Bricks and Mortar

Ok, so I haven’t really been managing this blog as best I could have. My apologies, but in my defence, the life of a teacher is insanely crazy. But now I feel I have something to say.

Recently, for a range of reasons related to my private life (choir rehearsals, extra-curricular activities for my son) I have spent some time in and around private school premises. As a public school alumnus myself, and having put my son’s education also into the hands of the public system (largely due to the undue influence of religious institutions in the private space), I have to admit I find entering these places vaguely bewildering.

You pull into the school grounds, through ivy-clad bricks, heritage stonework, designer fences – a far cry from the black iron bars of the public system – into a car park that is usually spacious, separated from the school itself by gardens, lovingly tended and organised. As you wander through these serene examples of horticultural symmetry you see the school buildings rise before you. On one side, a music centre that looks like a professional theatre, complete with box office, stage door and, judging by the adjoining complex, enough recording and practicing rooms to manage the Beatles’ entire career. On the other side is a period building, restored to act as administration or housing, with filigree wrought iron and locally quarried bluestone walls. Further on, a block of classrooms – double story, in brickwork that wouldn’t be seen dead in a 60’s government architect’s material catalogue – enclose a courtyard full of outdoor art installations and invite you in to modern laboratories and spacious classroom areas, freshly painted and carpeted at least some time within the last decade. Looking beyond you realise there are multiple versions of this educational perfection, as well as large gymnasiums and swimming pools, billiard-table smooth playing fields, manicured trees…

It’s enough to make you gape in wonder! But it is also, upon reflected, something that stirs a deep resentment. I don’t know what the research says in this regard, or even if there is any, but these schools are, in a word, beautiful. Everything about them is aesthetically pleasing, and designed to within an inch of its existence. It is a place you desperately¬†want to inhabit. A place you can’t but feel proud of, and enjoy being in.

I remember clearly when I attended Adelaide University the feeling I got when I entered the old wing of the Barr Smith Library; a cavernous space with wall to wall books in colonial cases below stained glass windows and monumental stonework. It was my favourite place to study because it was beautiful.

My point is that, in some way, even if it is marginal (and I suspect strongly that it is not, that it is, in fact, significant), these grounds in and of themselves contribute to the education of the children within. These grounds, beautiful as they are, invite and nurture inquiry and pride within the students they embrace. Further, the array of additional resources these students enjoy within the context of these kinds of grounds, must enhance their lives in incredible ways.

This is a product of wealth. There is no getting around it. Private schools attract funding. Parents pay ridiculous amounts of money for the privilege of sending their children to them, philanthropists throw money at them, and the religious organisations that back their philosophies contribute their misbegotten, tax-exempt income into them. In fact, they even receive funding from the government to enhance their manicured lawns and perfect computer suites.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the public system, that wealth simply doesn’t exist.

We – both students and teachers – inhabit derelict buildings that look about as interesting as the Noarlunga Railway Station, and smell approximately the same. The fundamental infrastructure works; we have heating and cooling, the roofs don’t leak (often), and there are walls. But the old heating system (from the 70s, that was refurbished when it finally was decided that students couldn’t work in 40 degree heat and needed air-conditioning too) still provides a hole in the wall through which rubbish, and vermin, can move. Temporary walls, added or removed over the years, have left unusual surfaces that are routinely just painted over in an attempt to keep them looking fresh, and pinboards that are decades old moulder behind their brown or burnt orange facades. Haphazard bodge-jobs dot the landscape: the paving in a slightly different concrete paver to those that were used originally but which were deemed financially appropriate under the budgetary circumstances of the time; the noticeboards that are just panels of chipboard; the staff copying room that has been converted from a compactus room and still has the tracks on the floor and walls; the transportable Music block that was supposed to be temporary but became permanent. And so on.

It’s depressing, if I’m honest. And every now and again an insertion of funds will actually fix something, allowing some degree of gradual renewal to occur. Unfortunately this generally affects a small percentage of the school grounds, while completely ignoring the dilapidation elsewhere. But, as with their financially bloated analogues in the private world, the surface reflects the interior. High class sizes and teachers who lack effective planning time, dated resources (especially technological resources) and, in most cases, ineffective mental health support for students, and so on.

I broached the question with some friends, all of whom earn enough to put their children into the private sector, with predictable responses:

“We, as a society, have to ensure that people are treated well. Every child deserves a baseline standard of funding, and government should then fund according to need.”

Sure, this sounds reasonable on the face of it, even enlightened. But in a system where one group is able to fund such magnificent excess, while another languishes in poverty, this really seems, to me, like an egalitarian-sounding principle being used to justify an unjust class system. The facts are pretty simple: the public system has very little money, the private system does (and, more to the point, has an economic obligation to ensure it is profitable without government support), to the extent that it can provide opulent environments for children, and government money is limited. Given this, why are we beholden to provide funding to those private schools?

“The research shows no difference in outcomes between public and private”

No, actually, it shows no difference in outcomes once socioeconomic status has been taken into account, or, in other words, once you remove the impact of being rich. This is not an argument worth the time to refute.

“But I went to a public school.” / “My parents taught for years in the public sector.”

That’s great! Congratulations, you were some of the lucky few who were able to break the cycle of poverty. But then, what you actually mean is that you went to some of the few public schools that are situated in well-to-do areas, in an era when budgetary constraints weren’t quite as tight, with parents who remained in a stable relationship and were able to assist you because they were educated themselves. This is a far cry from what I see every day in my school’s context. Of course you did well!

Unfortunately, what this amounts to is a self-interested justification for an inequitable system, by people who I actually have a lot of respect for and would count as friends.

For the record, while I am not quite as wealthy as they are, I do have the means send my son to a private school should I wish (I won’t, but for different reasons) and, therefore, could easily fall back on the same empty justifications. But the difference is that I see, daily, how very little the students I teach actually have (and I teach in a category 3 school, two categories removed from those considered the worst off). I realise, keenly, that there but for the happy chance of birth go I… and there but for the same happy chance goes my son.

This isn’t going to change, and nor will the conditions of the public school sector. This isn’t an appeal that I think will actually change anything because, when faced with the kinds of responses that I’ve listed, it is patently obvious that it is impossible to penetrate the easily held ideologies of those who have. The tragedy is that this inability to understand the extent of their privilege affects children who should be able to expect better.

Ultimately, it has always been the way that the wealthy have complicated issues in order to justify their own attainment and maintenance of that wealth. Those complicated statements, parsed in the language of high-minded equality and laced with the benevolence of what ought to be right, hides a pretty obvious truth in this case. It is a truth that is as simple as the bricks and mortar before our eyes.


Embracing the terror

Yesterday evening I presented to a group of teachers and kicked off a big STEM project at the school where the collaboration of our local ‘feeder’ primary schools, and specifically their year 6 and 7 teachers, is going to be vital. I am leading this project out, which is not exactly what I thought I was signing up for when I was recruited for it, but is something I am trying to take in stride.

Regardless of that, however, I am not a STEM-trained teacher. I have had a lifelong interest in science, technology, and the natural world, an inculcated skepticism, and a partner who is a Maths teacher, but I have never trained specifically in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics, and so I have a very real fear that I am out of my depth.

Adding further to this is that nagging fear that I think almost everyone has when they need to present to an unknown audience. So, predictably, I have been fairly anxious and stressed this week about it.

I mentioned this in an email to the senior manager of the project during the week, using the term “terrified”, and, completely genuinely and with the kind of concern that I am glad to see in the leadership of my school, he got me into a meeting and reassured me that all was fine and that my efforts thus far had been great. I wasn’t really looking for this though, and while it was a welcome acknowledgement, I found myself slightly uncomfortable in articulating what I actually expected as a response.

This morning, as I arrived, I had a short conversation with another colleague, someone who knows me and my work style well and who I trust greatly, and we discussed the project. I said I was feeling a little scared about how well the presentation went because it now meant that the hard work would begin and that, not being STEM trained, I felt out of my depth. Her response was similar to the senior leader, but I immediately gained a clearer idea of why this felt strange.

Me expressing that fear, I realised, was not about an unwillingness to proceed, or a cry for validation or even a search for help. Instead it was more about me acknowledging to myself the anxiety that comes naturally when anyone steps beyond their comfort zone. I think what I was looking for is that sense of solidarity; the “I know what you’re going through, and it’s ok to feel that way” response.

My colleague’s response was really interesting: “You’re a lifelong learner.”

What she meant was that, anytime we try to do something new, to push ourselves beyond the comfort zone we live within, there is an element of discomfort that exists. We discussed this a little and moved on, but it is an important point.

Sometimes that discomfort will express itself as fear, as with this presentation. But it is just as likely to be a sense of frustration, or dislocation, or even pain (perhaps when pushing physical boundaries, for example). We don’t learn unless we are pushing through these kinds of boundaries, and being a ‘lifelong learner’, of necessity, means existing within that zone, at least for some periods of time. Without it, the satisfaction of achievement is hollow and meaningless.


A tribute to the eclectic mind

I’ve been considering a blog for a long time. I’ve started, stopped, re-started, wondered about my audience, stopped, moved to new projects, re-started… it’s an unending loop of tragic incapacity to stick to a regular writing routine.

I hope this blog is different.

Instead of the usual focus on one particular part of life, I intend, rather, to break from the perceived mould of person-as-occupation and take a more holistic approach. This is, fundamentally, because I am more than what I do. I am a product of multiple streams of interest, philosophy, necessity and response, all interacting in surprising ways. The ways that I, or anyone else, approach their profession is a product of the ways in which they conduct their personal interests, family lives, thought processes and political affiliations (inter alia), and I don’t think you can divorce this from such discussions. So, while this can, in some ways, be seen as a professional blog, it is not only that. ¬†I intend to discuss politics and values, ideas and experiences, both within and outside the teaching profession.

In order to do that, I may choose to engage with topics well beyond just the practice of a teacher in early 21st century South Australia. I might tie them back in to a professional theme, but then, I might not. Sometimes you might only get a word, or a picture. In any respect, I hope it will make you think. If not, well, at least it made me think, and in the eternal echo chamber of the blogosphere, maybe that’s all that matters…?