Schools Keeping it together

Soon after I trained, I did what many young teachers do and worked for a year in London. My first contract was at an inner-city public school with a low socio-economic population, metal detectors at the doors and a police outreach unit next to the staffroom. My job was to teach two dozen 15-year-olds Lord of the Flies. Things, as they say, did not go well. Golding’s allegory soon felt more like a documentary. Luckily no one died, but it took me a decade to work out what had gone wrong.

Returning to Australia, I continued to combat chaos with discipline, and when that proved ineffective, I tried the more enlightened pedagogy of individualised moderated work. I used on-demand tests to map special learning needs. I even accepted that segregation into vocational sessions was a necessary step for some. But all this achieved was to push students from the class – and the class, in turn, was diminished by their absence.

You have to keep the group together – show students there is more to gain from joining in than from staying apart.

Disengaged students had developed an identity, I realised, even a sense of pride, in being the outsiders. Interestingly, the same thing was occurring at the other end of the bell-curve, when advanced students segregated themselves out of frustration with their less aspirational peers. The lesson in Lord of the Flies was right there, staring back at me.

You have to keep the group together.

The solution, I discovered, was to make participation more desirable than separation – to show my students that there was more to gain from joining in than there was in staying apart.

Humans have a built-in desire to be part of a community. We have to feed the things that help a community grow: class discussion, active listening, peer feedback and, most importantly, democracy.

In Term 1, my current Year 8 English group asked if we were going to watch the film version of Animal Farm. I had a writing activity planned, but allowed it to be put to a vote. The result was unsurprising: the movie won. And yet, 10 minutes in, my students started to complain about how bad it was. So we put it to another vote: keep watching or return to the lesson I had planned. A spontaneous argument erupted about the various merits of each and I took on the role of conch shell to their council.

The teacher I had been in London would likely have put his foot down after five minutes of the ensuing debate. Instead, I moderated the impromptu senate, facilitating the discourse between the various factions. In the end, the lunch bell went before we had a chance to vote. Some of the more conscientious students were dismayed we had neither watched the film nor completed the planned lesson.  I reassured them that it had been one of the better classes of the year.

After the recent federal election, I was thinking about that lesson. My Year 12s were shaken by the result. We’d spent some time in class analysing the media coverage of Brexit and the Trump election, and they probably assumed that the rest of Australia was capable of seeing through the hype and fear-mongering that tends to accompany national campaigns. They were shocked to find that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t just that the ’wrong’ government had been elected – their faith in democracy itself was shaken.

Our real job, our most important job, is to create valued members of society.

I told them what I’d explained to my Year 8s at the end of the seemingly chaotic Animal Farm class. The process of participating in democracy is more valuable than any particular outcome. The ancient Greeks knew it. We need to remember it.

Our job as teachers goes beyond the work we give our students. We are the frontline of community construction. This doesn’t just mean creating young people ready to work, but citizens who can participate in the discovery of knowledge for its own sake.

Maybe the solution to improving our society is the same one I needed to improve my teaching. We need to focus less on the individual, and more on the whole. We need to measure the health of the entire community as much that of any single member.

In London, I tried to fix a broken community by further dividing it. Now, I try to give voice to those who set themselves apart, reminding them that their participation is a right and a privilege worth suffering for.

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