When I first started teaching in a small country town in the early 1970s, I tried to be the right sort of teacher. I was very young. Barely 22. I put on my mauve body-shirt and wide purple tie and walked into Tenterfield High School trying to pretend I knew what I was doing. I had the words of the department’s man ringing in my ears.
“Forget all this airy-fairy nonsense you’ve heard at university. Your place is at the bottom of the pile. My advice to you is shut up and do as you are told. In ten years’ time you might become a good teacher.”
For a few weeks, I tried to follow his words but before long I realised that I couldn’t be a standard-order teacher. I had to be myself. From that moment on, I began learning how to teach.
Because it was the 70s – and I was in the smallest and one of the most remote high schools in the state – I was pretty much able to do my own thing. I threw Wordsworth out the window and taught Cat Stevens (as Yusef Islam was called then). I encouraged my students to write and perform scripts; to write about what they felt and experienced and not worry too much about grammar and spelling.
While I am the first to admit I went a bit too far with this, the fact is I got kids who hated writing to write. I took my class into the park and they performed Jabberwocky in the rotunda. I coached the rugby league team and drove a car-load of kids to their homes scattered around the district every night after footy training.
While I am the first to admit that I was a very opinionated 22-year-old who, when set free, was sure he knew anything and everything, the fact is I had a lot of success with those students. The reason for that was I was given professional autonomy. Or, perhaps more accurately, I took professional autonomy.
I wasn’t the only one. A group of young teachers in Tenterfield, unshackled from rigid course prescriptions and excessive paperwork, were free to express themselves and change the lives of their students in a way that would be almost impossible today.
Having recently returned to the classroom, I now find that I spend as much time filling in forms as I do preparing lessons. I am told that this is about ‘accountability’. In my humble opinion, there was a lot of accountability in Tenterfield. If you didn’t do your job, the kids tore you apart.
Now, if I have a class that is struggling with the curriculum, I am not only forbidden from wavering from it, I have to prove I haven’t wavered by filling in reams of paperwork. The message seems to be that if the paperwork is up to scratch then I must be doing my job. The fact that many of my students might be disengaged doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone can point to the paperwork and prove that they have been taught.
In having to meet increasingly narrow standards, we are no longer able to meet our students’ needs.
The problem is that teaching isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ profession. In any one class the needs of the students may vary greatly. Trying to standardise them or force square pegs into round holes is not serving anyone, except the politicians and bureaucrats who point to the paperwork as evidence of success. The fact is that Australian schools are lagging behind in the international league tables while the most lauded education system on the planet (Finland’s) eschews standardisation in favour of gearing its teaching to students’ individual needs. Sadly, this is a fact that seems to have escaped most Australian politicians.
I have witnessed, first hand, the dire consequences of putting unnatural pressure on teenagers at the end of their high school careers by forcing them to reach certain standards. The focus on academic achievement over personal development makes that last year at school a nightmare for many kids – and their parents. Year 12 students are so driven by the academic success that they opt out of all the activities that, once upon a time, made their last year at school so memorable.
Sadly, teachers are now obliged to spend more time on administration than providing pastoral care and guidance for their students. They have no time to coach sporting teams or conduct orchestras or direct plays and musicals. They are hamstrung from helping their students express themselves by the endless piles of ‘paperwork’ (I’m showing my age) mounting up on their computers.
In short, the biggest obstacle to teaching is having to prove that we’re doing it. In having to meet increasingly narrow standards, we are no longer able to meet our students’ needs. Rather than develop the whole person, we are focusing on a very limited version of that person – that tiny part of a student that can be quantified and reported on using one-size-fits-all standards. We are ticking all the right boxes, but we are failing our students.