Teacher First: Creating a better classroom environment

If you want to increase student achievement forget everything else you’ve read and just focus on making your teachers happy.

Those outside of the profession have made a lot of claims about how we might increase the standard of education in our country but many of the suggestions are downright ridiculous.

Increase the required ATAR of teaching degrees? Sure, but then you’re implying that intelligence (or the ability to translate knowledge onto a page under timed conditions) correlates with good teaching. Where do I fit then? I’m a Level 3 Classroom Teacher who is second in charge of their department at a big metro school and I’ve got more than 10 years of experience behind me. These factors might lead you to assume I’m good at my job and yet my university entrance score was depressingly low. What I can do, which isn’t measurable through my own test scores, is relate to students on a personal level and create an engaging classroom environment.

Smaller class sizes? Sounds great. This would definitely work but it’s unrealistic. To do this a school would need to hire more teachers and have more rooms they could teach in to cater for the same number of students that are currently enrolled. This is achievable but it requires financial support from the government and greater thought when planning the infrastructure of our education system. The key problem, however, is that it requires more teachers when, by all accounts, we’re headed for another shortage.

There are other ‘solutions’ too but there are reasons why they won’t work – at least, not in isolation.

Schools are businesses. It’s a fact.

What’s not set in stone is what sort of business and, if it’s an analogy, what each hierarchical level of a school’s population correlates with in a business sense. Are students our clients or our products? Are teachers customer service providers or machines in the grades factory?

It’s murky water and part of the problem is schools, and to some extent the wider community, are not consistent with their position.

In part, this is brought on by the fact that many administrators have lost touch with the classroom setting. This is because many of them no longer have a teaching load and some of them have climbed the corporate ladder too quickly and never actually established themselves as a teacher to begin with. Then there’s the fact that the community’s perception of teachers has changed drastically in the space of a generation. Ultimately, it’s not just teachers – it’s all authority figures. Today’s youth have a sense of entitlement and self-importance that society accepts as par for the course (keep in mind that this is a generalisation and not indicative of all adolescents).

Teachers, then, walk a tightrope on a daily basis. We try to appease the administration, directors and members of parliament despite the fact their ideals put more constraints on our time and we do this while trying to coerce reluctant students into completing work. It’s stressful. The number of people who leaves this profession is astounding.

So, what do we need?

Time. Teachers go back days before students do and there are a small handful of student-free days throughout the year but these days are not set aside for teachers to catch up on marking or plan their next sequence of lessons. Instead, these days are often a series of monotonous meetings where we read and discuss the same documents we looked at on the last three staff development days.

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Schools might say they support staff by offering a variety of professional development opportunities but these still monopolise our time in a time-poor profession. Essentially this is a trust issue; they plan meeting-filled days because they don’t trust us to get on with our work and not just surf the net all day. My two cents? If you’re going to dictate what we do, make it memorable. One administrator I’ve had understood this. She organised pampering, a stand up comedian and bomb disposal team-building exercises. I still had to work twice as hard at home to compensate for not getting time to complete tasks at work but at least I left at the end of the day with a smile on my face.

Happy staff do their job well.

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I’ve seen this expressed in a business sense but never at school. Even if management are conscious of this premise they don’t seem to know how to put it in effect. This is because many schools don’t ask their staff directly, not with carefully constructed leading questions about confidence and an understanding of the business plan but with open ended questions that allow teachers to articulate their fears and desires.

No one in a position of authority has ever asked me any of the following and if they have I’ve haven’t walked away feeling as if my response would govern future actions –

  • are you happy in your job? What do you need for job satisfaction?
  • what do you need to feel supported in the classroom?
  • what is the scariest prospect about the next school year?

 

This isn’t rocket science. If your job caused you nothing but stress and concern would you put in your best effort and spend time at home completing tasks and planning ahead? Probably not. You’d be more inclined to distance yourself from that negativity and/or drown your worries in alcohol. If thinking of your job made you smile would you work harder? More than likely, it’s human nature.

And if your job is raising the knowledge and abilities of our youth then it stands to reason that you’ll do it better if you’re happy doing it.

If fly catching is more successful with honey as opposed to vinegar, then educational standards might just be better if you sweeten up the lives of your teachers.

The Perfect Playground: 5 things every parent wants

A trip to the playground should be every family’s favourite outing. The time spent in front of a screen is ever increasing, for both adults and children, and obesity is a real threat to too many lives – the playground should be the perfect antidote but too many of them are poorly planned.

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The following is a list of everything I want in a playground.

 

1. Shade

I don’t care what else you’ve got, if you don’t have shade it’s not worth going. I took the kids to a playground this morning and half of the equipment couldn’t be used, it was just too hot. These hard plastic or metal slides become like hot plates in the Australian sun – Peter Combe used to sing a silly song about frying an egg on a slippery dip, I reckon you could actually do it at some of the parks I’ve been to lately. It’s all well and good to have fancy climbing frames and spinning things but you need to be able to use them. I shouldn’t have to plan these sorts of outings for before 9 am or after 6 pm – they should be accessible at all times of day.

 

2. Variety

A set of swings and a climbing frame that leads to a slide is not a playground; some people have that sort of set up in their back yards. I work with teenagers and a number of them have siblings that are toddlers or young children – if a playground is meant to be a place you take your family then it needs to cater for this differentiation. The best playgrounds I’ve been to recently had small slides and large slides, more than one set of swings and a diverse range of equipment. Where possible, you also don’t want this to be spread over a large area as parents will then struggle to supervise their children. Ideally, you’d have a space for onlookers in the middle of the play area.

 

3. Appeal to the adults

Aside from getting out of the house and giving the kids a place to play (where we don’t spend more time packing up their toys than they spent playing with them) there is no real incentive for an adult to go to a playground. What do I want? Something to occupy my time and the facilities to set up camp for a reasonable time. Give me some exercise equipment and/or a basketball ring and I’m pretty content but at some point someone is going to get hungry or need to go to the toilet. Most parks have tables and benches nowadays and many of these have bbq facilities but very few have toilets. This is like serving food without cutlery – you make people want something but don’t give them the tools to use it effectively. I get that city planners were initially reluctant to put these facilities in because they were worried about people using them to sell or take drugs (or at least, that’s what I’ve been led to believe) but modern toilets have uv lights and timed doors and whatnot.

 

4. A theme

This isn’t essential to a good playground but it certainly makes them memorable. Today’s park was musical with small drum sets and a big cymbal (inside a weird frog like thing); the one we went to the other day was like a farm with ride on animals, wooden fences in a maze-like formation and two climbing frame/slide combinations in the shape of a pig for smaller children and a windmill for the bigger kids.

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5.Extras

One thing I have noticed is that themed playgrounds tend to have more activities between the big-ticket items. This helps to keep queues down as the kids become occupied on their way from the flying fox to the swings. More parks should take this on board, use your space creatively – this can be done with balancing beams and stepping stones but it could also be just as easily done colours and shapes on the ground. The highlight of today’s playground were mini trampolines built in to the flooring.

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There you have it, a simple list of things I would like to see in our community play areas. A total of five items – not too much to ask for, I didn’t even mention my desire for a coffee van.

Now, if only the local council saw this before they signed off on their next playground proposal…

Lego Dimensions: a review

I think I’m in love.

Lego Dimensions was our present to the family. It had the kids’ names under ‘to’ and our names under ‘from’ but it was for all of us. Well, maybe not my wife but she’s not much of a gamer (except for that time we had a Wii and we’d have friends around, crack a bottle of wine and play Wii Sports or Singstar and see who could make the bigger fool of themselves).

So, Lego Dimensions is for the kids and I. If I’m being honest I think I fall into the target demographic more than they do. They loved the Lego Movie, know all their superheroes, watch the current Scooby Doo series and have a vague knowledge of some of the other Lego themes (Ninjago) and licensed properties (Ghostbusters, The Simpsons and Jurassic World) but they don’t get the in-jokes.

It’s the nod to nerds that I love the most. I used to watch Doctor Who with my parents and, now that I teach a bunch of students who are into the current incarnation, I’ve caught a few recent episodes. When you play as Doctor Who in the game you start as the twelfth doctor and if your character ‘dies’ you respawn as the first doctor and cycle your way through each version until you’re back on the doctor you start with. Each doctor has his own Tardis interior to match and all of the ‘old’ doctors have dialogue ripped from episodes of their series.

This is the same with other properties too so you get to giggle as Mad Dog drops the “duded-up, egg-sucking gutter trash” line when you’re playing the Back to the Future level.

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I think my favourite geeky gift of nerdy nostalgia came in the Ghostbusters level, however, as you get to recreate the dancing toaster scene. But, if you’re looking for cool, the best level was the one unlocked once you found a set number of gold bricks. This ‘mystery level’ got the biggest reaction from me as I actually said “wow” when it first opened and laughed when I completed it.

I can see myself spending a small fortune on this game. I mean, that’s exactly how these particular games are built anyway. You buy the starter pack and then, over time, collect all of the add-ons and before you know it you have a drawer full of figures and other junk. I’ve never played or owned Skylanders but I’ve had Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions is far superior. Disney Infinity had a larger variety of figures but they were restricted to one or two playing environments whereas every character in Dimensions can traverse every world. The added bonus is that, while the figures for Infinity were immaculate they were built to be looked at not played with. Every character and figure in Lego Dimensions is buildable (and for the vehicles and items, can be rebuilt in different designs) and you don’t need them on the game base, just the discs they stand on, so they can be played with like normal Lego (except in my house because I am a Lego nazi and won’t let my kids touch my sets that are on display in a glass fronted cabinet – my wife thinks the father in the Lego movie is pretty much me).

The gameplay is like every other Lego game; you break stuff, collect stuff, complete puzzles, defeat bosses. The only difference is that you now use the base pad to complete some of the puzzles, moving characters around the lit-up areas to imbue their on-screen counterparts with special powers. This can be frustrating at times but it’s a unique feature that keeps you mentally active as you progress through the game.

My kids aren’t able to progress through the story mode without me operating one of the characters but they don’t care, they’d much rather explore the Adventure Worlds which they can do with minimal assistance.

It’s a pricey hobby. If I want to 100% complete the game I’ll have to get at least one character from each franchise and the sets range from $25-50. To keep costs down I’ll wait for sales before buying new characters but I might get to the point where I talk to friends about borrowing some of their figures/vehicles.

Until then, I’m happy playing with the sets I’ve got.

Game on!