English in Australia
'Changing Priorities: Teaching in the Western Suburbs'
by Louise Bourke, St Monica's, Epping, Melbourne
Christmas Eve, 1995 - With my hands covered in shortbread mix and flour, I answered the phone to my first teaching job. Although it was the best Christmas present I could have wished , I couldn't help feeling a little nervous about the location - the Western suburbs of Melbourne.
I've always been fairly open minded, although I will admit that having been educated in a private girls' school made the thought of teaching in the Western suburbs a little daunting. I only knew what I had heard about Western suburbs' schools. Not much of what I had heard had been favourable. To add to the pressure, I was expected to teach Year 7 Italian, and I was neither LOTE trained nor did I speak Italian!
Armed with everything I had learnt during my Dip.Ed. year about classroom management, I confronted my first class - Year 11 English. Despite the initial disruptive noises, late arrivals, and interruption from the roll monitor, it turned out that my biggest hurdle in this class was not going to be discipline, but helping them get through Year 11. This meant starting from scratch with some students in an effort to introduce them to basic literacy skills and essay structures. It is difficult to motivate students to develop essay writing skills when they cannot see beyond leaving school at the end of the year. Only a few had plans to go on to University. How do you explain the value of footnoting to a student who wants to be a mechanic?
A large number of students were from non-English speaking backgrounds and they had different needs from the types of students I had taught in my Dip.Ed. year. As an English teacher, I found that I had to simplify programs which students in other schools had breezed through when I was on my teaching rounds. I had to re-define many of the terms used. I spent half of one lesson trying to explain the words 'conflict' and 'contrast' to a group of Year 11 students. Dictionaries do not always explain meaning to students. We often assume so much.
We forget that at some stage someone had to show us where to find the publisher in a book and how to quote from a text. It's important to remember that students must not be made to feel stupid about asking questions they need to ask. I found that quite a few students had extreme difficulty in spelling and writing essays. Several students, when asked to include information about a novel's publisher and date of publication in a footnote, insisted that the novel did not have a publisher. I told them where to look for the publisher in the front of the book. 'There isn't one Miss!' was the reply. After a quick hands on demonstration of where to find the publisher in 20 different books, there was a sigh. 'Oh, so that's what that little logo is for.' It turned out they didn't really know what a publisher was. In fact they thought that a quotation had to be something a character actually said, it had to be dialogue.
Another challenge I faced was that students resisted drafting their work and conferencing with each other because they were aware of their weaknesses. It was bad enough to know you were a bad speller, let alone have your friends know as well. It was difficult to develop enough trust for them to share work and help each other re-work essays.
We eventually agreed to an anonymous drafting lesson where each student's work was placed in a nameless folder and handed out at random. At first they resorted to 'Love this!' , 'Cool Babe!', 'Well done!' , and 'Good effort'. The latter appeared quite frequently. Obviously it is an assessment they had seen a lot of over their school life. In class one day, Mary objected to a 'Well done!' I had written on her essay. I had made other comments, but she couldn't see past the 'Well Done'. 'Be honest, Miss,' she said. 'It's not good enough and I know it. Don't just say you like it unless you mean it.' I made a conscious effort from that day never to use 'Well done' on her essay again. 'Great!', didn't seem to raise the same objections.
The literacy problem was not confined to migrant families. What was more tragic was the number of students from second and third generation families who were unable to string a sentence together. In fact many of the students for whom English was a second language had a better understanding of grammar.
There was an attitude instilled in some students that there was no point or need to try at school. It was common to have students comment - 'It doesn't matter, I'm going up a year anyway', or 'I'm not going to need this when I'm collecting trolleys at Safeway.' At times I wondered if I was more concerned about their work than they were. I'll always remember the day when Adrian, a Year 11 student, walked past the door of my Year 10 class just before lunch on the final day for handing in an important work requirement. I knew he had completed his folio, yet he had not handed it in and had not come to class that day. When I saw him strolling past, I called him back and he put his head around the corner of the doorway. At first he pleaded ignorance and then smiled, handed me the work and said 'Just kidding, Miss.' I had spent a sleepless night worrying about the deadline, but he was completely relaxed.
This approach to work was common for a lot of students. Some just have too much else on their mind to be concerned about school work. A number of students spent most of their after school time wandering the streets until dark . Kelly gave a talk to her English class about taking a kitten home the night before. The new addition to the family had not been welcomed by her mother and when she was told to get rid of it or leave, Kelly chose to leave. 'Where did you go?' I asked her . 'Oh, it's OK Miss,' she replied. 'I just wandered around for most of the night, then went home when I was sure Mum was asleep. By the morning she had forgotten all about it and I've still got the kitten.' It was fairly obvious from the way she told the story that this was a regular occurance.
Other students seemed to think the fairies would come overnight and do their homework for them. 'Am I passing Miss?' was a question that often greeted me on a Monday morning. 'Have you handed in the work?' I would ask. This was inevitably met by a blank stare. It hadn't occurred to them that if they didn't hand in the work, I would not pass them. The 'hit rate' improved as the year progressed. I don't know whether it was a sign of increased maturity on the students' part or due to my constant nagging. At the end of the year I was admiring a gift given to another teacher by her Year 12 class. A third teacher commented on the fact she never gets anything. I added - 'I'm just grateful when I get all their work in on time.' I was exaggerating and we laughed, but the reality was that all I expected from the students was their best. It bothered me when I knew that some students weren't even near their best.
I wondered if there was another way to make the need to hand work in more important to students. Threatening them with detentions, constantly nagging or simply hanging the reports over their head seemed to defeat the purpose of education to me. After all, isn't the aim to produce mature, responsible adults who can cope independently in the big wide world? It seems to me that using punishment to achieve such an objective only tells them that it's OK to do the wrong thing so long as you don't get caught. It isn't going to produce their best work and it isn't going to teach them that to get what you want in life, you have to get up and do something about it.
With one Year 11 student, I made the tough decision to let him sink or swim. I knew that I wouldn't be doing him any favours if I made a special effort to help him . If he wasn't going to take the responsibility himself. To my surpirse, he got the message. He may not have passed with flying colours, but he did pass. There aren't many times that a teacher hears thank you, so I was especially stunned on the Year 11's last day when the student concerned popped his head into the staff room and said, 'Thanks, Miss.'
As an English teacher, I often felt as though I was fighting a losing battle. Starting from basics while trying to give them the skills they need to reach Year 12 was not an easy task. There were some students with difficulties that went a long way back. Paul tried hard and his parents desperately wanted him to do well. For students like him, with parental and school support, you could see some hope. Another student in the same year struggled alone and resisted help. His learning problems had obviously had an effect over time and, to further lower his confidence, he had a stutter. Other students were sometimes cruel and when he did have the courage to speak up in class, his stutter seemed worse. Most of the time he chose to be a silent observer. It seemed that he could see no point in continuing a battle that had been fought for so long.
Teaching priorities have to change for students like these and for teachers themselves. There are times when you have to go into class expecting the best, but knowing that you may not get everything you want from them, and that's OK. It's OK that not every lesson is a miraculous learning experience. Some lesson plans go straight out the window, but at the same time you can gain a lot from doing this. You may be discovering something about the class, learning more about them as people, or simply realising that the ideas which you had for that lesson just weren't going to work. I started to reward work that would have probably been considered unacceptable for other students at other schools. But I don't see this as lowering my standards.
It is important to reward students for their own achievements and not the achievement that we expect of them according to their chronological age or year level. When one of my Year 10 students handed in an essay and proudly told me that he had worked harder on this than anything he had done, I felt as much a sense of achievement as he did. It might have only been about a C grade, but it was the first C he had had all year. I was thrilled to have the same student seek me out at the end of the year to show me his merit certificate. No one deserved it more. I can only hope that the curriculum at the senior end of secondary school can be flexible enough to accommodate students like these, that there will be room for them to achieve. Other wise we risk disillusioning them.
There is a tendency for these at risk students to give up once they have been unsuccessful once. They hate reading in class, they dread showing work and would rather not submit it than fail. In my view, descriptive assessment is made for these kids. They have been labelled all of their school life. They don't want to be scaled with everyone else. They need to be successful. While they found it difficult at first, I was constantly met with a mixture of surprise and pleasure that I had written just as much in response and praise of their work, as they had for their essay. I hoped that they read at least half of what I wrote. One boy commented: 'I think you've got it wrong Miss. We were the ones who were supposed to write the essays.'
Fronting your own class for the first time has its advantages and disadvantages. You feel a sense of possession: 'these are my Year 9s!'; although there are times you would rather disown them. There is also the disadvantage that you do not have the opportunity to observe them as you do on teaching rounds. You are virtually thrown to the lions without any idea how big the lions are.
When I first met Andrew, he was running around the classroom with a chair over his head looking for someone to crown with it. I wish that I had been able to observe Andrew before I had to teach him. I admit that through the course of the year I grew to like him. Despite his tendency to be difficult, at times he made a real effort to learn. He could sit beside you for the entire lesson and work very well.
The trouble was he was like a time bomb. You never really knew what to expect from him each lesson and when he had a bad day, he was likely to explode. Several times chairs were kicked or bags thrown across the room. A number of times my first sight of him for the day was as he chased a student past the door when I was 10 minutes into a lesson. At times I let things slide rather than make him worse by confronting him. If I had a good lesson with Andrew, I was almost certain to hear from another teacher by recess that he had been wild in her class.
Andrew was a prime example of a student who found it easier to be labelled as trouble, than to have people know he had difficulty with his work. It wasn't 'cool' if you were dumb, but it was if you were in trouble or clowned around. When he left the building you could almost hear the collective sigh of his teachers. Unfortunately for students like Andrew, by the time the awakening comes, they have often been abandoned by the people who can help them most.
Year 10 were my biggest challenge in first semester. I often returned to the staff room frustrated with the poor behaviour and attitude. It wasn't unusual to have 50% of the class missing or to have a student casually wander in five minutes before the bell at the end of a lesson. After one particularly difficult morning in April I was speaking to another teacher who had the same class . 'They were fine for me today,' was all she could offer. During my free period I went to see their co- ordinator to discuss the problem. It was only then that she told me that the same teacher who had claimed they were no trouble had already been to see him about their behaviour that day. I was relieved that it wasn't just me, but also annoyed that she had felt the need to hide the problems she was having. The only thing that had been gained from this was to make me feel like a failure.
Many experienced staff tend to forget what it is like to be a beginning teacher. You feel insecure and as though everyone is judging you. As a new teacher, there were times when I felt that I must have been the only one having trouble with certain students. After a while I realised that I was probably the only one admitting it. Only one teacher admitted to me that she felt like she was going in circles with her class. She thought that after years of teaching, you shouldn't have to deal with poor behaviour and lack of respect. Perhaps she is right, you shouldn't. Unfortunately, most teachers do.
One factor that made all the difference, especially during the first few months, was a small group of supportive collegues. While there were a few things that took me a bit of time to catch on to - such as the Assessment and Reporting Policy, which I didn't get my hands on until well after the first Parent-Teacher interview - I was fortunate to have people around me who were willing to help. Many admitted that they couldn't really remember what it was like to be first year out, but they were sympathetic. Others had trouble trying to remember when they last had a first year out teacher at the school. One word of advice to those setting out on their first year of teaching or a new position is to avoid teachers who are tired and jaded. If you sit near them too long, their negativity will rub off. I was lucky to share a corner of the staff room with people who taught because they loved it.
Teaching has plenty of downs. After all you're dealing with over one hundred young, creative and sometimes attention-starved individuals every day. You cannot forget the ups though. The students proudly showing off their merit certificates, the difficult kid who finally says, 'Thanks'. When they occur it is a great reminder of why you became a teacher in the first place. At a time when teachers are feeling undervalued and the bottom line counts more than the quality of education, it is understandable that educationalists are talking about a shortage of young teachers.
Usually when you get your first job, you throw yourself into everything to prove our value to the school and ensure your position for the next year. When you know that your job is not guaranteed, it is hard to keep motivated. The message being sent to young teachers today is, 'You aren't valued and you aren't good enough for us to commit to.'
As I sat in the Principal's office in early November with three other contract teachers, it was obvious the damage that Government cuts were doing. All of us were young and all had worked hard for the school in our respective areas. I was the only first year teacher and I had taken the position aware that it was likely to end after one year. The others, however, had been in the same situation the year before. Even if the school had been able to offer me another contract, I didn't want to be in the same position at the end of 1997.
You can't blame contract teachers for feeling a little used. I felt that the relationship I had worked hard to build with my students would go to waste. I felt frustrated that a Government I had voted for and believed in had let me down. I had always believed that the motivation behind the government's education policy was to get new blood into the system. Instead, they appeared to be draining the life out of it. The teachers most at risk are the new teachers on compulsory contracts. Young teachers are becoming a transient community. They can't be sure of where their next job will come from. When we are constantly being told that the teaching profession is getting older, one has to wonder where the Government system will be in ten years from now, when large numbers of new graduates are taking up more secure positions in independent schools and shying away from the state system.
I constantly point out to people that I chose to be a teacher. I went out into the work force and did all that I wanted to do before I decided the time was right to turn to teaching. Despite the weekly phone calls to friends or relatives where I grumble about a particularly hard lesson at school, I have not had a day yet when I have regretted the choice I made. It was an easy decision to make despite the talk of staff cuts and disillusionment. When people say it must be great to be a teacher, they usually follow it up with 'All those holidays, home by 4 o'clock...'. They forget the most important thing of all. It's the teachers who are really helping to shape the future.
To leave you with some sign of hope, I should mention that I now have a permanent position at a Catholic school. I'm looking forward to settling down in one place for a while. The last day of school in 1996 was a sad one for everyone concerned. The future looked uncertain for those leaving and staying. Some of my students asked if I had found a better school to teach at. I explained that I wasn't leaving because I didn't like the school, but rather out of necessity. I feel that there is a future in teaching at my new school and that teachers are still valued and needed. Eighteen new staff commenced at the time I did. I am one of the lucky ones with a new school to look forward to. I feel prepared to tackle anything after my year in the Western Suburbs and I'll look back with fond memories. I doubt many of my students will think of me in the future, but I am certain that as each Year 12 class graduates, I will take a minute to wonder what became of Andrew and all the students I taught in my first year as a teacher.
Note: The names of students mentioned in this article have been changed.
Louise Bourke started a career in advertising and journalism before becoming an English teacher. She is now teaching English, Media Studies and Drama at St Monica's College, Epping, where she is also the Editor of the College Annual.