A Quadrant subscriber and teacher of four decades, one whose mantelpiece is crusted with awards, shares why she has turned her back on the blackboard once and for all. It’s not that she no longer wishes to teach. Rather, it’s the bureaucracy, the fads and theoreticians’ abstract conceptions of how classroom business should be conducted that have broken her will to go on. If you’ve wondered why Australian schools slip ever further down the OECD rankings, here are a few clues.
My nine- and ten-year-olds in Grades 3 and 4 were watching the ABC’s Behind the News, which packages current affairs for kids, this particular program being about face masks and how they prevent the spread of viruses. I paused the program to discuss this, asking the class if they thought this was true. I noted that the minute holes in masks were still significantly larger than a virus, which obviously implied that they were ineffective despite being mandated by edict of the state’s chief medical officer. The lack of fresh air and re-inhalation of the wearer’s own warm breath for long periods, I noted, could be linked to respiratory illnesses since masks can easily become bacterial breeding grounds.
This conversation led one student to offer a related idea: she had watched with her mother a TV documentary which described how a prescribed medication, thalidomide, had caused birth defects. Another child asked what this meant and, recognising that a picture tells a thousand words, I used the interactive whiteboard to bring up a few images of thalidomide-injured children. We did not dwell on the images or the topic, the discussion lasting just a few minutes before we returned to Behind the News. At no point was any child distressed. I handled it with sensitivity and without quashing the students’ spirit of enquiry.
The following week I received an email, then a phone call, from the principal, who told me a parent had complained. Having been a teacher for almost 40 years, I was surprised by this, since there had been nothing inappropriate discussed with the children. I asked which child had recounted their version of the class to his or her parents, thinking there must have been a misunderstanding. The principal told me the complainant was the mother of the very same child who asked about thalidomide and with whom she had watched the documentary!
I was told in no uncertain terms that the topic was inappropriate, despite it being raised appropriately in the context of the lesson by the student herself. All good teachers know that sometimes a class will not follow the original and intended direction, it being necessary to either digress, in order to satisfy a student’s valid curiosity, or abandon the topic altogether if it is too difficult or too sensitive a subject.
The principal knew all this but nevertheless admonished me as if I had done something wrong.
All I could do was to reassure the principal that nothing untoward had occurred. I was not reassured by her less-than-convincing insistence that she had ‘defended’ me to the student’s aggrieved mother. Indeed, I gained the distinct impression she had apologised for my conduct. Not to skite, but over the years I have been awarded a scholarship for Excellence in Enquiry Learning, having been selected as one of only three teachers in the state. In a separate forum, I had received a national award for excellence in teaching. And in a third acknowledgement of my ability as an educator, I had been nominated for a ministerial award for services to education. All this was in my resumé, which the principal would have read before hiring me as a relief teacher.
I decided to remove my name from the register of available teachers for that school. I felt that I could not work for a young principal showing such deference, not to mention poor professional judgement, in response to an absurd complaint.
At another school, I commented to a teaching aide that one of her charges, a boy with severe behavioural issues and learning delays, behaved very well when she was not present. The comment was made in the context of a conversation in which I pointed out that being the teacher, and the only adult in the room, I could not take him out to play basketball when he was misbehaving in class — one of the recommended strategies formally included in his written “individual learning plan”. The obvious conclusion was that he had quite logically concluded he would not get to skip the lesson and be taken outside to play when she wasn’t there, and was thus much more cooperative when I was in sole charge.
The teaching aide took offence, and I soon noticed that my colleagues were frosty. She had worked at the school for some time and had a lot of friends, while I was a newly arrived relief teacher on a short-term contract. In the last week of the term a student’s mother happened to be on hand when I greeted her child with an old joke, just as I have done with literally hundreds of students over the years. It goes like this:
‘Good morning, Billy. How are you?’ The typical answer is ‘Good,’ to which I reply with a straight face, “I know that. But how are you?”
Eventually, the student either realises (or is told by me) of the word-use issue and how the answer should have been “Well, thank you”. A brief description of the difference between an adjective and an adverb often ensues.
On the last day of my contract, I was called upon to discuss “this incident” in the principal’s office, where I was confronted with the boy’s mother and the principal. The mother was permitted to inform me of the pre-determined verdict — that I had spoken “inappropriately” to her son, since she perceived no smile or friendliness in the exchange I’d had with him. I was open-mouth stunned, and explained that it was a standard ‘teacher joke’ I had used for decades without a problem. She insisted that I had upset her boy (and her, obviously) by my tone of voice.
The principal did not accept my explanation of the joke, seemingly intent on appeasing and placating the mother by lecturing me about my manner. Having to sit through that nonsense was bad enough, but I was also required to apologise for the hurt and harm I had allegedly inflicted on her son!
I realised the only course of action was to do just that: I had to find it inside me to set aside reality — rationality itself, actually — in order to express faux contrition for the alleged grief prompted by a perceived slight that was never intended and, indeed, did not even occur. In effect, I was being ordered to enter the mother’s delusional sense of victimhood and, worse, to honour that delusion with my public penitence. At no point was her misreading of what she had witnessed called into question. Being a parent, she was deemed right and her addled perception beyond query or challenge.
It was an absolute sham and my private disgust at the principal’s attitude absolute. As it happens, it was that same principal’s last day at the school. In what might be seen as a classic example of the Peter Principle — the rule that predicts bad things when people are promoted beyond their competence — her next job would be a managerial role at the regional office, where she would be overseeing teachers, policy and curriculum at all schools.
Ever wonder why Australian schools keep slipping further down the OECD rankings? All of the above might be a clue.
At a school where I also was contracted as a relief teacher, a student with Down’s Syndrome, accompanied by a teaching aide-cum-minder, arrived late for a class of middle-years primary schoolers already in the process of working on a topic. The Down’s student was offered the opportunity to join in the class activity but he only wanted his headphones and laptop, on which he was watching pop star videos. He sang along with the music clips, thereby disrupting the class and handicapping his classmates’ ability to absorb the lesson. His teaching aide could have — should have — helped him focus on the lesson I was attempting to teach but she did nothing, absolutely nothing, to curb his behaviour. This is what modern education calls “integration”, the idea that learning-impaired children need to be integrated in the name of “inclusion”, with their all too often disruptive behaviour indulged even if that is to the detriment of all others in the class and their ability to learn.
By this stage the Down’s student was singing along quite loudly with his videos while his teaching aide, whose job it is to keep him in line as much as possible, did nothing to correct him.
Eventually, sick and tired of having my class and lesson thrown into chaos, I walked to his desk, stood beside him and asked that he lower his voice out of respect for his classmates, to which he responded by raising a dismissive hand to wave me away. He understood perfectly well that I wanted him to pay attention and that he could reject that request with impunity. Again, the teaching aide did not intervene, as she should have because he was in her specific care.
As a highly experienced teacher, I was not going to accept such behaviour from any student, not least because it was a poor example for the others in the class. He needed correcting so I persisted, asking him to remove his headphones. In doing so I mimed removing my own imaginary headphones to ensure he understood what I wanted. He did and duly took them off, though clearly not happy about singing along with his music videos having been brought to an end.
I spoke to him nicely and at a rate he could understand. I explained that he was singing very loudly with the headphones on, that it was making it hard for the other students to concentrate, and I asked him to think about this. Again using gestures, I touched my own forehead with my index finger, tapping it to indicate the thinking process, and in an almost maternal way, touched him on the forehead in the same way as I had touched myself. I wanted him to understand that we use our brains to think about what we are doing and also of the courtesy owed to fellow students. It was a way of communicating a message that he was capable of understanding. In my innocence, I had no reason at that point to give the encounter another thought.
Here it is important to note that I do not advocate making physical contact with any student for any reason at any time under any circumstances. But I had taught full-time for four years in the field of special education and knew from experience how intellectually disabled students often need alternative, more literal, explanations if they are to grasp ideas. My conscience is clear on this; there was nothing inappropriate in what I did or said.
Two days later, though, I received a phone call from the principal. He told me the teaching aide had accused me of “poking the boy in the forehead”. That was it — and that was enough. I was told not to come back to the school, despite having been booked for a further five weeks’ relief teaching. He had already made the decision to cancel my booking, and I was given no opportunity to explain. The veracity of the teaching aide’s story was not called into question, nor was I given an opportunity to explain. Despite being an experienced teacher who had held several leading teacher roles, including that of acting principal, and an impeccable professional record, I was being expelled for the evidently grievous offence of trying to maintain order in my classroom.
It was at that moment I decided to bring a working lifetime in schools to an end and quit teaching altogether. In a system where parents are seen as consumers who must be kept happy at all costs, no matter how problematic their children and ridiculous their complaints, there was no longer a place in the profession for the likes of me.
And anyway, if I hadn’t jumped, sooner or later I would have been pushed for defending the lessons of the real world and, inevitably, committing the career-ending crime of uttering something absolutely verboten — you know, like ‘Mothers are women and fathers are men’.
Gloria Chalk is the pseudonym of a mainland teacher who prefers discretion to grief from those described above