Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The ultimate educational insight – from the most unlikely source.

The chair flew across the room - followed by a stream of expletives.
“I hate this @$%@#$%$% school!”
Books and papers were swept to the floor.
“I $%@%$#$ hate this place!”

The teacher was surprised. Such outbursts, once common, had become rare and had trailed away to almost never.  Until today.
Once such behaviours had been common – almost daily events.  “Matty” was known to have issues – but not a diagnosis.  His unwillingness to co-operate in the school setting had become legendary and his refusal to co-operate with the school psychologists and support staff had resulted in the lack of even a label to describe his behaviours. His physical issues were also obvious – but he would not co-operate with the optometrists either so the glasses he clearly needed could not be obtained.  He was on the case list of many departmental officials – but on the case load of none.

That changed when he met this year’s teacher.  She made contact – more than that – she established a relationship with his parents. She tactically ignored the “small stuff”.  She differentiated his experiences in the classroom – and ensured that other staff did too. When things went wrong – and they did, frequently – she was unblinking in her defence of him.  She disregarded rumours and insisted of facts. When he did wrong he got the same consequence as anyone else – but no worse. She insisted that departmental staff revisit and find other ways to help this child.  She did not want a diagnosis, or a label, she just wanted techniques that would help him. She even provided him with food when he was hungry.

 Slowly, step by pain staking step, progress was made.  “Matty” learned first the letters of his name and then how to write them – a massive step that had not been achieved in the previous years of his schooling. He learnt to recognise the basic numerals and then how they indicated numbers – which he began to learn to manipulate. He learnt to recognise money – and how to use it. He still did not have a meaningful score on any recognised test or assessment – but he was able to demonstrate that he was capable. In fact, he occasionally stunned staff with some of his efforts – such as when he made a cave in the classroom and angled a reflective surface precisely so that it provided natural light inside his cave. 

But thoughts of his progress were blown away by this latest unexpected outburst. It was nearly the end of the school year and he had made so much headway – and now this.  What had prompted it?

“I’m not going to $%$%@#$% grade 5!” he screamed.  “I’m not @$%#@$% going!”

And then the answer became clear.
“Why not mate?” his teacher quietly asked.  His answer brought a tear to her eye.
“No-one is going to love me there.”

I would have loved to have been present when he found out who was going to teach him again the following year. A most perceptive principal had recognised the relationship and the two – teacher and student – would again share a classroom the following year.  And I don’t know who was happier about it – “Matty” or his teacher.

“Matty” may never learn as much as his peers. He may never even get a score on a formalised test. But it seems to me that he already knows what is truly important in life. I just hope we have the wisdom to learn from him.
Image via Google images - here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Second Best Educational Cartoon Ever.

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words...and a good cartoon is worth a book.

So, if this is the second best educational cartoon ever you may wish to see the absolute best educational cartoon ever. (As voted exclusively by me.)


Creator unknown. Sourced from Google Images.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Teacher evaluation – with a cake of soap.

My school is in an unpleasant situation – due to a combination of falling enrolments and budget cuts we have to lose some staff.  Which leads to the unfortunate scenario of how to decide who is to leave the school. Judging a teacher by the results of their students is not as sound as it seems – given our socio-economic index some great teachers have results that might be considered mediocre in other contexts.  (After all, do we judge the quality of a dentist by the number of cavities in the teeth of his or her patients – or by the quality of the intervention he or she provides?) And then, we have those teachers who have pleasing results, but given the calibre of the students in their class, they should have.  So student results alone are not a reliable indicator of effective teaching.  How then do we evaluate a teacher?  What are the reliable indicators?  In short, there probably isn’t one single indicator that can be used in isolation reliably.
It reminded me of a conversation I had earlier in my career.

Bernard, one of the school cleaners, sat down beside me. “I reckon you’ll be a good teacher,” he said.
“Why,” I asked, flattered but a little bemused as I had only been in the school for a little while.
“Soap,” he said.
“Soap?” I echoed.
“Soap,” he said again. 
He stared at my blank expression and explained.
“Since you’ve come to the school I’ve had to replace the soap in the men’s toilet. You’re the only new male teacher this year.  That tells me that you wash your hands when you go to the toilet.”
“Well, yes of course I do.”
“Well, not everyone does – otherwise I’d have been replacing the soap more often before this."
“So how does that make me a good teacher?”
“Well, it shows me that you take care of yourself. It also tells me you do the right thing even without someone watching over your shoulder … so to speak.” 
He smiled at me again, as if I was being admitted into some conspiracy. Leaning forwards he continued.
“And I’ve been talking to the cleaner who does your area. She tells me you always leave your desk tidy. Tidy – not spotless, but tidy, like a workspace. And the classroom tidy. No mess on the floor. Shelves tidy. Resources away. Books on the shelves before the kids leave. That tells me you are organised, that you have structure.  So you put those things together – a person who uses soap and has a tidy desk – well, it makes you a well organised person who does the right thing without someone checking up on you.  Tells me you have pride – pride in yourself and pride in what you do.  Seems like a recipe for a good teacher to me,” he said and moved away.
Was he right? That’s not for me to say – but I was promoted twice within that school. 
Our profession is now so dominated by data, controlled by protocols, and prejudiced by procedures that we sometimes forget one of the quotations often attributed to Albert Einstein.
“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

 (The attribution is likely to be wrong – researchers believe that the phrase may have originated with William Bruce Cameron in his 1963 text “Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking”. But who wants to sacrifice star power for historical accuracy?)

Regardless of the origins of the quote there is no doubting the perception of its originator.
So what then makes a good teacher?  There is no end of research…perhaps none more user friendly than this list of effective teacher characteristics from Stanford. But ultimately, even this type of informed research does not necessarily capture the essence of a good teacher.  It is a bit like deconstructing the word count of a good book and saying that good books use the letters a, t, and e more than x, y and z – it misses the point.

A good teacher certainly has all the usual organisational and behavioural traits usually attributed to them. They certainly have the skills itemised above. But more than that - they care.

They care about their students. They take responsibility for their learning and work tirelessly to address their learning needs. Everything else is a bonus.

Oh, and they probably wash their hands.

Einstein / Cameron quote from Quote Investigator – here.
Image = Google images.

Did you find this post interesting? If so you might also enjoy “Do we blame dentists for tooth decay?” here.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Random Acts of Kindness in the classroom.

Schools have become high pressure environments.  The constant demands to raise test scores  (despite the widely held belief that test scores have little genuine value outside of the institution that generates them)  and the expectation that schools will cope with society’s inequalities and the resultant behavioural issues that go hand in hand with that mean there is little time to enjoy the process.  
But surely this is simply unacceptable – self-evidently wrong in fact.  Going to school, learning and becoming educated should be an enjoyable experience.  Fortunately there are some schools brave enough to go well beyond the norm who continue to teach what is important.

 “Random acts of kindness” is a simple yet powerful method of learning about social contribution, tolerance, and simply being a decent individual.  Call it “citizenship” and you can even squeeze it into the curriculum. In essence it is simply doing something positive for someone else with no thought of return or personal benefit … or even recognition. And it turns out that helping others is probably the best way of helping ourselves.
Have a look at the what happened at one school in the USA. Pitt River’s ”Breakfast Club” provides a powerful insight into what can be achieved.


At first glance “Random Acts of Kindness” seems to be a concept more aligned to hippies reluctant to leave the 60s behind than the classroom of today.  Yet it would be wrong to think that way. Even if the notion doesn’t resonate with your personal value system there is significant and growing scientific evidence to support the positive impact of concepts such as gratitude and compassion in our daily lives.  “Scientists” with a capital “S” are finding plenty of reasons to engage in socially meaningful activities. The Greater Good site based at Berkeley is one source of research backed by science that educators would benefit from visiting.  There is also a support site for schools interested in trying the approach.

The only question I have about the whole process is the name. Kindness in our schools should not be random.  Along with the essential subject skills contained within the testable curriculum let us continue to teach what is really important – how to live meaningful lives.

Pitt River Random Acts of Kindness video via youtube
Random Acts of Kindness graphic via Google Images here.
Greater Good & RAK support site links both go to original sources.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The paradox of our age - and our schools


We have bigger houses but smaller families;
more conveniences, but less time;
We have more degrees, but less sense;
more knowledge, but less judgement;
more experts, but more problems;
more medicines, but less healthiness;
We've been all the way to the moon and back,
but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor.
We build more computers to hold more
information to produce more copies than ever, but have less communication;

We have become long on quantity, but short on quality.  These are times of fast foods but slow digestion;    Tall men but short character; Steep profits but shallow relationships.

It's a time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room.
The 14th Dalai Lama

The above text from the Dalai Lama reminds us of some of the contradictions of our modern society.  Without wishing in any way to deminish the message of this  inspired writing I’d like to suggest my own additions relating to current educational practice  to his powerful prose.

“We have more instruction but less inspiration,
More trivial answers but fewer significant questions,
More rote and recall, less speculation and imagination,
More “tick the box” but less “think outside the square”,
More “rights”, but fewer “responsibilities”,
More edutainment but less engagement,
More talking but less conversation,
More efficiency but less excellence,
In short, we have more teaching but less learning.

It’s time to put the focus back where it should be - on the child. The needs of “the system” should be replaced by the needs of our students.

I began this post by citing the Dalai Lama.  I’ll end  by citing another known for his cosmological musings - Albert Einstein.   “Many of the things you can count, don't count. Many of the things you can't count really count.”

Education counts. Maybe schooling doesn’t.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Teachers - do what you love and do it often.

Burnout is a major problem in schools.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone - teaching is a demanding occupation.  As well as being educators teachers are part social worker, part nurse, part de-facto parent, part careers advisor, policeman, counsellor and even relationship advisors. Balancing the dictates of the curriculum and  the requirements of site administrators with the capabilities of the students is in itself no easy task. Add to that the emotional impact of dealing with students who often come to school with emotional baggage and stressful domestic issues well beyond their control - and often their comprehension.  While addressing these issues teachers also have to keep in mind the special needs of individual children - some of which can be literally life threatening if things go wrong. Into this recipe for stress throw in some seasonal variations such as the lack of hours in the day at peak times like report writing or parent teacher sessions and it is easy to see why burn out is all too common.   Teachers, after all, are only human.

Teachers are people, not robots.  Through observation of effective teachers over three decades I have noticed one important characteristic that effective long-term educators have in common. They all have interests outside of school.  Their careers are important to them, very important in fact, but they have other aspects to their lives.  They are not defined but their job - it is an important part of their lives but only one aspect.They have balance - and they cling to their interests despite the unrealistic pressures put on them by the job.  I think it is aptly summed up by the opening lines of the Holstee Manifesto;

“This is your life. Do what you love and do it often.”

Teachers need to follow their passion for life outside of school in exactly the same way that we encourage our students to do.  Sometimes we have to discover what it is that stops us from doing what we love - and make some changes.   This is probably the only antidote I know for burnout. Outside interests re-energise and re-invigorate people at the personal level. Doing what we love doing makes us healthier people - which in turn helps us to devote real energy to education when we focus on it - and there is plenty of scope and need for that. In the end, our students are the ones who really benefit.  
What greater advice can we give our students than to quote the opening of the Holstee Manifesto to them over and over again? This is your life. Do what you love and do it often.” If that attitude is the only thing our students pick up from us we may well have taught them one of life's most important lessons.

Enjoy this great interpretation of the Holstee Manifesto. 

Holstee manifesto image: Google images.
Video - via youtube.