First, Happy New Year and I hope that wherever you are and wherever you have been over the Summer it has been fantastic.
Second, my apologies for the following self indulgent post but in the brief hiatus between packing up our office at West Rolleston and preparing for the opening of the College I have had some time to reflect on the last year and also to look forward to what exciting times lie ahead.
One truth became very apparent to me last year, more than possibly any other year that I can remember, and that is that wherever we journey we don’t travel alone. If we are lucky enough at important times those we travel with provide us with the insight and inspiration that helps guide us forward.
When I look back over my many years as a teacher I can identify three pivotal points in my life as an educator where an experience or interaction was pivotal and, in fact, inspirational.
The first was when I was still a comparatively young teacher in the late eighties and teaching English at Pukekohe High School. I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I loved the students and I loved the professional freedom I had to look at a wide range of literature and issues. It was a time when it felt like teachers were highly regarded and treated as professionals rather than having to prove themselves through constant accountability. This started to change however with the initial implementation of Standards Based Assessment and the movement that was eventually to morph into NCEA. Suddenly it seemed to me that I was being guided to move from teaching to a world dominated by assessing and measuring. I was starting to have serious doubts about where I would fit in a world that looked like becoming increasingly bureaucratic, where the fun was at risk of being removed from the learning experience. Now it could have been a fortunate chance but I prefer to see a little more behind it than that, as the Principal, John McConnell approached me and suggested that I attend a one day Professional Development course on “Creativity.” It was aimed at principals but he said that he was too busy to attend and thought that I might enjoy it. I will always believe that he sensed my unease at the direction secondary education was taking and hoped that this experience might fire me up again. At the time the concept of creativity in education was rarely, if ever, discussed or acknowledged so I attended with little or no expectations. I will always believe that John’s actions here were an example of extremely intuitive and caring leadership and that has remained with me for what is now well over thirty years.
The result of that single day is that I sat in a lecture theatre and listened to a series of Australian and Kiwi educators who were repeatedly giving examples of how creativity, imagination and empowerment can exist within any system, you merely have to give students relevant, valid opportunities to experiment and participate in their own learning. Most memorable of the speakers was Welby Ings, who at the time was Head of Design at Western Springs College. Here was a local teacher, just like me who was getting amazing work out of his learners by structuring learning around their needs and desires not just making them march to the demands of a system that felt like it was becoming increasingly restrictive.
I could have floated out of there at the end of the day. I could hardly wait to get back to school and start a creative arts magazine working in conjunction with the Art and Music departments. In no time at all the walls of my classroom were alive with student work. From a point of doubting where education was going a single day gave me the inspiration to shape the next stage of my education persona. One Principal sent me to a single days course but the timing and quality of the event was formative.
The second major ‘event’ occurred about a decade later when I was Head of English at Papakura High School. On the face of it everything was going well. I had an amazing Department and our external results were extremely pleasing for a low decile school. There was another reality though that was starting to cause me concern, if I was being honest it was the European students who were doing very well and the results for our large number of Maori learners were not as positive. It was a time when the ethnicity achievement divide was not discussed in any great detail. There was considerable deficit theorising about Maori and why they were underachieving, and this viewpoint was almost accepted and acceptable.
Late in the year I was asked by the Principal to be part of a group of teachers to be interviewed by a team from Waikato University who were beginning a research project into Maori academic achievement.
At this time my opinion of university academics was not particularly high. I easily classified them as sitting in their academic ivory towers pontificating about education with no real sense of what the reality of classroom life was really like, I on the other hand was doing it in the classroom on a daily basis. I was, at best a little dismissive and at worst cynical about how valid a use of my time it was going to be to spend time in a talk fest with academics who had no real idea of what it was like to have a room full of 14 years olds on a hot Friday afternoon.
It was my first meeting with Russell Bishop who developed the Te Kotahitanga professional development and research project that was to become a significant part of my working life for the next decade and beyond. The meeting and discussion was enlightening for many reasons. On the one hand it gave the time to personally reflect on a situation that I found disturbing, and in the fast paced life of a teacher’ life time for reflection was an is, a rare commodity. It was encouraging to hear some of my colleagues express similar concerns, so it was good to know that my concerns about Maori educational underachievement were shared but it was also appalling to hear some other colleagues speak in a dismissive and negative manner about Maori learners. It seemed there was a divide between those who thought we could do better and those who thought it was OK to blame underachievement totally on those underachieving.
I was still somewhat cynical though when I attended the first Te Kotahitanga hui for about 12 teachers from 4 secondary schools. When I was presented with the transcripts of Maori learners taken from my school and other schools from the upper North Island though my cynicism disappeared. In these voices were the frustrations, hopes and aspirations of a generation who felt marginalised. By listening, possibly for the first time by really listening,to how young people see their their education, what they value and how they feel either valued or not was again a pivotal moment in my career.
From these first two events I guess the key idea of focussing the process of learning on the needs of the learner and being guided by their voices became very important to how I operated as a teacher. Hardly earth shattering concepts but for me at the time, hugely influential and empowering.
The third and last ‘event’ occurred about four years ago when I was fortunate enough to attend an international educational conference on innovation in Singapore. It was here that I was able to hear respected international educationalists whose work I had begun to read in earnest. Pasi Sahlberg from Finland and Tony Wagner from the States being two of the most famous names present.
Sitting in that huge conference venue [suffering from a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning] I listened to international speakers articulate a vision for education that would prepare learners for the modern world. It became obvious that there was a world wide trend in education towards providing authentic learning based on key transferable skills that was running counter to the traditional factory production line of assessment driven education. it was exciting to hear the ideas that had been developing in my practice articulated by people with far greater wisdom than I had. It seemed that around the world educators were looking at their immediate context and finding solutions to the challenges they faced in preparing their young people for the modern world. What was particularly exciting was that they were developing these ideas within the specific context of their own environments but there was alignment across borders of the key ideas. The concept of similar but different was very apparent. Apparently I left that conference and was heard to say that I wished that I had another 30 years in education. I have no recollection of making such a rash statement but it was again a very exciting experience and energiser that clarified and confirmed my own vision and values.
So what does all of this self indulgent rant mean?
I guess three key things.
1. As educators we can constantly develop and grow and we have to be open to new ideas and concepts and that this is what makes our vocation so exciting. Professional Development then is vitally important.
2. We have to listen constantly to the voices of our learners as they are who we are serving and we need to ensure that we are delivering what they need not what we assume they need.
3. We have to constantly check that we are delivering a learner centred and learning centred experience and not just delivering a curriculum.
As I have already said this is an hardly earth shattering conclusion to come to after a life time in education .
Be open to learning, listen to others and ensure what you are doing is valid.
Quite simple really.
The very simplicity of the above comments is what I find most reassuring though. Michael Fullan talks about ‘simplexity,’ the solving of complex problems with simple solutions. So maybe the answer to the complex problem of meeting the learning needs of our youth is quite simple.
Continue to be open to learning, listen to those around us and adapt practice to ensue relevancy.
It many ways it can be summed up in one word,
Thirty plus years of work then comes down to one word.
Again my apologies for the self indulgence of this post but that’s what happens when we have a few sunny summer days to reflect in.