Watching children learn is a beautiful and extraordinary experience. Their bodies transform, reflecting inner changes. Teeth fall out. Knees scab. Freckles multiply. Throughout the year they grow in endless ways and I can almost see their self-esteem rising, their confidence soaring, their small bodies now empowered. Given wings.
They fall in love with learning.
It is a kind of magic, a kind of loving, a kind of art.
It is teaching.
Just what I do.
What I did.
How did I get here?
I was burnt out because successive Australian governments – both left and right – have locked Australian education into the original model of schooling first established during the industrial revolution. Each decision made keeps us stuck in an archaic learn-to-work model, now complete with ongoing mandatory assessment of our student’s likely productivity and economic potential.
Fundamental to this model is the idea of standardising.
Making every kid the same.
Making every teacher the same.
If I was successful in my job, that’s what would happen.
Based on that, I don’t want the job any more.
My story isn’t special. My class roll wasn’t disproportionate in the number of students with particular needs. Every primary teacher, regardless of their location, has a roll similar to mine. The names might vary, the ages and issues too, but ultimately every class roll is a story, if someone would just care to listen.
But contemporary Australian education doesn’t want to hear the story of my class roll. Contemporary Australian education wants test results and data. There’s no time for stories.
There’s something sinister happening to this profession that I loved.
It breaks my heart.
And it burnt me out.
Schools should not be framed by business models. When we look at schools in this way we lose sight of what matters. We lose sight of students.
We don’t trust our teachers anymore. In fact, I’m rarely required to ‘teach’ anymore. Apparently, I’m more valuable as an assessor, an examiner, a data collector. I have had to dull my once-engaging lesson sequences. Now I must begin by planning the assessment, consider how students will show what they’ve learnt and pre-determine what they are going to learn. Nothing can be left to chance. It is mechanical and rigid and driven. Brightly coloured spontaneity fortified with professional judgment has been replaced with black-and-white standardisation and a judicious critique of every child’s work.
Classrooms have become test-driven places where students learn to colour circles marked A, B, C and D. Even the classes not subjected to NAPLAN endure ongoing formal assessment from teachers turned examiners who must procure benchmarks, reach standards and gather data.
Standardised testing and, more broadly, standardised education is costing teachers too. Over the past sixteen years there has been exponential change in primary education in Australia and most of this change has been imposed on teachers. Each change limits my control as classroom teacher, undermines my judgments and detracts from my ability to act as a unique and educated professional. And with each new agenda comes paperwork, so much of the stuff that it piles up on my desk and crowds out the note from Donna’s mum about her asthma and the book I wanted to share with Toby and the picture Kalindah has drawn for me.
It’s happening everywhere, people tell me. The red tape is horrendous. Every business is the same.
But schools are not businesses. They’re not industries.
Schools should not be framed by business models. They should not be viewed in terms of academic results based on productivity. When we look at schools in this way we lose sight of what matters. We lose sight of students.
Schools are unique places where amazing things should be happening for young Australians. And, as such, extraordinary and unique frameworks and policies should support them. Teachers and principals face continual pressure to make schools ‘like something else’.
But schools aren’t like anything else.
Teaching – good teaching – is both a science and an art. Yet, in Australia today, this incredible and important profession is being reduced to the sum of its parts. It is considered something purely technical and methodical that can be rationalised and weighed. But quality teaching isn’t borne of tiered ‘professional standards’. It cannot be reduced to a formula or discrete parts. Good teaching comes from professionals who are valued. It comes from teachers who know their students, who build relationships, who meet learners at their point of need and who recognise that there’s nothing standard about the journey of learning. We cannot forget the art of teaching – without it, schools become factories, students become products and teachers become nothing more than machinery.
Here’s the thing: a national curriculum does not guarantee engagement or achievement, no matter how glossy and persuasive the buzzwords are. And regular standardised testing simply makes people better at sitting tests. Imposing goals and standards on teaching professionals only serves to squeeze from them their last few drops of goodwill.
In my last months as a teacher, I had become scared. I was scared of teaching outside the prescribed model because it may not fit the current trend. I was scared my teaching would be judged critically. I was scared of neglecting students by prioritising paperwork over their needs. I was scared of a workload that was in no way related to teaching and learning.
And now I’m scared for all the children in primary schools across Australia, because I think more teachers – more good teachers – are going to leave and in doing so, our country’s very foundations become decidedly shaky.
Who will teach our children?
I can’t do it anymore.
I clean holiday apartments now but sometimes, while I’m smoothing fresh linen over the beds, I imagine a student called Australia. Who would teach her? How would she learn?
I dream up a new paradigm of education, something that isn’t a reconstruction of an old industrial model.
What we need right now is imagination.
While I place tiny soaps on folded towels, I think about schools focused on ‘students and learning’ not on ‘performance and results’. I think about how there isn’t any fact I can teach a kid that they can’t Google for themselves, and what this means for them as learners.
I think about all the learning students do that can never be measured, quantified, weighed and accounted for. How I’ve taught them to share or co-operate or have confidence or tie their shoelaces. Where does that fit on the NAPLAN data?
I think about students learning for the joy of it – learning science because they love it, not because they ‘perform well’ in it.
What if we encouraged quality long-term professional development for our teachers with monetary remuneration? What if we afforded teachers enough time to do all their work? What if we used new and different measures of achievement? What if we placed equal value on personal development? Social achievement? Effort? Resilience? Creativity?
What if we stopped testing the socio-economic gap NAPLAN constantly reflects and, instead, tried to build bridges of learning over that gap?
What if we refused to reduce teaching to a formula?
What if we focused on producing top-quality teaching graduates who understand primary teaching is all about positive relationships and bringing out the best in kids?
What if I could teach Australia to think for herself?
This is an extract from Teaching Australia by Gabbie Stroud, first published in Griffith Review 51: Fixing the System.