The words of my title here are from Mordecai Vanunu. They are my inspiration.
Subtitle: Education On Probation
I have noticed so many dark deeds in my eighty odd years I will feel guilty unless I at least draw attention to some of them now. That is why I am writing this.
So let us begin a journey of revelation even though the past cannot be changed. Perhaps we can refashion its consequences.
First a poem about unrealities imposed by political ignoramuses:
Here I am,
Limping through what was once tomorrow,
Struggling, sighing, crying, prying,
Lying in the clutches of the quicksand known as status.
Why is this so? If you should wish to know
The reason for my life’s hiatus,
Visit my classroom of a dozen years ago,
The bleak place where my grade will forever be
Aligned, confined, maligned, defined as E
For all the world to see.
Not people in that place
But ordered classifications of merit or disgrace,
Probed and detected by tests ad infinitum,
Whose validity moves only fools to cite ’em.
So from that space in my stark inferiority,
Degraded by others’ implied superiority,
I’ve wandered aimlessly deprived of sanity,
Longing to meet unclassified humanity.
O why am I cursed, reviled and frowned upon
Because I am not an alpha but an epsilon?
There you are then: some initial thoughts about the present.
Any thoughts of the past? My past?
Well yes, actually, my eighty-three-year-old mind seems to want to hang on to my school memories.
My school life begins.
At any given moment there is always so much still to be learnt by every child. Take me as a child for example. Here’s a bit of my history to illustrate the challenge for curriculum designers.
When I was five,
I was just alive.
A A Milne knew all about me then, and I knew him. But what of the rest of the world? Look at all the things I didn’t know about.
Who was ruling the world then?
Australia — Prime Minister — Joseph Lyons
Germany — Chancellor — Adolf Hitler
Italy — Prime Minister — Benito Mussolini
Russia / Soviet Union — Secretary Joseph Stalin
United States — President — Franklin D. Roosevelt
United Kingdom — Prime Minister — Neville Chamberlain.
Look at what was happening to other children.
“Kindertransport” allowed children to escape from Germany to the United Kingdom in December of 1938 of to save up to 10,000 between 1938 and 1940. Many of these children’s parents were killed during the Holocaust.
Look at the inventions I was to use eventually, but so much later.
Teflon is created.
Du Pont produces “nylon”. The first nylon toothbrushes are marketed.
The ballpoint pen, also called a biro, is invented in Hungary by Laszlo Bir.
The photocopier is created in the USA by Chester Carlston.
Freeze Dried Coffee is created by Nescafe.
Look at the arts that were not yet able to shape my thoughts.
Action Comics issues the first Superman comic.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs;
Boys Town, starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney;
Jezebel, starring Bette Davis.
Look at the “adult” events so far from being understood by the child.
Adolf Hitler is Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.”
Howard Hughes sets a new Round The World Air Record of 3 days, 19 hours.
The first use of a seeing eye dogs occurs.
RMS Queen Elizabeth is launched at John Brown, Clydebank, Scotland.
Oil is discovered in Saudi Arabia.
Albert Hofmann synthesises LSD.
Mexico nationalises foreign oil wells.
The Munich Agreement is signed.
Japan commits the Nanjing Massacre in China.
Germany invades the Sudetenland.
Freak Waves at Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia have 300 swimmers caught in a rip.
Now my teachers belonged to an era very different from today.
Yet I wonder why those teachers of mine still seem to be keeping an eye on me; those mentors of Miranda Primary School south of Sydney New South Wales Australia, in my time. That distant time had war, Empire Day and the White Australia Policy. Yet Conan, an Australian boy originally from China, was in my class and we were mates.
Those teachers of mine must have been contributing factors to that friendship. They made the curriculum of their time work for Conan and me despite the troubled world we were in.
That’s my point. Love, empathy, professional awareness can win against a hostile world and inadequate administration. Is that happening in 2017? Not sure.
Above all, there was something about those teachers I trusted and respected. Such trust is a vital need today. Teachers teach everyone from PM to Inmate 765. Their work has vast consequences. They need support and open, free doorways to their own learning. Bad schools created by a balanced budget cost far more than Shakespeare’s Horatio could ever have dreamed of. University student-mortgages kill learning.
Mr Manuel, the Miranda silver-haired headmaster (principal these days) had a lovely rose garden. I can still smell the roses. To track it down today you would need to excavate the vast shopping centre now eulogised as Miranda Fair. This could create two kinds of depression.
Miss Rogers, who taught me to read in Second Class and struggled to remove the threepence I put up my nose one silly day, still seems to be somewhere near me now. I can still sing “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” the song Mrs Jurd taught me in Fourth Class. Ben Jonson’s 1616 poem “Song To Celia” still lives in me because of that teacher.
Mr McDonald, my Fifth Class teacher, ladled milk to others and me as long as we brought a mug. Departmental policies extended this innovation to sealed bottles in the Fifties when I became a teacher. The milk was free in those days. I loved it. It made me feel I was part of a family not a contest.
Just now my looking glass seems to be getting darker and darker. I have been a teacher, K to university, for fifty years. Three degrees and an infinity of classrooms. That creates a big data base for judgements and comparisons.
That’s why I feel I’ve just got to talk about the shadows that worry me, as I leave the leading lights to their own narcissistic power. I can’t talk about everything at the one time. For now I focus on one cause of my anguish. Here it is. More later I hope.
The Curriculum Testing Calamity
Too many externally imposed, one-off tests in reality decide not what you are but how well you can do the tests. Look at the lucrative flood of HOW TO DOs for Australia’s NAPLAN Tests. We teachers warned about this before this travesty of assessment was introduced. Those sales to me are indicators of the false status given to NAPLAN.
Of course we teachers use tests. We are professionals. We teach, test and reteach. We use diagnostic tests and we use attainments tests. But they don’t give children nervous collapse and create false league tables. Can’t we do better than allow the ridiculous tyranny of one-off testing to decide the fate of children and their teachers?
More or less on this matter, here’s a little poem I wrote some years ago when the troubles began to emerge.
Dear Teacher Did You Read It?
Dear teacher did you really read my story really truly read it really truly?
What I said was true–
My darling mother died when I was only ten.
It is true I didn’t understand we’d never meet again.
It is true my world became a beast that seemed to snarl and bite.
It is true that every kindness ceased and even God took fright.
It is true my father ran away when his world seemed to end.
It is true I searched the human race and couldn’t find a friend.
It is true I longed just one more time to hold her hand in mine.
It is true I jigged away on trains to the end of every line.
It is true you are busy every day, planning and doing your work.
So much to read and so much to say that it’s only rest you shirk.
But why did you talk about full stops and little slips of the pen
And give me an E on my report card and make me write it again?
Dear teacher did you really read my story really truly read it really truly?
What is a professional? Clearly someone who by study and experience has earned the trust of society. A practising surgeon is a clearly recognised professional. That surgeon, that adversary of death, pain and suffering, is widely recognised. How ludicrous it would be to force his patients to do a politically devised objective test before each operation!
Teachers have to do exactly this.
We teachers too, have difficulty in gaining the professional recognition awarded to surgeons. We have all been in classrooms and therefore claim to have the power to judge teachers. Very few of us have been awake in surgeries.
The surgeon creates, and deserves, instant respect as an enemy of death and illness. The teacher, as a proponent of life with all its vagaries and vicissitudes, may never know the precise consequences of a lifetime of teaching and so self-respect is often the main incentive to carry on. If you get out of the classroom and wander into the deceptive backrooms of administrative expertise, you can quickly rise to power over the classroom teacher.
But if you love children and teaching, carry on regardless in those classrooms.
Well now here I am: eighty-three and looking back on all those classrooms. I am so glad those teaching years happened for me. I feel justified in my professional status, despite my flaws from time to time.
One special thing I really do believe. If you were to give me a child in my classroom for a year, or even half of that year, I would be able to tell you far more about that child than twenty NAPLAN Tests.
And there on my old and rickety, pain riven legs I stand.
The Browning Version Terence Rattigan
Andrew Crocker-Harris: You must excuse me. I had prepared a speech, but I find now that I have nothing to say. Or rather, I have three very small words, but they are most deeply felt. They are these: I am sorry. I am sorry because I have failed to give you what you had the right to demand of me as your teacher: sympathy, encouragement, and humanity.
Goodbye Mr Chips James Hilton
“These examinations and certificates and so on–what did they matter? And all this efficiency and up-to-dateness–what did that matter, either? Ralston was trying to run Brookfield like a factory–a factory for turning out a snob culture based on money and machines…”
Class dismissed for now…