This is the simile I am using to describe the start of Term Two. Just in case you think this is a simile describing me mowing down challenges like a mighty truck on the road of life, I should tell you that I am the rabbit. After reading this I think I should look for a new job at a different school when we get to Term Four. Where I am teaching is too hard.
Generally what I can look forward to each term from my classes are a few interesting discussions, and the odd assessement that is actually of a reasonable quality and shows some effort. Otherwise I am constantly battling for a bare minimum that the students themselves seem uninterested in. Even when you have taken the time to be guided by their voice, and their interests what you usually get back is compliance. Any teacher knows that there is nothing more boring than reading or marking work that is compliance work because compliance work lacks the key ingredient in any good work: the character of the creator. Even work that is quite bad at a surface level (spelling, grammar, punctuation) can be a great read if the force of the kid’s personality comes through in their own views.
The only thing that pulls me to stay (aside from friends like this guy), is the sense of loyalty I have to the year group I am dean of. Not for the first time I have thought that a low decile school has some of the characteristics of a dysfunctional family. One thing you notice quite quickly when you become dean is how many of your students have fairly fluid family structures with, shall we say, high turnover rates. There has been, quite often, not a lot of continuity and continuity of care is important. That one person in your life who knows you, and your history, and loves and supports you, but can also make you face the music. As with family so with school.
When I started at my school I was the form teacher of a Year 12 class. I was also the form teacher for the class in Year 13. This was the first time they had the same form teacher for two consecutive years. Sometimes they had not even had the same form teacher in the same year. In the two years that I was their form teacher their deans completely changed. At the end of Year 12 both their deans left, and halfway through their final year one of the replacements left. At the time I didn’t think much of this, but looking back on it I suspect that this kind of thing has large impacts. Continuity in your form teacher and dean means that you get much better quality in following up on attendance, and on support when students are having problems because you know the students, their history and their family. The other way around, with a constantly changing background of teachers you just get (at best) people performing their professional duties without any feel for the students and families involved.
So, if I leave this will be contributing to the problem. But I think I’d like to anyway. Besides, I have loyalty to other things too. Like my own family.
It makes me wonder though more broadly about institutional continuity. One thing I often feel at my school is that we are constantly reinventing the wheel as we go. It’s like every week we show up at work and go “what we really need is something shaped like a circle to go under the bottom of this heavy load so we can move it more easily.” Sometimes we reinvent the wheel, and sometimes we come up with a square or a triangle. The heavy load remains. There is a phrase I think called institutional memory. Ours is very short. Turnover is a big problem. I’m sure it’s also a problem in other places too like, say, certain hard to staff hospital departments. When you lose enough key people the whole business of work feels ad-hoc and exhausting. Especially when your “customers” seem to fighting against you.
At the start of the year we had a speaker come in to address the staff who was actually rather good. He said something that really rang in my head. He was talking about schools that struggle with their community. I think he was specifically talking about attendance at school. The teachers all want the kids to be in class everyday, and to be well fed and rested before they come. Sometimes large pockets of the community resist this and sometimes schools, usually after years of trying, throw up their hands and say: “that’s just our community.” Our guest speaker stopped at looked at us and said:
“Do you want to be mirror, or a lighthouse?”
A lighthouse. Obviously.
I don’t want to reflect bad behaviour back to my students, and I don’t. Most of the time. But it’s quite challenging being a lonely lighthouse keeper when:
- You show up to work and your lighthouse has been tagged by the villagers who also
- Left all their rubbish lying about, and like to
- Hurl random abuse at you as you go about your job, which is hard because
- Someone keeps smashing the damn bulb, and
- The ships out at sea seem to either be stalled, or ignore you and wilfully sail onto the rocks to prove they can
Sometimes, after cleaning off last night’s tagging, and picking up the rubbish, and ignoring the abuse, and replacing the bulb, you turn on the light and guide a ship to harbour. It’s nice. I’d like to do it a bit more often.
That’s probably what I’m saying. But it might be a bit easier to do the job if the ships came from a less storm-tossed sea, and the lighthouse keeper felt like he was part of a focused, well-organised team.
I suppose there’s not much I can do about the sea.