teaching

Time out! What century is it?

A couple of days ago I blogged about Mental Health Awareness week and schools. I vowed to stop reading the Herald online on account of the atrocious grammar, like someone had their cat walk on their keyboard and randomly cut and paste things half the time, but I risk it now and again. The article I read had my head in a spin, a surge of adrenaline as the fury rose in my body indicated I should not read on, but I did.

This time the grammar held up, it was the content. Children being locked in a small, dark time out room for behaviour management, put into isolation. Now that had me burning for a start, then to find out some of those put into that space were on the Autistic spectrum just turned my anger into a form of transcendent hysteria. To finish me off the dismissive minimising language and rhetoric claiming it was not illegal just ‘outmoded’ and the Ministry of Educations response was about as strong as Donald Trumps credibility as a feminist.

Honestly I have absolutely no hesitation is stating this is nothing but abuse disguised as behaviour management. There is nothing about this practice that is about reducing distress, learning, care or compassion. It speaks to the gross lack of training, understanding and resourcing of education for complex needs. I’m sure some of those teachers thought there was nothing wrong with what they were doing, that is what worries me. There are students who will have challenges regulating emotions and behaviour because of abusive backgrounds or unique neurocognitive functioning, that’s called diversity. Being locked in dark spaces as punishment to experience more distress, fear and isolation is barbaric and totally deplorable. The MOE needed to say that, rather than its ‘monitoring the situation’. WTF is that? We’ll, pay someone, to interview some people to hire a consultant to write a report…

Meanwhile what about that room? I say, it needs to be turned into the only thing it is good for at this point, given its size is fish tank and Lego room. Students might happily go there to find some peace and quiet away from the crazy chaotic over stimulating real world. They might even paint a ‘do not disturb’ sign. I need that room now.

 

Schools skirting around issue of uniform

I’ve been waiting for the media to respond to the recent school uniform hysteria with Henderson High School’s unfortunate justification for the enforcement of knee length skirts. I was interested to read a response today and while it touched on some of the issues I was going to raise I became more interested in the comments from the public. It fell into a predictable pattern of ideas about sexual differences between males and females based on their physiological materiality, notions of responsibility and choice as a result of the inevitable outcomes of ‘natural’ male desire and the role of schools to police young bodies in order to mute or eliminate this contamination of learning environments. I have four challenges or provocation to put forward:

First a reality check – all teenager are sexual beings. Schools need to accept that cladding bodies in a uniform will not prevent young people seeing each other in these ways, they will be attracted to each other, and it won’t just be opposites attracting. Sexuality is always present, not at a particular year level, not when certain body parts develop, its part of being a human – even in accounting.

Second – schools emphasise sexual difference through clothing deemed appropriate for males and females. If schools are serious about de-sexualising young people as best they can they would all be in long pants or long skirts – or skirt like attire. There is also the issue of female bodies and breasts – will a school dare to say over a certain size they must be bound or that an over garment will be shapeless and baggy like a sheet. But we might not be able to stop there because people find lips, necks and hair sexual – so we might need to cover them as well (hang on – I have a familiar image entering my head).

Third (and perhaps my most provocative point) – of course teens are experimenting and taking risks sexually and experiencing desire with their bodies. Figuring out sexuality however doesn’t begin and end at high school. High school are places where lot of sexual beings exist, including adults – and some teachers are barely out of high school themselves. Schools and teacher training institute need to be more proactive in talking about the very real phenomenon of teacher-student attraction without fear of it dissolving into a moral panic. Our shame about sex and sexuality in general as well as the real power imbalances between adults and young people should be more open to discussion. However I fear we’d rather maintain the institutional paranoia around sex that maintains silence and gendered assumptions which make the teaching environment a vulnerable space particularly for male teachers who’s interactions and behaviour will always be under scrutiny for ‘inappropriate’ interactions.

Finally. Rape is a violation – a violation of respect and is often an act of extreme violence with traumatic outcomes for survivors. But we need to stop linking uncontrollable sexual desire in men and the sexual provocation of women to some predetermined natural outcome of sexual difference that rape is part of. It enables and maintains justification of date rape, sexual conquest a a right of passage and a ‘scoring’ of masculinity points. While sexual difference has largely focussed on male desire, female desire and sexuality has largely been ignored or misrepresented. Finding out more about how male and female bodies are similar in spite of the more obvious differences will not stop rape but might begin to open space for challenging the assumptions that support rape as a natural outcome of sexual difference.

It is time to stop skirting around the bigger questions and for educators to boldly step into a genuine critique of the purpose of uniforms and what ides schools hang onto in order to justify their continual gender normative policing.

 

 

Inside Out and Upside Down

Although I retired from the classroom years ago, I still dabble in teaching the occasional health class. It is an honour and a privilege to have conversations with 16-17 year olds about sexuality and there are new resources to go with more language to describe the wide spectrum of identity. One of the newest is Inside Out and if anything people’s vocabulary will broaden when it comes to diversity. For any health teacher needing a solid start in coming to grips with some of more hidden aspects of sex, gender and sexuality – intersex and transgender in particular it would be good to take a look at. For those who feel more settled or stuck in a rut it might just freshen things up.

My hesitation is not with resource so much. I agree with the intention of the need to create more awareness or acceptance of ‘difference’. My narrative counselling lens is finely tuned so I’m a little sensitive to language, power and discourse. As such, I’m a bit irritating to those who hold more traditional humanistic ideas about ‘self’. This is pretty much the underpinning philosophy of all education. So back to my nagging uncertainty, it’s about the ability of teachers to facilitate conversations, questions and hold an open ethical space for ideas to be shared. I do not doubt the depth of knowledge and skill some teachers have, but I’ve heard enough students comment about their shock and disbelief, confusion and unease. One recent example was a class who were asked to stand and to sit down if they had talked to one gay person that day (or week?), and gradually it was the last person standing. I’m not sure how accurate this is to what actually happened, but if it is even partially true it is disconcerting. Sort of wondering if you get extra points for gay people of different cultures, ages, disabilities (yes people with disabilities experience sexuality!)…

I’d ask one thing of teachers using this resource – do not disclose your sexuality (particularly if you identify as heterosexual) if asked and especially if you are a cisgendered male. These resources will have the greatest influence if teachers are aware of the privilege/power of heteronormativity and how every interaction, utterance, expression, hesitation, avoidance or inability to comfortably facilitate complex notions of identity will determine what young people ‘learn’.

Schools simply need more PD on LGBTQIA….and not just rainbow scrabble.

 

 

Class Act

I remember a time when the message to young teachers about how to establish authority in the class boiled down to some simple instructions about remaining distant and aloof. Many of us will recall the doctrine of ‘no smiling before Easter’. While most new to the profession these days will be encouraged to develop more positive connections with students before Easter there is still some of this authoritarian hangover lurking for teachers who’s own default settings remain in the reactive negative affect range of basic emotional responses. In spite of having fully developed frontal lobes, yelling, humiliating, mocking and shaming young people is still a preferred tactic for some.

And I can speak from experience. When I started teaching I was still understanding my own reactive limbic system defaults and wish my teacher education had spent more time to help me work through how to become more aware of how my behaviour impacted on the learning and well-being of young people. I was a bit reckless at times – and had social media been around I’d probably have had a few hash tags of the not so salubrious kind.

Given as a nation we don’t have such great statistics with violence and abuse toward children it seems highly undesirable to have our learning institutions endorsing abuse tactics with so much understanding these days about the effects on developing brains. Yet as adults we tend to hide behind our privileged position as the ‘older species’ assuming this chronological difference entitles us to respect regardless of our own behaviour. Sometimes I wonder who really needs to grow up?

The artificial structures of respect and authority in 21st century schools that linger from post industrial revolution ideologies and practices taint modern learning environments. In a postmodern landscape with technology blurring the accessibility of personal boundaries growing, the very idea of calling teachers Mr or Miss is crazy if teachers profiles can be seen online.

Perhaps the best litmus test for a readiness to change is the openness to restorative practices as these really do challenge assumptions about power, authority and how to do respect. The most confronting aspect however is not so much in the kinds of conversations that are had but the need to acknowledge the recognition that we are all human beings in process. Developing empathy and caring is not done by the time you are 18. Every conversation changes a person therefore the quality of those conversations and interactions matter.

For those still unsure about the power of restorative practice watch Daniel Reisels TED talk. Emotions are there to connect with understanding and I think there is more to empathy than what happens in the brain. Genuine learning engages uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability. We need to ditch the idea of negating or ‘managing’ these emotions or seeing them as primitive and a mark of weakness. Thinking and being reason-able is over rated sometimes or at the very least over emphasised as a mark of maturity.

I hope we can start creating modern learning environments that expect smiling on the first day and compulsory facials by Easter due to face ache.

inclusive exclusion

Throwing money at schools to provide more support for students with unique functioning says something about a profound discomfort in schools with any form of diversity beyond culture. When writing about the ‘cost’ of providing support for disabled students the needs of the majority of students who ‘might miss out on teachers time’ are privileged. The threat to the normative learning environment is what is represented when it comes to promoting increased funding and my concern is this moves schools further away from inclusive and more toward exclusive concepts of special needs. One of the reasons I think is a general dis-ease with any form of emotional, social, physical difference. The need to manage diversity by erasing undersirable outward expressions of uniqueness means schools have lost one of their most powerful functions, to provide young people with experiences with others who may ‘be’ un-like them to allow this unsettling to play an role in forging a genuine appreciation of the vast range of humanbeingness. Maybe this has something to do with the insanity behind assessment driven pedagogy, I’m not sure, but the dominant concerns indicate this might be part of the reason.

Another pressure point is the growing parental entitlement creeping into education. I don’t begrudge parents wanting the ‘best for their children’. However neoliberal forces seem to have condensed and concentrated this into a drive to demand that schools remove all barriers to their child achieving their best. It seems as though ‘accessibility’ has been hijacked as an idea to some degree. If litigation or media exposure is threatened, Principals can be backed into a corner to preserve their brand. These are some of the contextual influences skipped over by media in a bid to focus on economies of identity – financial bottom lines and the ever growing business management approach to education and pedagogy.

A concept I find increasingly needed but missing in schools is de-expertising. That is, you can actually ask young people themselves what they need! And be careful to allow for some space to just them to be teenagers, de-pathologising youth in general would be a good start. Getting frustrated, angry, emotional and struggling to communicate feelings is not uncommon for teachers…or young people. Let’s remember that and get back to basics – the 3 r’s – 1: Are assumptions disabling students more than their actual disabilities, 2: Are young people consulted when developing IEP’s? (especially year 11 and beyond but even before this), 3: Are the needs of the many really that different to the needs of the few?

Having said all this however I am acutely aware that parents are covering the costs of teacher aids and shouldn’t be. I’m also grateful for the work RTLB’s and TA’s do, an often invisible and underappreciated part of the fabric of teaching. To the Ministry Of Education, put your money where your mouth is but don’t let it suffocate a wider discussion of inclusion, belonging and feeling valued by everyday practices in schools.

More assessment? What the Hekia?

Moving through the corridors at work over the last week has had the air of a zombie apocalypse. The ashen faces, sunken red eyes with black rings, shuffling feet and monosyllabic answers from senior students indicative of a gradual trend of sucking the life out of young people and teachers with internal assessment. The level of burn out and fatigue for the middle of the year is a worrying trend. Rarely do I hear students talk about what they are learning, or finding interesting or inspiring – they simply don’t have time or space to wonder, think, challenge or explore knowledge. While countries such as Finland who we look to for models of best practice are moving toward less assessment and testing we are moving in the opposite direction thanks to a government determined to make the tail wag the dog. The political spin doctors will convince the public this is about raising achievement and being able to measure this consistently. The so called ‘gap’ at year 9-10 is not really a ‘gap’ it’s just that there is no national tracking at these years, but there are plenty of assessment tools schools use, otherwise we wouldn’t have had improving pass rates for NCEA.

Teaching to the assessment is already happening which is not education but robotic performance where the types of questions asked by students and sanctioned by teachers are centred on what has to be done to get there. Get ready for the Governments next big experiment that will drain more of the life blood out of schools. Hekia does like to go for the jugular after all.

It’s a good thing vampires and zombies are trendy right now as the piles of marking bury my colleagues and crush the spirits of youth.

Swimming lessons for life

Swimming has been a big part of my life since I was a kid. I grew up beside a river and could bomb above my weight receiving much mana from the locals. I’d like to see a push for it’s inclusion in the Olympic or Commonwealth games – fit right in with the diving schedule but maybe speedos could be optional. I’ve been hanging out at the pools for the last two weeks watching children learning to swim and observing tenacious, creative and patient instructors guide each one toward another level of skill acquisition. It is a beautiful thing to see goggled faces smiling and truly enjoying the process – and that was the instructors!

We are a small nation surrounded by a heck of a lot of water just ask Scott Donaldson. Not everyone likes swimming but what I’ve been particularly impressed with is the emphasis on survival and safety that has come through. Creating the next Olympic medallist isn’t the aim and nor should it be – these are 6-9 year olds. Even the great Michael Phelps who probably owns half the worlds gold by now, didn’t start swimming until he was 7.  I have a teaching background (there I said it – I’ve outed myself – stolen Ian Thorpe’s thunder) and with a passion in this area. Watching others explain concepts of biomechanics and physics is sometimes like watching reality TV, it’s cringe worthy but things work out in the end (usually). Which got me thinking about what good teaching really is at the end of the day. Because while I was muttering internally, correcting this brilliant young instructor (ego alert) with her explanation of gravity and body position – I observed absolute understanding and complete and utter ‘ahaaa’ moments wash over small faces. More important it translated into action – it was embodied – it worked! So did it matter that the explanation was inaccurate according to Newtons Laws of motion? Seeing the joy and sense of accomplishment radiate from the pool I’d say no. It might matter if those ideas are carried through to another context, sometimes simplifying can come at a cost. But one worth paying because knowledge is only valuable if it can be applied. And children get used to adults telling ‘half-truths’ they find ways to inform us of our gaps as they grow. I’d be interested to listen in on another lesson with older children to see what concepts might be adjusted, reworded or if any young minds find a way to question the instructors about there being ‘no gravity’ in the pool.

Perhaps that is why I feel strongly about the Maori concept of Ako and how it reflects what I believe to be a more authentic and balanced approach to teaching and learning;

“where the educator is also learning from the student and where educators’ practices are informed by the latest research and are both deliberate and reflective. Ako is grounded in the principle of reciprocity and also recognises that the learner and whānau cannot be separated.

Ka Hikitia, 2008, p.20

Learning from each other requires a significant shift but one I see technology will necessitate – to borrow from Darwin (just this once) adaptation is the key to survival. But there is another possibility in here and I would like to go back to Ian Thorpe. How might Ako relate here? Well I would suggest it might come in with supporting concepts such as Whanaungatanga , Awhi and Aroha. Some will know the literal translations of these into English but many wont – however it is not the literal meaning that is important it is the quality of connection that is invoked in these terms – an energetic and deeply spiritual honouring of being. Tamariki is frequently translated as ‘children’ – that is accurate, but in Maori Tamariki is the combination of two concepts – the central sun (Divine Spark) and a being of senior or sophisticated status in a small form – let that sit over your mind for a second or two to allow the significance to filter through. Growing up wrestling with his sexuality I suppose I wonder about the emphasis on his swimming performance at the cost of nurturing, supporting, encouraging and acknowledging his emerging identity as a gay man, no doubt coaches, mentors and others will have been aware. His Divine Spark was suffocated but thankfully not stuffed out.

So I’ll finish by throwing out a challenge. Let’s ensure that learning to swim isn’t simply about addressing our appalling drowning statistics because there are many other ways to sink below the surface of life.