More Than Marks

“Chalkie”

Oh, I’m sorry. Was it not clear enough? Did you not hear enough to know what to do? Where does the blame fall; is it on me or you?

Cause I’m standing up here at the front of the class, busting my arse to get you to pass but, then, you don’t do the work.

And, you might think I’m a jerk, because I shout once in a while and I refuse to smile on the day an assignment’s due. Well, that’s bloody hard to do when I’m disappointed in what I get back because you’re too slack to do it. You say ‘screw it’.

But I’ve sat too many hours working at home; telling my wife and kid to leave me alone because I’m thinking of you and what you want to be.

Well, what about me? Can’t you see things from my point of view?

This is not what I wanted to do.

I wanted to sculpt minds like an artist does with clay.

I chose this career to make a difference every day,

Not to baby-sit some little shit who’d rather spit on me than listen to what I say.

Yet, I wake every morn just after dawn;

Shower and dress for school,

Because I’m desperate to find that jewel,

That’s inside each kid,

That pearl of wisdom that’s hid deep down inside –

Trying to hide from the taunts of peers.

Because, its all between our ears,

These fears that hurt our chest,

As we hide the best of us from the rest of us,

And as each day goes by,

All I can do is try,

Because I know,

That when these kids grow,

They’ll look back and say,

‘He made a difference that day’.

The basis of my pedagogy is wrapped up in this poem. It is an understanding that I will have bad days – I am, after all, only human – but that I cannot lose sight of why I am in this profession. Stay with me as I take you on a personal journey.

TEDx

Two generations ago, my Nanna and Poppa raised 9 children in a house where chores were not an expectation but a requirement. Everybody pitched in; if they didn’t it would have all fallen apart. Dishes, laundry, cooking, cleaning – it was all hands on deck. Most importantly, the older children would help monitor the youngest.

When I was young I spent a lot of time in the care of my grandparents and, as the oldest grandchild, was instilled with a sense of responsibility for the younger members of our family. This was reinforced later when, as a 12 year old, I was gifted with a younger brother. My step-dad was working fly-in, fly-out so (for much of the time) I was the ‘man of the house’. When my brother began school I was studying teaching at university and would often spend days where I had no uni commitments helping out in his classes.

At this stage I hadn’t even realised that teaching was my calling. Back then I saw it as a fallback in case my career as an author fell through. It wasn’t until my sixth year that I realised how much teaching meant to me although it should have hit me earlier – a year and a half in I cried because it wasn’t clear if there would be a job for me the following year and I’d developed such compassion for my students that the thought of not being there to see them graduate left me torn. A year later I cried again when I learned that I’d be transferred to another school.  

Back to that sixth year and I’d been asked to run an engagement program as my school’s first foray into vocational education. It was determined at the end of the year that the program wouldn’t continue into a second year and I have never been more angry at a decision than at that time. That was it, my lightbulb moment. The students were chosen to be a part of the program because their attendance and grades were low and their misbehaviours and suspension rates were high. By the end of the year our school based data showed improvements in attendance and behaviour and a decrease in suspension. It wasn’t enough. The key indicator here is grades. The bottom line was that because their grades did not improve the school couldn’t justify the existence of the program.

Why?

Because schools are businesses. Excursions, stationery, resources, computers – they all cost money yet school fees are optional. So where does the money come from? It comes from the government who use results to determine funding. And so, bye bye engagement program.

It was then that I finally realised that I truly cared about what I did for a living. More to the point, I realised that I truly cared for my students. Since that point I have made a concerted effort to do more than just treat kids as potential products in the ‘grades factory’. I still push them to succeed academically, but I encourage them to grow as humans at the same time. Now, it is all about finding that balance…

…So, how do I push students to achieve well in standardised tests and examinations while allowing them the freedom to develop as individuals, as people?

My underlying desire is to really make a difference for the students entrusted to my care and so they are encouraged to accept responsibility for their curriculum and progress. This type of teaching process creates real enthusiasm. I firmly believe that when students invest energy and engage in relevant learning experiences their true potential can be explored. So, in my classroom, taking a student-centred approach to learning underpins my professional life and, as such, is incorporated through all aspects of my pedagogy. For me, it is not about being the ‘sage on the stage’. The idea of ‘chalk and talk’ is as old as the materials suggested in the moniker and no longer works as a way of disseminating information to 21st Century learners. In an era when the internet makes knowledge more readily accessible the need to teach content has lessened. What is more important is the need to develop critical learners. And that is where the true value of flipping your classroom can be found.

It all began in 2007 when Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams found software to record their PowerPoint presentations. They then used this to allow students unable to attend their lessons to keep up with the rest of the class. These online videos quickly spread and the pair were invited to speak to other teachers across America. Teachers then began podcasting and vodcasting and encouraging students to gain knowledge from videos watched outside of school and reserved class time for 1 to 1 support and collaborative exercises. This is a ‘flipping’ of traditional methods where lecturing occurred in class and activities were set for homework. Many classrooms across the globe have had success with this format – me included. But the need for internet access can prove restricting at times even in a modern, Western school.

So how can the technology deprived flip their classes? Easy! If you take the purpose and philosophy behind the strategy it opens your doors to more engaging teaching methods. At its simplest, the idea of flipped classrooms mirrors the Chinese proverb, ‘Tell me and Ill forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand’.

That is, the more students are involved in the delivery of content the more they will understand. By researching and engaging in a concept, students unpack it and turn it into something manageable and easy for them to understand and, by extension, easy for their peers. Sometimes as teachers we do not communicate ideas effectively and we lose some students. If our classrooms are open and safe or if a student is particularly confident they might ask a clarifying question; they might not. And if that content or concept is part of a bigger picture we have lost them for longer than just an activity or a lesson; we have lost them, potentially, for good.

But it’s more than just content they pick up. It’s people skills, the ability to speak in public, time management, accountability, confidence – and not just for those who are gifted and talented. High school students categorised as weak excel when given opportunities to act as teacher, especially when working with younger students. And, if we are truly developing our students for the world beyond school, if we are preparing them for the future, then we must understand that some things are worth more than marks.

Like

A worthwhile future

A head held high

Or even, a smile.

^ This was an example talk I put together for my year 10 students in 2012 as they prepared for the TEDxYouth event I was coordinating. It was then published under the title “Chalkie” in the Term 4 (2013) edition of ETA Notes, published by the English Teachers Association of Western Australia.

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One thought on “More Than Marks

  1. I’m an ex student of yours and I have to say you were my favourite teacher. English was my favourite subject. Leaving school is one of my biggest regrets in this life. I think back to it and realise how interesting and intriguing learning was and how it was just being handed to me on a silver platter and I only chose to absorb a small amount of it and disregard the rest. I wish I could tell younger kids to “stay in school” without them rolling their eyes at me, because seriously, I wish I listened to that advice when I was younger. But I just wanted to let you know that your teaching/lessons did make an impact on my life because I still remember them and if I’m ever having a conversation about school I almost, always say that I loved English because I had a good English teacher.

    From one of the quiet students who tried to never ever be noticed out of fear I’d have to speak in front of the class. (But am now kicking myself for not engaging more)

    Liked by 1 person

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