Sunday, June 13, 2010

Reflecting on what it has been all about.

Sometimes when you feel at the edge of things, as I do these days as my teaching career is coming to an end, you wonder if anything you have done makes any difference at all.

This is quite a devastating thought considering most of my teaching career has been as an adviser. Thankfully most of it was as an Education Board Adviser working alongside teachers over a long period of time not ‘delivering’ short term contracts as is the case today. As well, in those earlier days, advisers were specialist teachers whose role was to assist teachers who might not have had such expertise. We actually took lessons. Things have certainly changed over the years and not always for the best.

When I started, way back in the 60s, specialist teachers (as we were called then) were selected during their last year of teacher training and given a further year to hone their skills. Every Education Board had its own team and each service met regularly to share ideas. In our small Board we had three art specialists, three nature study specialists (changed to science advisers), three Physical Education specialists and, later, a music adviser, junior school and a rural adviser. Things slowly changed and reading and mathematics advisers were added to the mix and the earlier advisers’ numbers slimmed down. The future, it seems, will be populated with literacy and numeracy advisers peddling official ‘best practice’ and ‘cherry picked’ research.

In those early days advisers worked with teachers to develop curricula and resources. In our Board we worked together to develop integrated in-service courses that ran over several days. A lasting influence on my philosophy was working with the art advisers, under the leadership of National Art Adviser Gordon Tovey. Any success we had was dependent on the creative teachers in the schools. I remember the excitement of a teacher developing the first ever integrated unit based on an ecological study of a local stream – an approach we all take for granted today; even if I have doubts about the depth of many current studies. Pioneer creative teacher Elwyn Richardson and his philosophy provided inspiration for us all. His book ‘In the Early World’ became our ‘bible. Elwyn’s book, recently reprinted by the NZCER, is more relevant than ever with the increasing press to standardize learning. All schools ought to have copy as an antidote to current political populist policies. I guess behind the scene was the progressive influence of Dr Beeby, a previous Director of Education, who would be appalled by current developments.

Then came Tomorrows Schools; self managing schools; endless compliance requirements; advisers attached to Colleges of Education; with ‘advice’ ‘delivered’ by contracts with short term timelines; and with advisers employed by contract as well. And of course ERO!

There is no doubt that most of what I hold precious I learnt in those early days. It was a privilege to observe and work with the gifted teachers in our area. They in turn valued ‘our’ assistance. Working alongside such teachers allowed me to see in action teachers at work and, in turn, to share their ideas with others by running local courses. In my role as a science adviser I helped teachers with their field trips and ecological studies and in planning their science programmes. To this day I believe the most powerful professional developmental is gained by visiting other teachers. And, equally importantly, it places classroom teachers as key players not outside ‘experts’.

My most powerful role in the 70/80s was working with a small group of Taranaki teachers developing what became known as the Taranaki Environmental Approach. It is my belief that any real lasting change takes time and those involved need to be totally committed to the task. We all met regularly, often informally to talk over ideas. We also published material to share with others. I think it is fair to say that my itinerant role was a key factor to the group’s unity and such a ‘critical friend’ role is a viable possibility in the future as schools, once again, begin to work together. The work we began in Taranaki has changed over the years and today the area is known for quality learning but now features whole school development rather than the previous emphasis on individual teachers. This is a healthy development.

The future demands a greater emphasis on school creativity to balance the formulaic ‘best practice’ teaching that is being ‘delivered’ to schools resulting, all too often, in a sense of conformity and standardisation in schools.

Schools need to claim back their leadership role and resist the ‘state approach’ to education that is becoming the norm.

One thing I have learnt over the years is that making lasting change is not easy. Students, teachers and schools have to want to change, not just because of political edict or compliance requirement.

I hope there are people who feel I might have helped them over the years.

In recent years the only real effect I feel I have had is when schools have committed to make use of my services a week a term over a year or more. And in such situations, I have learnt, it always gets worse before it gets better! Some call this the ‘implementation dip’! In other schools, with one off assistance, any I ideas I might’ve shared often get lost in all the other competing influences. The status quo and innate teacher conservatism are powerful reactionary forces.

One of the difficult questions is, when asked, to give my impression of a school when it is obvious the school only wants confirmation. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘telling the truth makes you unpopular at the club’. I have found it is only those who value the insights of others who are able to change – that is if they agree! This is particularly hard if you are seen as a friend; schools don’t need reassurance from friends but honesty from ‘critical friends’.

I guess it is over to others to assess ones worth but as I reach the edge of my career I have been thinking about it. My most impressive feedback ever was from a girl I taught when out of the blue when she sent me an e-mail last year;

‘I hope you remember the ten year old because you are indelible in my ten year brain as the person who showed me how to feel, see and say... I am sure the reason I am an artist today is because of you…you taught me about the trees and their Maori names…and whenever I create something I go back to the ten year me to find that centre - the opening and questioning ten year old me.’

I believe strongly in a creative education that is premised on developing the talents and gifts of every student.

I believe equally strongly that any real lasting innovative change only happens when creative schools take the initiative for change and, better still, when groups of schools work together.

And I believe strongly that now is the time, with the imposition of National Standards, for courageous school leadership. Or is it too late?

'In a time of dramatic change learners inherit the world; while the learned
find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer

Eric Hoffer

Design by Free Wordpress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Templates