like to have in front of you.

Tip #2 Respond in unusual ways if need be. Disrupt the standard responses (raising voice, punishment, showing disappointment, overly praising, coldly quoting the rules, just slower and louder … you get it, surely). Say something the student is not expecting to hear but would perhaps like to hear, then go from there.

Tip #3 Find out something personal about each student. Does not have to be big, just big enough to strike a conversation, quick occasional “how is the BMX racing going? Got your new bike yet?” Yard, informal a great place for it.

‘Pablo’ (not his real name) is ‘trouble’ – in trouble, labelled as trouble, causing trouble. I could throw half a dozen edu-acronyms and phrases at you to describe him. He had called me a f*****g c**t only a few weeks ago, to which he was suspended for a day. Rightly so, boundaries do and must exist.

Yesterday, Pablo flatly refused to work on the environmental assignment like the rest of the class. Five minutes later, I asked him (gently, one-to-one): “OK, look, I get that writing about the Murray river probably isn’t the most important thing to you right now. What IS important to you right now?” Not the usual response …

Pablo paused and said: “I need to work on my CV [resume].” An interesting thing for a ‘trouble’ 13-year old to say. “Would you like me to help you with it?” Nothing to do with rivers here but let’s see where this leads …”

Where it has lead to is an amazing insight into his life, aspirations and family circumstances. He felt safe to tell me. He felt listened to. Tomorrow, we are finishing our collaboratively written CV and cover letter so he can letter-drop local businesses for a small part-time job. I, the guy whom he insulted a week ago, will be honoured to be his referee. And what do you think are the chances of him at least trying to write about the Murray river after that? Yeah, that.

The story I tell is real. The ‘tips’ I offer are real. But then, they are mere tips and they remind me of another story:

Ratko Rudic, the world’s most successful water polo coach (and my former coach) was invited by our national federation to work with coaches. He was bemused by the number of people who wanted ‘quick tips’ on all sorts of things:

“These Aussies are funny. Like the Americans, they want … what do they call them … ‘tips’ on legwork. Sure I can give them that in good will but I can’t give them the ten years of time and effort it took me to work it out myself. And I am still learning it!”

If you think that any of this can help your work with kids in your care – please use, spread, change, quote, make yours at will. No problem. But just like my old coach, I am telling you that all this is hard work in progress for ends I can never be certain of.

Just like listening itself. I for one still don’t do enough of it, especially of the youth in my care. And every teacher worth their title will probably tell you that.

Which students should I care about less?

I read and resonate with Dr Linda Graham’s post ‘Educational researchers are right: schools should dump naughty corners and time-out strategies’ and I can see how it can be a red rag to thousands of my teaching colleagues, parents and pundits. Naughty corners, time outs, behaviour peg ladders, smiley faces/sad faces for behaviour, various points systems etc ‘in breach on International Convention on the Rights of Children’? “Come on, you are joking, right?” I read and hear the calls: “Where are the rights of the teachers? Kids who do the right thing?”

No, I really do hear them. In every class of teens I teach, there are those whose presence is a persistent disruption. Unlike violence and aggression in some other places I had taught, this is mostly low-level disruptive and disengaged behaviour, identified in another, related piece of research as ‘the main problem in our classrooms‘. But what should I do? What do I do?

‘Engage all students with well-designed learning activities’ goes the de rigeur, ‘teaching standards’ answer. Sounds nice doesn’t it. It IS nice and it happens sometimes, expectedly and unexpectedly. But in a microcosm of personalities, experiences, abilities, learning preferences, teaching preferences, curriculum demands that exists in every lesson, this is a rare educational nirvana I aim for and strike sometimes. For most of the time, it simply ain’t that way. Some students will and do resist, disengage, disrupt, sabotage and more. The question remains: What should I do?

The ‘standard’ responses, wrapped in nice sounding pseudo-Skinnerian speak (‘Positive Behaviour Support’ anyone?), Dr Graham points out are as standard as they are useless beyond perhaps the immediate triage. And triage is what you do when you have limited resources, need an immediate response under less then ideal circumstances. You treat the immediate symptoms, hardly ever the underlying cause. We devote considerable resources to build entire systems of tracking and improving these triage efforts (apparently our school needs a better, expensive computer tracking system to reduce the rate of kids wagging [Australian term for ‘skipping school’, absenteeism]). These systems generate terrific amounts of data that admin get to analyse and devise solutions for the busy teachers. Results? Well, the rates of disruptive behaviour and disengagement haven’t exactly dropped have they. So, ‘better triage’ doesn’t seem to be a great answer to my question: What should I do?

Here is a little of what I do …

In a particularly challenging Year 8 class, there is chasm between ‘achievers’ and ‘strugglers’ (I hate labels…). I try to use activities that involve all and include as much as possible. However, a chair flying across the class, two kids disrupting class next door (let alone ours!) by shouting and kicking, an erupting argument over a stolen phone, withdrawn kid or two who refuse to do anything etc all at the SAME TIME calls for a wiser moves than simply the triage send off or two. The send offs might preserve a bit of peace and sanity and allow at least ten other kids who, at the SAME TIME, want to get on with the lesson and engage in the learning activity I had planned, spent my time creating too.

Very soon after realising what sort of group this is, I said to all of them: “Amongst you there are students who want to get on with it and those who don’t. I understand that. The question I ask you: Which students should I care less about, spend less time and effort with?”

Let’s just say we had an interesting conversation. Now, we are slowly building an understanding that I or rather we simply won’t ignore or exclude people in here but the price of that may be that sometimes the achievers, sometimes the strugglers will not have all their needs met. Like many teachers I try to listen, find a little bit about the kid, provide alternatives, conduct one-to-one, eye-to-eye meetings followed by hands shakes (very powerful with boys!) and making ‘deals’ rooted in trust and not breaking promises. Some of these strategies push the boundaries of the school behaviour code, some colleagues may feel undermined as I am ‘the soft that allows them to have what they don’t allow’ (we’re talking minor stuff here). Many of these strategies don’t work straight away, many never do. It is bloody frustrating, exhausting, emotionally draining work.

Yet…many colleagues are coming up to me saying ‘you are doing great work with these kids, what do you do?’ Well, I give them time, ear and trust. That’s all. Again, don’t get rosy eyed – this is hard graft. I get let down, disappointed many times by teens, get unkind looks by my colleagues. Burnout material and a way to an earl(ier) ‘teaching grave’. I know it. But if my underlying message is one of trust, responsibility and care I am happy to absorb the blows until the student(s) realise it. There is no database to store that one either.

Now, we, teachers, do triage not because we don’t give a damn about the kid. However, the systemic memories and barriers of the past and present are simply too great sometimes for us do each students’ needs justice or at least give them a hearing: “Sorry kiddo, I gotta run, get through this, attend to that, need help with…here is detention!” Hearing, understanding even the needs of a particular student but being unable to cater for them with the limited resources is THE frustrating part. It is also part of the ire teachers so often direct at researchers or anyone else not directly immersed (bruised, battered, frustrated by…) in the daily realities of classroom teaching. ‘Walk in our shoes’ teachers say ‘then judge!’ Or as Dr Sullivan ends:

So teachers, next time you wonder what on earth caused that child in Year 5 or 6 to tell you to get stuffed and run out of the room or the child in Year 8 to throw a chair, spare a thought about their earlier school experiences and the strategies used to manage their behaviour. I will lay a bet this child began as a Hayden.

Sure, but a similar question begs: What did the teacher began as? Non-caring, ego tripping control freak who loves the behaviour charts or someone who wants to awaken, inspire, challenge, create, ‘make a difference’? My work with hundreds of preservice teachers strongly suggests the latter. Why this massive dis-connect between the wishes and lived realities?

‘Sparing a thought about students’ earlier experiences’ is surely better than no thought or insight. However, it is incredibly corrosive where there is little you can do about to hear those out fully, resources to adjust things to allow the kid to blossom. It is this sense of powerlessness that teachers so often complain about that ultimately boils over in the staffrooms, comment sections, kitchen tables and elsewhere.

“If I can’t care for all equally, which students should I care about less?” The answer to that lies in the answer to the broader question: “What is education for?” And it is this seemingly naive but powerful question we don’t ask nowhere near enough.


Wild boys to men
Wild boys to men

I just got back from the most emotional Year 12 high school graduation ceremony I have ever attended (and I have attended a fair few over the years). In this case, only seven students graduated. It was a small, very modest affair but it felt like family. It happened at the school I left last year to start my studies and in which I have described a number of times.

The three young people (pictured above) of the class of about a dozen I started with back in Year 10 finished today too. Against massive odds, they persisted with it and they leave not only with a leaving certificate but on the verge of pre-apprenticeship at local businesses. The angry, lashing, shy, often off the rails boys put on their best tonight and with a bit of  swagger (compulsory in this part of town) and a touch of unintended blush accepted their certificates plus a couple of special awards.

During the speeches, the staff, the parents and many of the kids were in tears. They, no … we, broke down at times in acknowledging just how hard these kids and with them the entire school community have had it. Drugs, break ups, alcohol, pregnancies, abuse, suicides, low expectations, miscarriages, school upheavals, disappointments, homelessness, hopelessness (and that’s on top of just being a teenager) – they, we saw it all. Well, we had some great times too.

Before the ceremony we talked about the importance of relationships.  One of the colleagues remarked: “I had an epiphany – I realised why the kid who was the most painful, giving me the most grief, kept coming day in day out, more than the ‘good kids’. He needed and got a relationship.” During her speech, another colleague broke down describing her relationship with a young girl, whom she nurtured and stuck with for three years through some truly awful times no person, young or old, should go through. In the students’ farewell speech, this very colleague was addressed with the following words: “She started as a teacher, she ended as a friend.” And more … Without relationships, schools are empty shells. Neat but empty.

Dear reader, I am not making this up. These were genuine thanks after years of genuine listening, caring, swimming together in good and bad, not some nice, well-intended and ultimately so ugly middle-class salvationism.

Now, I’ve mentioned before that I work with pre-service teachers at uni these days. Many of them included the phrase “want to make a difference” in their answers to the question: why do you want to become a teacher? And I always, always invite them to really examine what that means and what is the cost they are prepared to pay for their idea of difference.

There’s a big difference between a student saying ‘thanks for helping me to get better grades’ and a student thanking a teacher, both in tears, for helping them first to survive and then to become a better person. If you want the latter, I invite anyone to go and work in a school that is perhaps called ‘hard to staff’ or where the ‘no good’ kids go.

Because I tell you – you will remember it. Forever.

– Dedicated to the wonderful colleagues, educators at SMYL Community College –

Why do teachers grumble



workshop tally
A clear contract

I run workshops for pre-service teachers as part of the Understanding Teachers Work unit here at Murdoch University.

During one of many great conversations in our workshop yesterday, a student remarked:

“Teachers are always complaining about something. They talk about how wonderful teaching can be but then they spend hours going on about how terrible things really are.”

So, we are a profession of compulsory whingers, right? This was too good an opportunity not to scratch the surface of the statement.

Just this week, we were looking at the (lack of) systemic changes in education over the years. How things were, how they are and … how they are likely to be. As a stimulus to the conversation about the future, we used a useful and well publicised OECD study on six possible scenarios of Schooling for Tomorrow. Although a little dated (2004), the study offers some excellent food for thought.

In short (if you can’t be bothered going to the link), the report identifies six main scenarios that may (continue to) play out with regards to mainstream schooling.

1. Schools in ‘back to the future’

This scenario shows schools in powerful, bureaucratic, systems that are resistant to change. Schools continue mostly with ‘business as usual’, defined by isolated units – schools, classes, teachers – in top-down administrations. The system reacts little to the wider environment, and operates to its own conventions and regulations.

2. Schools as focused learning organisations

In this scenario, schools function as focal learning organisations, revitalised around a knowledge agenda in cultures of experimentation, diversity, and innovation. The system enjoys substantial investment, especially to benefit disadvantaged communities and maintain high teacher working conditions.

3. Schools as core social centres

In this scenario, the walls around schools come down but they remain strong, sharing responsibilities with other community bodies. Non-formal learning, collective tasks and intergenerational activities are strongly emphasised. High public support ensures quality environments, and teachers enjoy high esteem.

4. The extended market model

This scenario depicts a wide extension of market approaches in who provides education, how it is delivered, how choices are made, and resources distributed. Governments withdraw from running schools, pushed by dissatisfaction of “consumers.” This future might bring innovation and dynamism, and it might foster exclusion and inequality.

5. Learning networks replacing schools

This scenario imagines the disappearance of schools per se, replaced by learning networks operating within a highly developed “network society.” Networks based on diverse cultural, religious and community interests lead to a multitude of diverse formal, non-formal, and informal learning settings, with intensive use of ICTs.

6. Teacher exodus and crisis

This scenario depicts a meltdown of the school system. It results mainly from a major shortage of teachers triggered by retirement, unsatisfactory working conditions, more attractive job opportunities elsewhere.

Students then got to choose the one or max two scenarios which they think our broad schooling system in this country is at now and one or two scenarios they wish were in place in the future, especially as they head out in a couple of years as qualified teachers.

The picture above shows the voting results from the two groups (Monday & Tuesday):

The difference is striking. They mostly identified (and rightly so) we are at  scenarios 1 (‘Back to the future’), 4 (Extended market model) and 6 (Exodus and crisis). What they wish for are largely 2 (Focused learning organisations), 3 (Core social centres) and some 5 (Learning networks replacing schools).

“And you want to become a teacher? Look at it! Oh you dummies … why?” I said, in jest.

I continued: “There lies the heart of some of the deepest teacher grumbles. They may be expressed in references to day-to-day and seemingly petty things but the disconnect between what most educators came into the game for and what happens so often is telling. What is more, brochures, websites, press releases, mission statements, policies and similar texts are full of rhetoric couched in terms of scenarios 2, 3 and even 5. Teachers recognise, connect with the aspirational voice in them but realise they mostly pay lip service to the ‘real world’ of scenarios 1, 4 and 6.”

Why am I telling this to future teachers? Am I not just about condemning our profession and discouraging them to continue their study, do something else other teaching?

Perhaps – yes. But I know I am also helping to send out resilient practitioners who are not going to crumble under the first demand that pierces their bubble of ideal education nor will they fall for the shiny promises of the ‘new’, much of it mostly recycled (<- love this post, more goodness there from The Pedagogista). They may better ‘read’, understand the staffroom whinge, grasp the beers celebrating the end of term or the ‘hump’ week, and resist the temptation to become a superhero but instead be ‘good enough’ for the kids and colleagues they work with.

Because let’s face it – no matter what the future of schooling will look like, it is those good enough educators that will make it work. But there remains something about the examined life worth living…

I write the tutes that make girls cry

You’ll have to blame Tony Loughland and Barry Manilow for that awfully punsy, a touch sexist and inappropriate title. But there is a little bit in it. The crying part.

As a PhD student scraping for every dollar I am one of the tutors in a unit called Understanding Teachers’ Work here at my alma mater Murdoch University. I run workshops for the first year pre-service teachers. Intro-to-teaching 101. The range of topic is great, understandably, and the idea of the unit is for students to recognise the complexity of this great profession of ours. Today, the topic was, roughly, understanding the diversity, dealing with parents/communities and issues of equity and social justice. Much to pack into two hours huh? To top it all off – I was running late on my prep so I demonstrated the time-honoured skill of winging it a bit.

The mantra in this unit has been: Ask questions! Of yourself, peers and beyond. And boy oh boy – we had a cracker!

I don’t want to bore you with the finer mechanics of activities but a few key links and rough outline will help.

First, we came up with a massive cloud of diversity and challenges students, teachers, parents and entire communities operate with daily. We listened to a story of the newly opened Jarjum College for Indigenous kids in Redfern (I heard it on the way to uni, half an hour before workshop kickoff … teachable moment 🙂 )


Story of the Jarjum College in Redfern
Story of the Jarjum College in Redfern

One student asked: But how is that fair to have a school JUST for Aboriginal kids? I’m sure they want to be integrated not separated from the society?

There goes 10 minutes of heated and quite thoughtful discussion, suggesting a bunch of work in unpacking the context and histories of the area and the Australian Indigenous cultures.

We sailed into ‘safe, white waters’ and I thought I’d flash this oft shown picture and quote.

We all chuckle in approval but ...
We all chuckle in approval but …

“OK, we all chuckle and nod in approval but … why? And just what are the alternatives? What would a different exam for everyone look like? Feasible? Practical? Desirable? Are we just used to our idea of ‘an exam’? …” and so on. Gold!

It was time to pull appart equality and equity. The two are often stuck together with such massive implications. So we did ‘the shoes‘, as described here by Lara David so well.

It's a beauty!

Short and sweet. Pennies dropped. I sensed many.

“And we want all to participate, right. Is that enough? What do you make of this?”


“OK, folks. You and me go into this thing called education to make a difference. I overheard it your discussions and we talked a bit about what that means and the differences in understanding among people last week. That’s great! We are here to make a difference. But do we? At what level? Consider this…” (flashed a few key quotes from Trevor Gale’s speech)

trevor gale

“So does the school system reproduce or re-construct society?” Another curvy one there. Much to talk about, think about, reflect on in students (graded, yes) journals for the unit.

Conversations, debates, voices, gestures as I walk around the room and eavesdrop and poke here and there.

“OK, so we want justice and equity. How do we do that? How do we get them? How do we get people to understand say … prejudice in the first place? Really understand it?”

Here is one possible way. Please do not do exactly this at home…

Brown Eyes/ Blue Eyes – Intro by P. Zimbardo

5 minutes left … “There’s another video that shows Jane Elliot more in depth with the kids. Goes for about 15 minutes. Show it?” Nods, nods, nods

And the tears? There were a few during and at the end of the workshop. I was honoured to see them, without pointing them out.

Yeah sure, we packed an ENORMOUS amount of stuff in here and covered a huge amount of ground very lightly. It borders irresponsible. But I do look forward to reading the students’ reflection journals. Today, the conversations, the questions (and the tears…) made me happy that we are about to send out another group of keen, thoughtful educators out there where stuff that matters hugely – happens.

Letting go – again

The Man Behind the Hand

This post has no expletives, unlike the much liked and first ‘Letting go‘. Maybe this is just a poor sequel, like in the movies. But just like the orginal, I write this with some emotion.

I write after a message from a friend in the USA. She is grieving over a tragic loss of two teens at her school. Violent loss of horrible kind, by the hand of someone they should never fear (sadly, only a few days ago, I too found out that a dear friend from former Yugoslavia died a gruesome, self-inflicted death a few months ago).

I write remembering my first ever lesson as a teacher 12 years ago. As part of ‘get to know’ you, I asked kids to write significant good and bad events in their lives. ‘My mum died and dad went to jail’ one 13 year old wrote and asked me not to read it aloud. Later, I found out that the father went to jail for murdering his wife in front of the kids.

I write remembering crashing the school toilet cubicle where a 15 year old girl lay drunk and unconscious in a pool of blood running from her slit wrists (she was saved).

I write remembering restraining a 13 year old schoolkid from suddenly jumping off the first floor balcony after being teased and bullied.

I write remembering the day when a young, 14 year old Indigenous student ran out of my class, only for me to physically try to stop him hanging himself a few minutes later. As we calmed down and walked towards the sick bay, his classmate hugged him and said: “It sucks when it doesn’t come off doesn’t it?”

I write after asking a class of a dozen teens to put their hand up if they know someone close and young who got killed or killed themselves – and a dozen hands went up.

I write knowing I could keep writing, sadly so.

I am not making this stuff up or embellishing it to extract some kind of sympathy or pity. None of these people wanted that either. All they probably wanted was empathy, someone to listen to them, understand them and maybe help them if needed.

We swim in anxieties and fears, seduced and accelerated by various ‘races to the top’. We are made increasingly anxious in accelerated societies obsessed with control, measurement, achievement, performance and ‘continuous improvement’. We blame the youth as ‘narcissistic’ and ‘immoral’ (what’s new…) but fail to acknowledge the surrounding rise in our collective seeing of relationships as calculations of their utility: what good is or could this person be to me?

In such environments, occasionally letting go of the fathomless striving, norms and expectations, just slowing down a little, listening and considering is a hard thing to do (and no, it can’t be measured). Before you think I’m romanticising, ‘letting go’ has its discomforts and pressures. From not being ‘part of the team’, potential material and symbolic losses to the extremes of ‘letting go’ in destructive ways mentioned above. These were people who had been ignored, pushed, brought to the edge by themselves or others. But safely letting go and seeing what is really, really important is vital. Literally.

Please, listen to the kids in your care. Laugh with them, challenge them, pull them by the bootstraps when needed, cut them some slack other times. Find the vents in them and yourself to ‘let go’ in a safe, but neither in a fakely sterile nor utterly destructive way.

Please – do not ignore them, no matter how rich or poor or dark or fat or young or blind or white or deaf or smart or troubled they are.

PS This one is for you Pam, the school community and the families of the kids lost. Thoughts with you all.

If you or any people you care about experience crisis, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 (Australia). Other countries have a similar service too, please find out and share the number to call.

The beast of performativity


There is a very good chance that over the past decade or so you have experienced one or series of reviews,  performance management meetings, appraisals, inspections, key performance indicators, benchmarks, bonus rewards and a myriad of similar management technologies that measured your ‘outputs’ and outputs of those in your care (eg. students). These would been compared, often quite regularly, and subsequently published for internal or external comparison, even ranking. Through these ‘events’, you had to, implicitly or explicitly, display ‘quality’ of your work, promote an active, enterprising, ever improving self according to some neat, objective (sounding) criteria which reduced complex social relations to a number, scale, list, standard, box or range.

Yes? Nothing new?

Now please, checking that people are performing, doing their job, is probably as old as labour itself. Didn’t catch that fish your people counted on – you all went hungry. Didn’t row fast enough in a slave galley – got whipped. Dug up enough dirt – got extra potato. Won a gold medal – got a bonus. Botched too many operations – got sued. Endless, really.

But there has been a shift in the educational landscape and beyond over the last fifteen or so years and the shift is intensifying. What counts as educative, valuable, effective, satisfactory performance and what measures of teacher and student achievement are considered valid has increasingly been determined remotely, outside the relational space of eg. teacher’s class of kids, school, community according to a set of distant, hyper-rational, objective-looking system that employs a stream of seductively neat, business-like judgements, criteria, standards, categories and benchmarks.

There’s an increasingly dynamic, ever-changing and incessant flow of changing demands, expectations, indications making teachers and students continually accountable and recorded, measured. Educators’ primary tasks (curriculum, care for students, engagement, research) have increased in volume but so have the second-order tasks of monitoring, reporting, documenting, and, put crudely, ‘putting the best foot forward’. In many cases, the secondary tasks of ‘performing’ has assumed the primacy. To make things worse, it’s not always clear what is expected.

And the most corrosive aspect? What is expected is inconsistent with teachers’ own best ethical and professional judgement. Teachers are increasingly made to value things that ‘count’ but know they don’t matter over things they think matter but don’t ‘count’.

Lyotard called it a system of ‘performative terror’. You are stuck, not sure what you do, question yourself, wonder which is ‘the right thing’ … and more.

Some of the main effects, observed and reported widely in USA, UK and Australia? Increased stress, and pressure, increased pace and intensity of work, change in social relationships and (eroded) collegiality among teachers, rising superficiality of measures, initiatives and changes, more paperwork  and maintenance, more surveillance, rising gap in perspectives, values and purposes between budget-allocating, managerial senior staff or higher and those below, on the ground dealing with students, and more …

By way of a couple of vignettes via Stephen Ball:

What happened to my creativity? What happened to my professional integrity? What happened to the fun in teaching and learning? What happened?

I was a primary school teacher for 22 years but left because I was not prepared to sacrifice the children for the glory of politicians and their business plans for education.

It’s as though children are mere nuts and bolts on some distant production line, and it angers me to see them treated so clinically in their most sensitive and formative years.

I have a sprinkling right through this site too, this story perhaps the most notable one.

This is just a glance at the phenomenon, the technology described producing these effects. It’s called performativity.

Know it? Got stories? Let me know. It is one of the central concepts I am looking at in my PhD project. Thanks.

References (if interested… not even a scratch here, rich field of research exists, check Stephen Ball in particular):

Ball, S. J. (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of  Education Policy, 2003, vol. 18, no. 2, p. 215-228.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge, vol. 10. Manchester: Manchester University Press.