Banksy: the people’s protestor

My year 10 students are studying texts as vehicles of protest and I’m trying to expose them to a wide variety of visual, written and aural works but we’ve hit a wall. This isn’t a bad thing because Banksy has hit the same wall and we’re finding his art to be rich media for discussion. We’ve unpacked pictures of stuffed animals being transported to their eventual slaughter, lovers fixated with their mobile phones, kissing coppers, children interacting with or acting as soldiers, people (including Jesus) reluctant to let go of their shopping, heart-shaped balloons, bouquets of flowers, and a number of other powerful protests that critique aspects of our political, social, and economic zeitgeist.

 

Currently I’m asking them to write Short Answer Responses – a bizarre new text type that has been born out of a perceived need to have students analyse more without increasing the marking load of teachers and examiners. Each of the samples I’m providing below are individual pieces, so ignore the fact that I’ve rehashed the same topic sentence/thesis statement across all three. Next week I’m going to show them how, with a little bit of tweaking, we can turn these responses into a comprehensive 5 paragraph essay.

 

Why am I sharing this here? In studying/teaching Banksy’s art I have come to really appreciate the technique, aesthetic and depth of his work. Why wouldn’t I share this with that in mind? So, here you go. Below are three pieces and the sample responses I’ve written as exemplars for my students to follow.

Happy reading!

 

banksy-trouble

The provided image is of a stencilled piece of artwork by political activist and graffiti artist, Banksy. It can be read as a political protest that encourages anarchism through its symbolism, composition and epigram. The salient part of the image is the familial relationship depicted on the right hand side. Here we see a young man in stereotypical punk garb being doted on by his mother, a conventional housewife. The man’s costuming includes a Mohawk styled as liberty spikes. This particular hair style alludes to the Statue of Liberty which is a famous symbol of freedom and acceptance suggesting these are the ideals the man is fighting for. Furthermore, the pole for the anarchist flag he carries points at the lunch his mother has prepared for him (which consists of a flask, bag and green apple). It is a lunch one might take to work and it is this connotation, and the symbolism of the apple, that suggests rebellion is not only natural but is our responsibility. Reinforcing this is the epigram on the left hand side. The black and red colour scheme connects the young man to this message and is used to signify both power and danger. These words belong to the mother and express her maternal instincts with the instruction to “Eat Your Lunch” as well as the encouragement to “Make Some Trouble” in his fight for his rights and freedom. Most prominent in this text is the message to rebel as the bright red stands out against the dull colours and provides a connection with the man’s bandana. This, then, guides the viewers’ gaze back to the mother who straightens this mask the way she might fix a tie, thus reinforcing the theme of the image – that it is our responsibility to stand up against governmental oppression.

 

banksy_cctv

The provided image is of a stencilled piece of artwork by political activist and graffiti artist, Banksy. It can be read as a political protest that encourages passers-by to question the nature of surveillance through its composition, epigram and symbolism. People walking along the footpath might first notice the policeman and his canine companion who are at street level, they will then follow their gaze (and the angle of the dog’s body) which point to the large white writing and the child ‘painting’ it. This message written here states “ONE NATION UNDER CCTV” which is an allusion to the Pledge of Allegiance but with references to God replaced with CCTV. One reading of this is that people used to modify their own behaviours because they were trying to please an omnipotent deity but now they do so because they fear that they are being watched by a government that uses surveillance cameras to monitor their every move. This is reinforced with the stencilled policeman holding a camera and the strategic placement of this graffiti next to a surveillance camera. Furthermore, despite his apparent criminal activity, the child in the image maintains their innocence. This is, in part, because they are youthful (young age being synonymous with innocence and naivety) but also by interpreting their red hoodie as an intertextual nod to Red Riding Hood – a tale that includes a naïve child stalked by a murderous wolf. This, then, puts the government in the position of the antagonist. By combining these elements, audiences can determine that Banksy’s artwork is an homage to the themes in George Orwell’s 1984 and, as such, is critical of the government’s access to information about its citizens.

 

bansky-smiley-face-police-angels

The provided image is a photograph of a gallery piece by political activist and graffiti artist, Banksy. It can be read as a political protest that uses symbolism, juxtaposition and irony to warn viewers of governmental oppression. Foregrounded in this image is a figure in riot gear hanging from the rafters of a building with an indeterminable number of similar figures hanging around them. The costuming immediately identifies these characters as representative of law and order with the dull colours and assault rifle connoting blind uniformity and violence. This is juxtaposed against the bright colours of the angel wings and smiley faces that have been superimposed onto the stencilled figures. Both of these additions signify ‘goodness’ through the associations developed from their use in popular culture and social media. One reading of this piece, then, is that police and armed forces do God’s work for the benefit of society. However, as Banksy is known to criticize the government and law enforcement in his other works this depiction is most likely satirical. The more cartoony elements are then presumed to be used ironically, and therefore assume greater importance in producing meaning. This is reinforced through the vectors in the composition as the butt of the gun points to the wings and the curve of these wings, as well as the figures’ shoulders, point to the smiley faces. An alternate reading, then, regards these smiley faces in a similar vein to how it has been subverted in Punk music iconography and the comic, Watchmen, where it is worn by a corrupt and violent superhero. As such, it can be assumed that Banksy has used symbolism, juxtaposition and irony in this piece to suggest that police and other authority figures hide their corruption and oppression behind a facade of wholesomeness and protection.

 

When the master becomes the… spectator

A lot of teaching is about control. Or at least it seems so.

First of all you have to control student behaviours. Gone are the days where you can expect students to respect you or do as you’ve asked simply because you occupy an authoritarian position, today’s teachers are taught and re-taught behaviour management strategies throughout their degrees and their career.

Then there is the expectation that we are controllers of content, keepers of knowledge. This stereotype is one born out of traditional practice and perpetuated through years of ‘chalk and talk’.

There are a number of teaching strategies that are currently popular that involve giving up some of this control, an exercise which frightens some teachers both old and new/experienced and inexperienced. These methods include flipped learning, SOLE and PBL among others.

I’m about to walk this path. Again.

A few years back I was a lot more proactive in this space. A colleague and I pushed each other to continually provide students with authentic learning experiences. We ran TEDx events, we had students create film trailers that were commented on by professional film-makers, we published student creative writing, we collaborated with other schools, we entered students in competitions, we had students perform poetry to each other and also in a public forum; we went beyond the four walls of our classroom and the learning experiences were richer for it.

Unfortunately, the school climate changed and we lost our mojo.

So why am I back trying it again? Mostly it’s because I’m going on long service leave and will only have my students for two weeks. In trying to come up with something ‘cool’ that could be completed in this short time-frame I remembered the work of Bianca Hewes, who I used to follow closely on Twitter when I was more engaged in this space.

One of her blog posts was about a class coming together to collaboratively write a novella and I was considering following this line of thinking, scouring NaNoWriMo resources and the Write-a-book-in-a-day website, but we’ve already done creative writing recently and I didn’t want to drag the students through something. What I wanted, was for them to take control of their own learning.

So, I came up with this – https://goo.gl/SIH1sV

I’m not certain how it’s going to go.

The hardest part will not be behaviour management. I have a few strategies and tactics up my sleeve to monitor student progress. I’ll use exit tickets, planning and reflection documents, inside-outside circles, value lines, and other methods to measure their success. This will ensure their accountability. Beyond that, I’ll use the usual CMS strategies to keep the kids in check.

The hardest part will not be relinquishing my position as the custodian of knowledge. I don’t pretend to know everything anyway.

The hardest part will be keeping myself in check. Each time I’ve done something like this in the past I’ve gone a little stir crazy. It’s the same with supervising exams and tests. I will be there, providing duty of care, but for the most part I will just be holding myself back and trying not to intervene (or annoy).

Wish me luck.

 

 

Teachers With Teeth

I was a teenage dirtbag and people have often suggested that I must be a brilliant teacher because there’s nothing the students can do that I haven’t seen or done before. If you add to that the fact that EVERY teacher I ever had said that I had the brains to be so much more then what you have is a recipe for… something.

If I knew cookery better then I’d offer a more precise metaphor but picture something that is potentially perfect but easy to mess up, prone to disastrous results. I want to say soufflé but I’m not sure if that’s right.

Anyway… what I’m really trying to get at is that I’ve walked the walk of a disengaged, disruptive teenager before and I can still talk the talk quite fluently. I match their criticism with witticism, their talk down with talk back. They bring the sass? Myeh, I’m a Sasquatch.

I don’t know what it is but students seem to respond to that as though they respect a bit of attitude. Maybe it’s just that they like teachers who show a bit of personality and humour.

There are 2 problems here.

  1. These retorts need to be immediate to be effective, thinking time decreases their effect and, so, you’re not always censoring yourself as much as you normally would. When shooting your mouth in this manner it’s possible that you’re firing live bullets.
  2. Mental health issues, depression and teen suicide are too real to ignore in today’s day and age.

I know I’ve overstepped the line before. I am truly apologetic for the words that have come out of my mouth in times where I haven’t considered their impact and I wish I could take some of those hurtful things back. But I can’t. So, I’m doing the next best thing – I’m trying to create a more supportive, positive vibe in my classrooms.

It’s not easy. This sort of thing doesn’t come naturally to me. But I’m trying. One of the things I’ve tried to encourage is the students complimenting each other. That way, when my feedback or comments are negativity geared they can pump each other up.

That’s why, when I read this poem recently, it was everything I felt but never expressed. It was as though someone was telling my life through verse and had gotten my gender wrong.

That’s why I asked them if I could share it here. It wasn’t titled where I read it so I’m going to call it “Miss Roast”. It’s by fellow WA based teacher/poet, Elise Kelly.

 

They call me Miss Roast at school

It is a title of respect that crowns my head, put there by adolescent fingers

Shouted in open school halls like a student catcall or a grudging fanfare

Every day in class I read my students a Shakespearean insult

Though they can not sift through the Bard’s English, the cloaked insult is a language they understand

And breathe it like oxygen

There is no higher art form to them than invectives injected like venom into another’s tender skin

They roast their friends and foes over the same fire and feast on the spitting crackle, hoping they will not be burned in turn

Their favourite sport is the back-and-forth banter, the tennis-match rally of roasting and boasting

And although there is room for wit, they have no time for it

Their words are crude and cruel and so naive in their poison

But they call me Miss Roast because I can speak with their forked tongue

Relief teachers get a lot of shit, and I have learned to clapback and smackdown their jibes

I have clothed myself with comebacks and stood armed with retorts like they were a shield

But I fear they have become bullets that plant guns in their half-grown hands

They call me Miss Roast, because I can leave a student who gives me lip lying in the dust after the lick of my whip-like tongue

Hold my own against the sass of asshole dropkicks

But I wonder if I should be proud of the title

Rap for them comes only in battle form

Poetry to them is uncool until it is in a slam

My words are most worth their respect when I make them weapons, and I did not mean for this to happen

Why do I teach them an insult a day when I could teach them to be kind

Fill their ears with the music of Shakespeare’s sonnets of love

Teach them the ancient art of compliments where no one is the opponent, and victory comes from raising each other up instead of breaking each other down

They call me Miss Roast

A stamp of youthful approval for the fire in my breath, leaving the ground scorched

But I would rather be the warm sun helping these little buds to bloom

I’ve got the music in me

My year 12 General class have a really naff task to complete that has great potential. Basically, they have to demonstrate how 5 songs connect to their life/experiences. Currently it is neither an autobiographical task nor a song analysis one but it could be great as both. Oh well, there’s always next year.

 

Anyway, as is often the case, I’ve created an example they can follow. Here it is:

 

cover

Cover design.
 
Because this CD task is somewhat autobiographical, I decided to blend photos of me doing two things I love: teaching and footy. My ‘band name’ is something I’ve used as a moniker in video games and is based off the band Run DMC (who feature on one of the tracks). While the album’s title, RONception, is based off the film Inception and plays on the idea of the image (the Ron inside a Ron), the font style and colour is reminiscent of the 1980s which represents my childhood. 
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Track listing
 
1. It’s Tricky – Run DMC
Key lyric:
“One thing I know is that life is short
So listen up homeboy, give this a thought
The next time someone’s teaching why don’t you get taught?
It’s like that (what?) and that’s the way it is.”
 
The third line of this verse is something that I’ve considered getting put onto a hoodie. Mostly, this is because I’m a teacher and I’ve had to deal with the frustration of students not listening or not retaining information. The rest of the song serves as a reminder that life is hard and we need to do as much as possible to create opportunities for success and to maintain our mental health. 
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2. Re-Arranged – Limp Bizkit
Key lyric:
“Life is overwhelming
Heavy is the head that wears the crown

I’d love to be the one to disappoint you when I don’t fall down.”
 
When I was in year 10 I told my course counsellor that I wanted to be an English teacher and she laughed at me. Since then, I’ve had similar experiences where people have belittled me and underestimated my abilities. I’ve used this as motivation and have taken great pleasure in proving people wrong. Furthermore, Limp Bizkit was one of the bands I loved when I was in my late teens/early twenties. This is a great time of angst and aggression which is fits the style and tone of Limp Bizkit’s work.
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3. Swear Jar – Illy
Key lyric:
“Now ladies and gentleman I know I’m not perfect, hell
I’m probably guilty of this shit myself
But I’ve tried, oh I try not to put myself above nobody”
 
I come from a family that has struggled with many issues and this has made me humble to the extent that I’ve always struggled with the notion that some people are incredibly arrogant. I can list dozens of people who are better poets/teachers/fathers/friends than me. That said, I do rile people up on purpose so I can see how some people might assume that I think I’m their better but I honestly don’t believe I am superior to anyone. While I admit to being racist and sexist in my adolescence, I am an advocate for human rights now that I’ve matured. 
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4. It’s Only Rock and Roll – The Rolling Stones
Key lyric:
“If I could stick my pen in my heart
And spill it all over the stage
Would it satisfy ya, would it slide on by ya
Would you think the boy is strange?”
 
Mick Jagger has said that the inspiration for this song comes from critics and journalists commenting that the Rolling Stones’ new tracks and albums were not as good as their old ones. He exaggerates the lengths the band must go to in order to appease people in the industry. Aside from feelings of inadequacy that I’ve experienced in my life, I also resonate with these lyrics and their imagery. I often write poems expressing my emotions (“stick my pen in my heart”) but I’ve got a growing rejection list from publishers. 
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5. Lean on Me – Bill Withers
Key lyric: 
“You just call on me brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on.”
 
This song is hugely significant for me. My best friend quoted these lyrics as part of his Best Man speech at my wedding and it brought me to tears. I never had a lot of emotional support growing up so this was a very touching moment. Since then I’ve become quite empathetic. I’m generally good at reading other people’s emotions and am actually the person most people at work come to when they need a hug.
back-cover
 
 

Othello – the untold story

My year 10s are tasked with transforming an act or scene from Othello into another text type and, as I was explaining the assignment to them today, I mentioned that you could play around with genre as well as form. So, in preparation for tomorrow’s lesson I thought I’d provide a brief example of what they are expected to do – it’s rushed and imperfect but it’ll do.

Here it is, a twisted take on Act 5, Scene 2 re-imagined as part hard boiled detective story, part satire:

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She was dead. That much was obvious. In fact, those present at the scene of the crime swear that she came back to life briefly just to say “A guiltless death I die” before passing away again. That raised a few eyebrows but what mattered most to Emilia Watson was finding the guilty party before they could kill again.

Certain that the immediate surroundings were bound to contain clues, Emilia searched the bedroom. The bed itself was draped in silken sheets generally reserved for weddings and other special occasions. Tangled in the linen was the victim herself, a wad of fabric stuffed into her mouth. The exact cause of death was unknown; there was no bloodshed so it wasn’t a stabbing, and the foul stench associated with common poisons was nowhere to be smelled.

‘Perhaps,’ thought Emilia, ‘I should have had some training before opening up my own detective agency.’

Not one to give up at the slightest sign of trouble, she continued her search. Not far from the bed Emilia found a dark skinned man hunched in a ball on the floor.

‘Strange. Why didn’t I notice him before?’ She pondered this as she inspected his appearance.

She followed the tears from his eyes, down his cheeks and onto his neck. Nothing unusual there, that’s the direction tears normally take. Further down she noticed scratch marks on his arms – that was unusual. Most strange, however, were the words spewing from his mouth. Emilia knelt down to listen closely.

“O, she was foul! Whose breath, indeed, these hands have newly stopp’d: I know this act shows horrible and grim.”

The man was clearly upset but, as Emilia didn’t speak Shakespearean, nothing he said made sense. As he continued to mumble away, the only words she understood were handkerchief and whore which she doubted were useful in helping her crack this case. No, this man would only sidetrack her from the task at hand.

Emilia continued to search the room but the interior decorator was clearly a minimalist. Fortunately, the lack of clues was offset by the arrival of her husband and some other men. For the most part, Emilia decided that most of these men weren’t worthy of her attention (although one was a bit of a spunk). That said, the smile on her husband’s face was a bit disconcerting.

“Iago,” she questioned. “Why do you smirk?”

“Smirk? I do not smirk.”

“You do, and you are.”

“Perhaps I am just happy to see you,” he replied.

“Unlikely,” she retorted but checked his crotch anyway. Indeed, he was not happy to see her. As she eyed him off further she noticed characteristics she hadn’t paid attention to before; among these were his elongated chin, pencil moustache and penchant for black clothing.

“Why do you look at me so, woman?”

“I’m starting to think you are not what you are.”

“Are you saying, then, I am the villain?”

Iago seemed quite shocked at this accusation but Emilia was certain he was up to no good. It was then she found her biggest clue:

“What is that bag you are holding, husband? Why is it marked with a large dollar sign?”

Iago neared. “It is Roderigo’s fortune. I have acquired it from him.”

“Really? Well then, if we are now rich I don’t need to work anymore.” And, with that, Emilia threw her empty notepad aside and strolled from the room dragging her husband behind her. “Come,” she said. “We have shopping to do.”

“What about the murder you were trying to solve?”

“Oh, I’ve got no idea who did it. I’m as confused about it now as I was when I started.”

Iago smiled.

‘Shocking’ classroom behaviour

I’ve got this theory that if you make one lesson stand out (like, really stand out) then the content associated with that lesson will be more memorable and thus more beneficial to the students and their future exam success.

 

Two years ago I ran a revision session using games typically associated with kids’ parties, such as pass-the-parcel. Last year I did something similar but with more ‘mature’ games – while studying Nick Enright’s Blackrock we played spin-the-bottle and beer pong (but with study questions NOT alcohol).

 

Today… the students walked into the classroom to see craft materials laid out for them and their teacher in a lab coat. Why? Well it all stemmed from this:

 

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That’s the opening of chapter 2 in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In that section of the novel a group of students are being walked through the facilities where they grow and train the future citizens of the world state. Rather than provide my students with real flowers (and picture books), I gave them the resources to make their own.

 

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I figured we could make flash cards in the shape of roses, telling the class that many students praise the use of flash cards in helping them learn content for other subjects.

 

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As for the picture books, I thought they’d be good ‘study guides’. I told the students that memorable passages or important lines could be paired with images of their construction and that this may help them remember them in the exam. It sounds legit… right?

 

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Anyway, IN THE NOVEL, the beautiful display of flowers and bright, glossy pages is essentially a trap designed to encourage children away from an interest in nature and knowledge. Just as the children begin to enjoy these treats a loud siren blares and they receive a mild electric shock.

 

So… I pre-prepared a water pistol and hid it in the drawer closest to the television. I then set an alarm on my iPad and connected it to the tv with the volume as loud as it would go. Just as the students began to enjoy their craft lesson, a loud siren blared. I apologised for the ‘accident’ and went to turn it off, retrieving the water pistol as I did. After spraying everyone with a jet of water from my gun, we had a giggle and then got back to work.

 

THAT’s what I call a lesson they won’t forget in a hurry.

 

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* I should also point out that I’ve also had some poorly planned, terribly managed lessons of late too – but that’s something for another post.

My first attempt at a list poem

5 reasons I don’t want to go to school/work

 
1. It’s raining outside and all I want to do is hide in bed, wrapped up in the warmth of my blankets.

 

2. It’s beautiful outside and all I want to do is feel the sun’s kiss on my skin.

 

3. I’ve planned a perfect lesson but you haven’t brought a pen, the Internet is down and…

I kind of lied.

There are no perfect lessons.

The very notion that I have any idea what I’m doing

when the system changes every few years

when I’m preparing students for a future we can’t predict

when my class consists of kids so different from each other

when initiatives and curriculum are best of enemies

when I’m dealing with people

is ludicrous.

 

4. I’m human. My fatigued mind is buried in my tired body; my heavy heart distracted by issues outside of class.

 

5. I’ve lost faith.

The fingers of blame point clearly in my direction,

not necessarily individually

but collectively teachers carry a lot of guilt.

Results from standardised tests fail to impress the powers that be,

society sees only what it wants to see,

and parents pass on their responsibilities.

The papers report another teacher has been bashed

and I haven’t experienced anything that rash but I’ve felt the brunt of disrespect.

 

5 reasons I want to go to school/work

 

1. To write relief, a lesson that someone else will deliver, requires effort I just don’t have.

Besides, the students misbehave when I’m away

and there’s a chance the teacher will ignore what I wrote

which simply results in more work for me when I return.

 

2. I’ve got mouths to feed and bills to pay.

 

3. I like the people I work with.

They’re cute and quirky,

smart and strong,

not afraid to do something wrong to get the right result

and, most importantly, they tolerate me and my eccentricities.

 

4. I’m mental.

Honestly, what person in their right mind

would choose to spend their time with thirty teenagers?

 

5. I have faith – in me, in my colleagues and my students.

I’m a person working with people

and I hope my humanity, my humility and my humour

provide an example worth replicating.

If all the world’s indeed a stage,

then I’m the one running rehearsals

and I see first-hand what the media doesn’t show;

it gives me hope.

I’m sorry – an open letter to people who are good at what they do

Being good at your job sucks. It shouldn’t. Being good at what you do should lead to increased job satisfaction; it should make your days easier but it doesn’t.

 

And here comes the first apology. Bits of this blog are going to sound like showboating. I will, at times, talk about myself in a manner that could be perceived to be arrogant. I will lump myself under the category of ‘people who do their job well’ and for that I’m sorry. I hate talking myself up for two reasons – 1. when I’m honest with myself about my work ethic and when I compare myself to other teachers, I don’t rate myself highly. I truly don’t think I’ve been the best educator I could be.   2. teaching isn’t about me. Whatever success my students have is success they have earned. I might be there facilitating and encouraging but they’re the ones doing the work.

Okay… insert awkward pause here.

 

So, the absolute worst part about being good at your job is that you continually get asked to do more and more because of it. I mean, it makes sense. If Ed Sheeran was hanging out at my place I would be asking my four year old to bang out a tune on his mandolin. It makes sense but it’s not fair.

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A number of times throughout my twelve years of teaching I’ve been asked to take another teacher’s challenging class (generally in a trade that sees me lose my best and brightest students) or be on some committee. My colleague has it even worse. He’s always being asked to oversee or lead any tech based initiative at the school. It’s ok for us, we’ve been around the block a few times, but it’s happening more and more to our younger, greener workmates. The pressures of this are ninja-like because you never see them coming. One day your responsibilities don’t stretch beyond the walls of your classroom and the next day you’re swamped. It’s tricky because, in isolation, many of these initiatives and programs have minimal impact on your workload. The problem is that you don’t notice how much you’re being asked to do until all the little increments come to a head.

 

I don’t feel like I’m explaining this well. Let me try to elaborate…

I’m one of two Associate Deans of English at my school (that’s just a fancy way of saying second in charge of the department). We’re a large school too so there’s 20 people teaching English. I’m not responsible for them as line manager or anything like that (although I do lead two of them through the Performance and Development process) but I’m expected to support them and lead them through curriculum changes. With this role I teach one less class than other teachers but two of my four classes are high performing, high profile classes with heavy marking loads. Beyond that, I’m involved in a new program at the school designed to increase student engagement through better content delivery. I’m supporting a year 11 student who has started a poetry group, mentoring ATAR students, tutoring students after school hours and writing exams for an external provider. BUT, I also want a life of my own so I’m playing football and I’m a member of four writing groups. Or at least I was. I’ve dropped one of my writing groups recently because I felt like I was spread too thin and wasn’t able to do the group justice. Likewise, in the past few years, I’ve abandoned some of the projects I was involved in at work and have stopped engaging in opportunities to write for or present to professional bodies.

* it feels like a lot when you put it down on paper (or online) – somewhere in there I hope my wife and kids feel like I give them the attention they deserve.

 

Please, if you haven’t fallen into this trap yet, learn to say no. Know your limits, choose when to engage and when to walk away.

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This leads into the next point. Remember that ninja comment from before? Stress is often invisible until it has almost broken you. You need to speak up.

 

Another downfall of being good at what you do (or even just appearing that way) is that people assume you’re free of problems. That massive department I said I work in has seven people in their second year of teaching and a handful of others whose experience doesn’t stretch far beyond that. Without describing them in any more detail you would assume our office is a madhouse. It’s not. I am blessed to work with a group of educators whose confidence and abilities are more akin to people who have been in the role for many years. Anyone on the outside looking in would struggle to identify our beginning teachers. It is a credit to them and to the people and institutions that helped shape them.

 

But, because they are so good, no one asks them how they’re going. No one checks in to see if they’re okay. I’m complaining about it here but I’m not exempt from this. I don’t ask about their classes or their work load or their job satisfaction. I look at them and all I see are ducks. What I mean is, when I look at them all I see is what’s above the surface – they are calm, cool and collected. Who knows what’s going on under the water where the eyes can’t see? I don’t and I can’t use the fact that we’re a busy school (big too, with roughly 1800 students) as an excuse.

 

So, here it is. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for all those people out there who find that their expertise has become a burden. I’m sorry for all those people who keep on keeping on without assistance. More importantly, I apologise to the people in my office who (hopefully) get the support they need but aren’t getting the support they deserve. I apologise for not being proactive in asking about your mental health. And, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry that the system doesn’t reward you for being awesome, that it won’t always allow you to be your best.

 

 

 

 

 

NB – while on the topic of apologies… I suck at compliments. I’m sorry to everyone who deserved positive feedback from me and got diddly-squat. My bad.

What the movies don’t tell you about teaching

I want you to get this straight! Most of the teachers here are here because they care! About those children out there! This school, this fight, they are in it with you! They take it home at night, the same as you! They are a part of those children’s lives!

– Ms. Levias, Lean on Me.

 

I love movies about teachers, especially ones where a hard-as-nails group of good-for-nothing reprobates realise their potential under an educator whose tough love shows them the value of discipline, hard work and camaraderie. Admittedly, once you’ve seen one film in this genre you don’t need to see the rest as they are overly formulaic to the point of being the film equivalent of a paint-by-numbers colouring in book. That said, I am always touched by the dramatic moment when the most troubled teen makes a public declaration of support and love to the teacher.

 

I’m watching Coach Carter with my year 12s at the moment and this scene comes when the player who has struggled the most (on and off the court) stands and recites an abridged version of Marianne Williamson’s “Our Greatest Fear”.

our-deepest-fear

 

It’s tear jerking stuff.

 

 

I’ve been teaching for 12 years; I’ve had my “O Captain! My Captain!” moment (literally) and, while my unorthodox teaching methods are more likely to draw comparisons with Dead Poets Society’s John Keating, I was inspired by the Dangerous Minds and To Sir With Love idea of improving the lives of those who really need it.

 

Female Student: “Why do you care anyway? You just here for the money.”

LouAnne: “Because I make a choice to care. And honey, the money ain’t that good.”

– Dangerous Minds.

 

I can’t be the teacher I thought I would be.

 

This isn’t “I can’t” in the sense that I lack the professional knowledge or nous to teach a class of ‘dropkicks’ nor is it “I can’t” as a cop-out meaning “I won’t”. I can’t be that teacher because it is physically and emotionally impossible to maintain.

 

I care for my students. I care for many of the individuals I have had the pleasure to teach. But, I can’t care for every individual student who enters my classroom. I know this because I have tried. Tried and failed. I have driven myself to the point of physical exhaustion, to the point that I would have crippling stomach pains and overly emotional reactions to minor issues. Despite the exhaustion I wouldn’t sleep because I was constantly planning for and reflecting on every minute of each day. I have taught THAT class, where the only person the students had in their lives that cared for them was me. I taught them, fought the system and faced the criticism of my colleagues while doing so. And then I drew a line.

 

One of the sayings I’ve latched on to, and I don’t know where I picked it up from, is that you have to treat things as though you are on a plane about to crash. When you listen to the safety spiel at the start of each flight you are always told to affix your oxygen mask before assisting anyone else with theirs, even if that someone else is your child or partner. Why? Because you are no good to anyone when you’re dead. Parenting manuals advocate for this approach too. To a lesser extent, so too do Snickers’ commercials. When you are tired/sick/emotional/hungry (and so on) you do not perform at optimal levels. So, if you want to be effective in the classroom you have to look after yourself first. And, one of the ways you can do this is to re-evaluate how you measure success.

 

The problem isn’t the kids. It’s not even what they can achieve. The problem is what you expect them to achieve.

– Ron Clark, The Ron Clark Story.

 

I can’t care for every student. I can dangle a carrot and/or wave a big stick but I don’t have the time nor inclination to sit with each student and ensure they are doing their work. This isn’t written with a secret agenda to lower class sizes, that would help in some instances but academic success for all is not achievable through any one simple act. Lower class sizes can’t improve attendance, decrease drug and alcohol use or change social/cultural attitudes towards education. I only have limited impact in that sphere too. I have data that shows I’ve had a positive influence on my students but I see them four hours a week – that’s 4 lessons out of the 25 they have on their timetable.

 

I can’t care for every student, mostly because it’s not fair. I don’t know, maybe I’m using the word care incorrectly. What I’m saying sounds pretty harsh but I’ll try and unpack it further. In one of my current classes I have half of the students achieving B grades or better, some students on C grades and a handful of them not passing. Of the students currently failing I CAN help some of them turn their fortunes around but there are three who probably won’t pass even with my intervention. Two of these are because their attendance is so poor I simply won’t have enough opportunities to assist them. I can’t let this get to me, their failure is not a reflection of my abilities or efforts in the classroom. The other student is a regular attendee but he is in class in body only. This student will only work under close supervision and in order for him to pass I would have to sacrifice time spent improving the educational outcomes of the other students in the class. Is that student more important than his peers? Is his potential C worth more than other students’ potential B and A grades? No. One student cannot be seen to be of more value than any other – imagine asking a parent to devote their attention to one child at the expense of their other children. So, if that student chooses not to make an effort to improve on his academic standing during the times he doesn’t have my undivided attention, I can’t let bring me down either.

 

Then there are the classes where next to no one is passing. I had one last year, a class of the lowest achieving students deliberately put together through a streaming process. If the class is ‘destined’ to fail when I am given them, why should I have an emotional reaction if that eventuates? So much of the education system appears designed to limit student success. Curriculum overhauls pitch assessments (including externally set exams and common assessment tasks) at a higher level than many of the students appear capable of understanding – and a science colleague recently said their yearly curriculum has 18 months of content in it. Furthermore, in WA we have an online test where failure prevents students from graduating. Tragically, the students who need to experience success (those who speak English as a second language, have some form of disability and/or come from low socioeconomic backgrounds) are the most disadvantaged. While I might be saddened by their situation, I can’t let their lack of academic success impact on my job satisfaction.

 

“I took this job because I wanted to effect change in a special group of young men, and this is the only way I know how to do that.”

– Ken Carter, Coach Carter.

 

I can’t care for every student. That doesn’t mean I’m not doing my best in the classroom. It doesn’t mean that I don’t value each student as human beings with great potential. It just means that I won’t let their academic progress be my only measuring stick. I don’t (and won’t) care what grade they get, I judge my effectiveness across a variety of criteria and few of those are found on standardised tests. A person’s attitude towards school and education is influenced by a number of factors. It takes a village to raise a child and I’m just one of the idiots.

 

Besides:

I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.

– John Keating, Dead Poets Society.

 

 

 

How footy informs my teaching

Let me first say that my footy experience is limited. My parents weren’t keen on me to try yet another sport when I was younger so my initial involvement was just in physical education classes. When I was at university, I played a season or two for the Edith Cowan Hawks (where everyone was called Bob if you didn’t know their real names). I was fortunate enough to spend 3 years working with one of the development squads for WAFL club Peel Thunder and I’m in my second year of playing AFL Masters with the Mandurah Makos – with the exception of those who have spent the majority of their sporting life playing some other code, I’m probably one of the least experienced people at the club.

 

Praise you

As someone who hasn’t played footy to the extent of those people around me, I often get annoyed with myself and the fact that my skills don’t always match my intent. The best thing about game day and training, however, is that the lads are very vocal in their praise. You see, even at the top level, that players sometimes berate their teammates for poor disposal (Matthew Richardson was prone to flipping the bird at his fellow Tigers) but I can’t think of a single time where one of my Makos teammates has had a go at someone else on our team. Instead, people are constantly praising each other for their efforts. This positive attitude certainly helps me overcome my angst and doubts – it’s heartwarming to know my effort is appreciated even when my skills let me down.

This is important in the classroom too. Not everyone is good at English. We have intelligent students come through who are brilliant at mathematical and scientific subjects but struggle with the writing based humanities courses. That said, we also have students who struggle to perform basic literacy skills. What I want my students to know is that, while effort is not on the marking key, it is something that I value. I don’t subscribe to drowning students in positivity, the world is a harsh place and they need to develop resilience, but I give praise where praise is due.

 

Teamwork

Footy, like all team sports, relies on people performing their role. Defenders talk about how their job is made easier through the assistance of the other defenders and will compliment the midfielders for putting pressure on the ball carrier. Forwards cash in on the good work of the people up the field. Coaches talk about the team approach and receive kudos from the media when they develop team structures that don’t rely on individual stars. Players that win medals and accolades often say that they would trade them in for team success. Regardless of what level you are playing, it takes the whole team working together to play consistently and win games. If any player switches off, the opposition can use it to their advantage.

I try to reflect this message with my ATAR students, recommending a two-heads-are-better-than-one approach. If all they write is the product of my brain or their brain then they are doing themselves a disservice. They should be sounding out their ideas with their peers, pillaging from the Internet and fossicking through good answers from previous exams. Their best essay should be built on the collective brains of anyone they can access. They should collaborate and cooperate throughout their education. There’s no point being top of the class if your class is terrible. Top students should build the abilities of their peers and, in doing so, will actually find that they become better too.

Hmmm… maybe I’ve taken that one a little far from its source material but the connection is still there.

 

Naked and famous 

At the end of training you come off the track sweaty and gross so there’s a decent line for the showers when you’re back in the change room. I drive 25mins to get to training and I’m not inclined to spend that long in the car afterwards if I haven’t showered and changed. Because we’re all adults and not pubescent tweens embarrassed at the changes to our body, no one showers in their jocks or skins. That’s not to say that we’re flaunting our naked bodies around, simply that it’s an environment where being exposed is not something to be ashamed of.

In the classroom, I don’t want that kind of exposure. However, I do want students to open up and feel comfortable sharing their work. I want them to feel safe despite the fact I’m asking them to put themselves in a vulnerable position, exposing their thoughts and ideas in an open forum. By making this an expectation of the environment, I naturalise this process.

 

Beyond that, footy informs my teaching through the fact that I go out there and give it 110%. I’m aware of the fact that you’re only as good as your last lesson and I’m just taking it one week at a time. That’s what I’m talking about!!!