Posted in Learning, Life, Schools, Teaching

An inspiration

I was already a grandmother by the time I started teaching at university in 2000. Phil, who turned 20 earlier this week, and his brother Scott were my only grandchildren till Ronan arrived in the world eight years after Phil. Then Jordan and Hunter and Sakye – and then more and more and more!

As my list of grandchildren grew I started to think more and more about the student teachers I was teaching and I’d often say to them ‘You never know, one day you might be teaching one of my grandchildren – they’re scattered all over Australia – and that might mean me popping into your classroom to have a chat and see what the grandkids are up to’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s come to pass. Some of my grandchildren have had the pleasure of being taught by some of the very special people I taught at university and it’s always lovely to wander into their classrooms and see them as teachers now, after seeing them as students. I don’t pretend to have any influence on who they are as teachers, but it’s lovely to see them nonetheless.

I’ve been teaching for over 20 years now. Being a teacher was something I never imagined I’d do. Debbie, my sister, had always wanted to be a teacher, but it hadn’t been on my list of career choices.

I no longer teach those preparing to be teachers in primary and high schools; rather I find myself running workshops for academic staff who are teaching university students studying for degrees in commerce and accounting and information systems and business analytics. While I know nothing about accounting and commerce and business analytics I do know something about teaching.

And, what’s more, after running six workshops in the last week I’ve been reminded that I love it. I love teaching. I love asking questions that generate thinking, I love putting ideas out there and seeing how others develop them, or consider them, or debate them, or draw insight from them.

Those who know me in person, know that I’m not a dynamic person in ordinary life, but I seem to get another sort of energy when I’m teaching and as I get older and therefore more comfortable and confident with my teaching persona I find I turn into a warm and funny and energised person who is enthusiastic and passionate and insightful.

Well, at least that’s what I’ve been told.

I’ve had a few positives in terms of my teaching and supporting teachers over the last twelve months. I (successfully) supported a team of academics in their application for a VC’s award for outstanding contributions to student learning, and on the back of that award the team was encouraged to apply for a national award.

We found out earlier in the week that we’d been successful at the national level and so, as part of a team, I now have an AAUT (Australian Award for University Teaching) citation for outstanding contributions to student learning under my belt. They only awarded 60 across the country this year, so I’m pretty chuffed with that.

Last year I was successful in applying to become a Senior Fellow of the (UK) Higher Education Academy. Being a Senior Fellow means I ‘demonstrate a thorough understanding of effective approaches to teaching and learning support as a key contribution to high quality student learning [and] impact and influence on other colleagues through, for example, responsibility for leading, managing or organising programmes, subjects and/or disciplinary areas’ (www.heaacademy.ac.uk).

It was a 6,000 word application supported by two referee statements (thanks Robyn and Sharon B) and required a lot of evidence to support my claims.

The awards are great – even though they require a lot of work and the collection of a lot of evidence from over my 20 years of teaching and are a great recognition of the work I’ve done.

But much (much) more meaningful than the awards and fellowship came in the form of a text message from one of my daughters-in-law last week.

It turns out that Jada, one of my granddaughters, is being taught this year by someone I taught at university. Here are the messages I received:

Met with Scott [teacher] for a parent-teacher meeting this evening. He may have lit up like a Christmas tree when Jada mentioned your name (we had to go through the “Do you know Grandma Sharon” *blank look* “my grandma Sharon Pittaway” dance before he twigged).

He said you were his all time favourite lecturer and that you allowed students to give their own perspective on things and that you never just read or regurgitated information from a textbook. He said this made you inspiring. He also asked for me to pass on his regards.

He ALSO said that Jada no longer needs to come to school as she is now an A+ student because she knows ‘Grandma Sharon’.

I’m glad he took the no school rule back-Jada would have run with that!
I made Scott out as being kind of excited, he was more yelling “oh my god” and “really??” He was flailing his arms around a little and slapping his thighs haha. Congratulations to you on making such an impact on people and allowing them to filter their enthusiasm for learning and growing through to the next generation. I’m especially grateful they are our kids!

He said the way I taught made me inspiring.

That’s worth more (much much more) than a VC’s award or a national citation or a senior fellowship.

That’s real!

Jada, reading … because teachers are amazing!
Posted in Life

Way better than never …

Life’s funny … and not always ‘funny haha’.

But funny, nonetheless.

In June 2014, I moved from Tasmania to Melbourne to live with my husband who’d moved here 5 months before. That move meant I stopped being a pre-service teacher educator.

I admit to falling into a bit of a hole. It took me some time to get used to the idea that I wouldn’t teach at university again.

And then, in 2015, I taught at university again – for one semester. And when semester ended I again stopped being a pre-service teacher educator.

I admit to falling into a bit of a hole. It took me some time to get used to the idea that I wouldn’t teach at university again.

And then earlier this year a former colleague from the University of Tasmania asked if I’d like to teach at university again.

I would. I did. It was great. One semester of interacting with students – students who were keen to learn, who were mature in their attitudes and capacity to think for themselves; some of these students I’d taught when they were in their first year of university. They remembered me, as I did them. It was great to reconnect, and interestingly, they thought so too.

And then the same colleague asked if I’d be interested in teaching the post-grad version of the unit in second semester.

I would. I did. It was great. Another semester of interacting with students – challenging their ideas about teaching, gently encouraging them out of their comfort zones, helping them see that they are more than deliverers of content, more than transmitters of what they know, and that students are more (much more) than empty vessels waiting to be filled.

I had marking to do, and I did it, and now I’m finished and the relief I feel is real and very (very) sweet.

So, am I a pre-service teacher educator? It appears the answer is ‘sometimes’ … and that’s way better than never!

Posted in Flowers, Learning

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It seems ages since I’ve posted a photo … in fact, it’s been over a week. This was a flower I captured a few weekends ago, in the Castlemaine Botanic Garden. Do you know what kind of flower it is? If you know, could you write the name of the flower in the comments please?

My absence from blogging has been due to the amount of marking I’ve had to do over the past week or so. For those of you who don’t know, I’m a university lecturer and this semester, in addition to my new full-time job (which I started two weeks ago), I’m teaching a unit at a different university on facilitating engaging learning experiences.

I’ve come to recognise that my approach to marking is a dialogic one. I tend to comment on students’ ideas, or I ask questions of them, or I put forward an alternative perspective. I seek to affirm, yet challenge and extend students’ thinking, and that’s challenging because I also have to be nice – and that’s one of the things I find most difficult to be. One consequence of this approach is that marking takes ages! Markers are allocated about 20 minutes per paper for marking, but I often take an hour per paper – even longer when the ideas are trapped inside somewhat clumsy expression.

So that’s what’s been taking lots of my time and attention. Up at 6 most mornings, mark a paper or two before the hour-long commute to work, work, hour-long commute home, more marking. It’s an intellectually draining process and I find that I don’t have much headspace for other things. Getting my head around a new workplace, new colleagues, new relationships, new places and ways of storing information, new processes, new location, is difficult enough when that’s all that’s going on in your life. Marking on top of that means my head is well and truly full.

Except, that I have to keep some space free because my youngest daughter is getting married! In 13 days’ time. In Tasmania. There are so many decisions to be made, so many details to organise, so many conversations to have, so many others to consult … not being in Tasmania is making the whole thing a tad more difficult, but we’re on the phone to each other a few times a day, and sometimes late into the night, and that helps in terms of decision-making and keeping each other informed of what’s happening.

There’s a lot going on!

Posted in Portraits, Teaching

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I haven’t taught pre-service teachers for what seems like a long time … and out of the blue, a former colleague rings and asks if I want to teach a unit on engagement! Yay. The next week I start teaching. One student writes in his introduction: ‘Sharon, you were the most respected and most feared lecturer we had. It is poetically fitting that you are teaching me in my final year, as you also taught me in my first year.’

I had recognised this student’s name as soon as I saw it. As all teachers know, some students make an immediate impression on you. When the students are young, it’s often the students who challenge you the most that make the most impression – those students who don’t sit still, who don’t comply quickly, who ask lots of (what appear to be irrelevant) questions … the students school isn’t designed for. They remain with you for many years, and even ten years later you talk about them fondly (or with residual despair).

When the students are older the ones who make an impression are those who ask lots of questions, who bring a different perspective to class discussions, who don’t sit still in their thinking; the ones who develop tremendous resilience and now call themselves ‘teacher’ effortlessly, when initially that word reached their lips with great reluctance and unease.

A little over ten years ago I walked into the Week 1 tutorial and asked the students why they chose to study teaching. One student, a slightly chubby redhead, said that she’d wanted to be a paramedic. ‘Why didn’t you do that then?’ I asked, somewhat bluntly. Some weeks later I noticed she wasn’t in the lecture. The next week I ‘marched’ (according to her) her to my office to talk to her about the importance of regular attendance. (When you have potential, it’s a shame to waste it.)  I taught her again in 3rd year, and then again in 4th year where her response to a literacy paper I had asked students to write was outstanding.

But even though students make an impression on you, at the time you’re teaching them, you don’t expect to end up lying on the grass under an umbrella listening to Ben Abraham and Archie Roach (as warm-up acts for Missy Higgins) on a hot summer’s afternoon in late January with them. Unless they’re Alison, the former slightly chubby redhead, who had come to stay for the weekend.

And then the next day, Alison asks me if I can take her photo.

Wouldn’t that be a great project … to return to all the memorable students I’ve taught and do a photography shoot with them! Who’s up for it?

Posted in Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #6

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My challenge for today is to set a timer for ten minutes. I have to open a new post. Start the timer, and start writing. When the timer goes off, publish.

It rained today. Just about all day. A constant trickle of water ran from the sky and pooled in inconvenient places, causing great splashes to leap up to my knees when I dared to go outside.

The drip drip drip drip outside our lounge room door continued metronomically into the afternoon, then all of a sudden stopped.

The silence ran to four minutes, then extended to five. We were on the edge of our seats, hushed, breathless, ears akimbo, waiting for the next verse of the drip

drip

drip …

Silence.

Bliss.

***

I can’t do this. I’ve started five different posts and deleted four of them. I can’t write under this pressure when I have nothing to write about. I should have been more prepared. Thought of something, a topic, an issue, a situation, something, anything to write about before I started the timer.

But I didn’t.

I don’t know what I expected when I pushed ‘start’ – that inspiration would hit me and something would leap into my mind and out through my fingers as if by magic?

I seriously don’t think I was thinking that far ahead, to be quite honest.

And so, a blank page.

This is what some teachers do to children.

‘Alright children, it’s story-writing time. You have ten minutes. Go.’

It’s not right. Writers need more than a time limit. They need ideas. They need thinking time. They need time to craft and organise and structure and develop.

One of my grandsons is in Year 3 this year. That means that late in May he did the NAPLAN test for the first time. In their preparation lessons, they practiced writing persuasive texts. He wrote about burning the school down.

I don’t know how persuasive it was, but it certainly caught the teacher’s attention.

He has more imagination than me though!

Time’s up.

Posted in Learning, Life, Teaching, Writing

I got back on the horse …

Metaphorically speaking, that is; there was no harm to a literal horse in my ‘getting back on’.

Okay, I’ll be clear. I know some of you don’t work well with metaphors, so I’ll be like, ‘literally’ all over this blog.

I haven’t taught on-campus (as in students in the same room as me) since semester 1, 2014.

Yes, that was two years ago. And yesterday I did it again.

And you know what? It felt good.

I was prepared, planned, organised, ready … I had even practiced smiling (although when I practiced in front of the mirror I scared myself, so I determined to only smile when absolutely necessary).

The students were lovely; responsive and mature in their attitude, willing to share their ideas and discuss meaty concepts.

After 18 months in the professional wilderness, of trying to determine who I am professionally, it felt good to be able to think of myself as a teacher again. To act as a teacher again; to be a teacher.

And the best thing? I get to do it all again next week.

Oh, and one other thing … by the end of class my face hurt.

I think I overdid the smiling.

 

 

 

Posted in Learning, Schools, Studying, Teaching

What future for education

A week or so ago I decided to sign up to do a course called ‘What future for education’.

It was the title of the course that caught my eye as I am working through a period of deep ambivalence about education and thought this might provide me with some answers, or at the very least give me something else to think about. You know how I like to think!

It is an online course like many others: there are lectures (and in this instance, they are brave enough to call them lectures – I like that), there are readings, there are discussions to be had, activities to complete (an entry on a Padlet wall – some of you may remember adding to a Wall Wisher Wall in your own studies … it’s now called Padlet), and a tweet or two.

And a blog post. Hence my presence here today.

I could have started another blog and used that just for the course, but decided against that. Mostly for pragmatic reasons; I have a collection of applications that I’ve signed up for because of various studies I’ve undertaken and many of them I don’t use once the study is finished. Or once I decide to stop studying. And so I thought I’d write my blog posts here and you can be be amazed that I still haven’t learnt to read the unit outline and take any notice of deadlines. This blog post was supposed to be in yesterday, for instance.

But I’m supposed to write a 200-word blog post on: Based on your experience as a learner, what do you think you will be able to get out of this course? And what ideas do you already have about the future of education? So here goes.

What I will get out of this course … that’s an interesting way to phrase this question. Does that mean the same thing as ‘what will I learn from this course’? I’m going to say yes, and so will reword the question and write about what I expect to learn by completing this course.

I expect to learn about a range of perspectives on education – what education might look like in the future; how we might shape education; what education is for; why we educate. I want to learn what others have to say about education, others who aren’t politicians, others who know something about education and have ideas about it. I expect to learn how education can move away from the abyss of commodification and towards a focus on learning.

What ideas do I already have about education? I’m going to imagine that the term ‘education’ here is used to mean ‘formal education’ whether that’s in a school or university.

  • I see a distinct shift towards education being a commodity that is bought and sold, with as little effort made by the ‘consumer’ as that required to buy a lipstick.
  • Education has less to do with learning and more to do with a qualification or a result that allows the student access into other areas of education (from Year 6 to secondary school; from Year 12 to university), and then into the ‘real’ world.
  • Education has become enfeebled by a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy to the detriment of developing learners (people) who can engage in creative, critical, and ethical thought (and action).
  • Teachers (including university academics who teach) are increasingly stymied in their efforts to encourage learning, instead being forced to focus on assessing (there’s much more weighing than there is nourishing).
  • School teachers are little more than automatons – delivering a curriculum that is divorced from their students and developed by outsiders who have political points to make; being handed scripted lessons to deliver; having very little say in what is taught and how it’s taught.
  • The future of education is bleak.

 


 

So, for what it’s worth, that’s my less than cheery summation of the future of education.

Posted in Teaching

Words and ideas

I string words together on the clothesline of this blog. Some mean something to some readers; some mean something different. Words are slippery with meaning and imagery and contexts and memory and ideas and moments shared and rediscovered.

I’m forever exhorting my students to choose their words carefully. To use the words “I dug around in there until I found it” brings to mind a particular image when the context is of searching for a piece of clothing at the back of the cupboard. Those are not the words I’d use when the context is searching for a mole you half remembered was nestled amongst your pubic hair (overheard train conversation). For that particular context I would use different words – I would choose different words.

‘Choose’ implies a deliberateness that ‘use’ doesn’t. That’s one of the things with words. We can use them (choose them) to convey particular meanings/messages and the reader happily remains unaware of our choices. The writing seems natural, as if there’s no other way to say it, to write it … to think it. No other way to think. We can manipulate the reader, cause him or her to imagine things he or she hadn’t thought to imagine before, to connect two distinct ideas that they hadn’t connected before, to even come up with the notion that two plus two equals five if we use/choose just the right words.

Precision in language is not to be underestimated. It’s a hallmark of critical thinking – of knowing what you mean and writing/speaking what you mean so that your reader/listener/audience doesn’t have to guess at your meaning. There is no ambiguity in your meaning, unless you choose it to be so. Disturbingly, for people like me, precision is often underestimated. In fact, some people don’t think about it at all. They use words as though one is as good as another and we all know, when we stop to think about it, that one is not the same as another.

But strings of words can also cause us to think in particular ways. My attention was caught by a newspaper headline yesterday about student teachers getting an ‘F’. It turns out that in a study conducted by an Australian university, many (in some cases most) pre-service teachers – that is, university students studying to be teachers – are very poor spellers. My own experience teaching pre-service teachers means that this finding was not news to me.

It may be shocking to you, or you may be quite unsurprised by this news … that those preparing to be your children’s and grandchildren’s teachers have poor spelling skills. The report then did something interesting. It connected two unrelated ideas: 1. poor spelling and 2. becoming a teacher.

It suggested that stricter spelling tests are needed prior to admission to university to ensure that those who cannot spell cannot become teachers. In our society, spelling and intelligence are linked. If you can spell well, then you are obviously intelligent. If you can’t, then you obviously lack intelligence. This is a truth for many people. Clearly, if teachers cannot spell well, they are not intelligent and therefore should not be teaching our children.

The connection between the two unrelated ideas was made ‘naturally’, despite the lack of any evidence indicating a link between ability to spell and ability to teach. The article, and perhaps the press release the story came from, took an uncritical look at the issue; it failed to raise serious questions, and left little room for thinking differently about the issue. It did this through strings of words that presented taken-for-granted assumptions about the audience – that they would immediately agree with the outcome suggested (more testing) and then turn the page to read about what the Kardashians are up to now.

Well, why don’t we (yes, dear reader, that means you and I) ask some critical questions before we turn the page and get up-to-date on the latest Kardashian capers? Why don’t we engage in some critical thinking? What questions do you have?

Here are just some of mine … please feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Questions about the nature of intelligence and the link (if there is one) between intelligence and spelling ability.

Questions about what we value in teachers. I note that the article didn’t call for an empathy test, or a test of a person’s capacity to form positive and supportive relationships with students and parents. Nobody seems to be calling for a test of a teacher’s capacity to deal with the often unrelenting demands of parents (leading, in one case I heard of recently, to a principal’s suicide), or of violent children.

Is spelling the thin edge of the wedge? If a teacher can’t spell, then maybe they can’t teach either; maybe they can’t see a hurting child and speak a kind word; maybe they can’t motivate and engage children or foster a child’s creativity and resilience, or nurture a child’s spirit …

The taken-for-granted assumption that a capacity to spell is what determines a person’s capacity to teach effectively speaks to a lack of critical thought … and in my view, for what it’s worth, that speaks to lazy thinking, which in my book is worse than poor spelling.

Words and ideas matter. Being able to communicate those ideas clearly and effectively, with the best/most appropriate words, matters. Yes, spelling matters, particularly for teachers, but to not allow someone in to teaching on the basis of poor spelling means we may miss out on developing some wonderful teachers. Teachers with heart and soul and passion.

Those things matter too.

******
I’d really like to hear from you. Please feel free to post a polite and respectful comment below in response to the news story, or to my post in general. What qualities are important in the teachers of your children/grandchildren/great grandchildren? Should spelling ability be the sole determinant of admission into a teaching degree?

What matters to you?

Posted in Learning, Schools, Teaching

On success pt. 2

Earlier this month (October) World Teachers’ Day was celebrated around … well … around the world. Did you hear about any celebrations? Did you take part in any? If you have school age children did you do something nice for their teacher/s? If you’re a teacher, did you celebrate in some way, or were you celebrated/acknowledged by others?

When thinking about success yesterday, I began to think about what it meant to be successful as a teacher. How is success measured? What does a successful teacher look like? What do they know, what skills and understandings have they developed, in what ways can they communicate their ideas, knowledge, understandings, thoughts, feelings, views? What are their values and what do they value?  Can you ‘see’ teacher success by looking at their students? Is there a link between a successful teacher and successful students? Is teacher success a sum of individual students’ successes? Is it simply a matter of addition … successful student A + successful student B (and so on)  = successful teacher?

We sometimes talk about students as if they are pieces of machinery that can be weighed and tested to see if they fit a certain list of pre-ordained specifications. Even if they are, would the teacher be the only one responsible for ensuring they meet those specifications, or are others involved too?

The structure of the school, for instance, has a part to play in student success – the kinds of programs the school offers, the number of lessons scheduled each day (and therefore the amount of time students have to work on things that matter), the relative worth of particular subjects (what’s more important and therefore how much time is spent learning Physics, English, Drama,  Maths, the capital cities of the countries of the world, the canon of English literature, History, driver ed, pet care, sustainability …?). And when there is only so much time in the day, what’s given priority? What’s missed out? And ability to ‘do’ which of those subjects would constitute success? If you can do quadratic equations but not name the poet who wrote The rime of the Ancient Mariner and discuss what it’s about in a coherent way, should you be considered successful?  If you cannot name the rivers down the eastern seaboard of Australia, but be able to parse a sentence correctly, are you a success? And for how long do you need to know this information? If you could parse a sentence when you were at school, but couldn’t now to save your life … were you really successful/was the teacher?

Different people will have different views on these questions and I doubt there will ever be any agreement. You might think that there is no question, that surely everyone would agree with your perspective, but ask around. What do others think?  Do they agree with you? On what points do your views diverge?

So the ways schools work has some impact on student success and our understanding of success has some influence on whether we deem students successful or not. The culture of the school – which is often established by the principal and leadership team  – also has an impact. If the principal says, at the end of lunch, ‘Okay troops, back to the trenches’ then she is putting a particular way of being into place. The teachers are soldiers and the students are … the enemy? Language is important, and it is to our detriment that we ignore the power of the metaphors we use and the influence they have on our own and others’ actions.

Of course, parents also have an influence on how successful their children are at school. Parents’ attitude to education and to teachers will be communicated to their children even if they don’t say anything to them directly.  Some parents will be in a position to take their children overseas and provide cultural experiences that other parents will not have an opportunity to provide; some parents will nag their children to do their homework, while other parents will have the view that schoolwork should happen between 9 and 3 and there should be no requirement for children to do school work out of school hours. Some parents will hold that view and still nag their children to do it! Some parents will talk to their children and in that way support the child’s capacity to communicate with adults; some parents will buy books for their children and establish a routine of reading to them at bedtime each night; some parents will limit time on the Nintendo DS and the iPod and how many hours of cartoons/video games/internet porn their children watch and will encourage them to become involved in sporting, cultural, community, and/or social activities. Some parents will speak to their child’s teacher and show an interest in the child’s education and progress.

But not all parents will do those things. Does that mean that some students get a head start? Or are better placed to be successful in schools?

We can’t discount the influence of teachers, of course, but we should remember that not all teachers are the same. They will have different motivations, different ideas about their role in the classroom, different ideas about the purpose of education, different ideas about how best to manage the classroom and its resources, how best to motivate and engage students, how to interact with children to allow them to flourish. Some teachers won’t even think about student flourishing. Some teachers claim that they teach subjects (disciplines) while other teachers claim they teach children. Some teachers are critically reflexive and question everything they do and question why they do it in the way they do it; some teachers don’t. Some teachers go to PD on a regular basis and continually learn; some teachers don’t. Some teachers leave as soon as the bell goes at the end of the day; others stay at school for hours, planning and marking and finding resources. Some teachers take their students on camps or walk the Kokoda Track with them, spending hours preparing themselves and their students for the trek.

Education is not a level playing field – not in terms of the children, their families, the schools they attend, or the teachers who teach them. But neither is it a factory, where a raw product is off-loaded in the loading bay, put on an assembly line, moved through a series of processes that are done to it over a number of years, evaluated at the end of the process to see if it measures up, and sent on its way – that ‘way’ being determined by how it measures up.

I have a hard time thinking of children as products, as things that need to have processes “done to them”.

And so I have a hard time determining what constitutes success when it comes to teaching. What does a successful teacher look like? What is the outcome of their success? Is it a group of children who all know the same things because they’ve been through a standardised/standardising ‘process’? Or is it more than that – how much more? What does that ‘more’ include?

And how do we know when a teacher has been successful? A teacher’s success may take years to be realised – there are countless instances of students who get in touch with their teachers many years after leaving school and recount a story of the impact the teacher had on that child as an adult. Success may not be immediate. Does that mean the teacher is any less successful?

I’m really interested in your thoughts on this. What does it mean for a teacher to be successful? Can success be measured and if so how? Against which criteria and whose judgements? Do we all have the same understanding of success and are we confident that we’re measuring apples against apples – if we agree that there is some way to measure teacher success?

Let me know what you think. I’m sure there’s a body of literature out there – people who have conducted studies on this very issue, but I’m interested in what you think.

And if you do think, then perhaps you should thank your teachers!