Posted in random ramblings, Teaching and Learning

On the importance of ‘lone nuts’…

I’ve read some ‘troubling’ things in the last week around education. I guess being election time socio economic issues and education are more in the news than usual. It has got me thinking again about change in schools, how to manage it, what is important… but also what change needs to happen in our society and culture to make those changes stick. There is such a big difference between have and have nots. In society, between schools, within schools and even within classrooms.

At the moment, I don’t see much happening to bring these closer together.

Which is where my ‘lone nut’ comes in. The ‘crazy’ person every school needs, who is relentless in pursuit of some goal to make a positive difference.

The first article I read was this one, about working in a decile one school. About how we are still failing our most vulnerable kids. There lives outside of school are such a barrier to learning in school. The lack of hope is so soul destroying. I have a friend who moved to Dunedin after a stint in a decile 1 school just out of Auckland, and some of her stories just horrify me. She still doesn’t get how we just pitch in and help each other down here, even if you are at a different school – she is so used to everyone being in full on survival mode with no extra room to help out.

I’m also really worried about how vulnerable schools are getting the least experienced and least trained teachers.

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Who is going to help these teachers learn on the job? If there is such a massive turnover, there will be no experience to lend to new teachers. Many of these teachers are bonded for 2 years and then leave. One mentioned in the above article was leaving to retrain….. I suppose it has always happened, that the ‘best’ teachers have always been pulled into private schools, or into ‘better’ state schools, or out of the class room and into ‘the corridor’ but I feel like more and more ‘innovative’ ‘lone nut’ teachers are being pulled into spaces like HPSS, Rototuna, Rolleston Horoeka and now a new ‘school’…..

Because then I read about City Senior School. I love the concept, really I do (except maybe boot camp, but maybe I would benefit from some ‘enforced’ voluntary fitness)… and perhaps part of me wishes I was that brave.

However, I am really struggling to understand why that money is going to go to 300 odd kids, when I pretty sure it could have been spread around a bit and impacted a whole LOAD more. And yes, this is addresses in the post – and maybe there is a place for a prototype school. A proof of concept perhaps. But there are also loads of different types of schools in NZ  – unlimited springs to mind, and I went to Hagley for 7th form in 1999 and had english once a week for 3 hours and it rocked…..actually watching a movie in one go made life way nicer. So alternative models are not new. Schools like Albany Secondary, or HPSS are shaking things up, and have not had a systemic change on a wide range of schools. Will another prototype achieve this?

I’m also jealous it is another example in the ’09’. Good ole sunny Dunedin won’t be getting a new school any time soon, and several of the local schools have been closed/combined or under CAPNA in recent years. Geographically speaking, where you live can have a massive impact on what opportunities you have. Two students jump into my mind who would both LOVE and hugely benefit from this type of school. How will the students be selected?

On the industry partners…. I’m not sure this is that ‘new’. Back in 1996 I think, I was involved with an extension sci program while I was a student at Lincoln High school. I visited a lecturer a couple of times as part of that project, as did my class. My school does the same thing with GATE science students – for example one BLIS technologies will mentor students. I have a student in yr 13 who travels into the uni to visit the Chem dept for some extension. After bagging Dunedin’s geographic location, we are lucky we have lots of places who will help students out if you ask. And we have some top notch techie companies too 🙂 So maybe it is not standard, but if my school can do it surely most could. Except again for those who are really isolated, either by funding or by geography.

I also think that it is one thing to bring this type of learning into a new place, and a completely different thing to be changed in an established, traditional space. With older style building and furniture. Or parents who are cautious around technology. Or kids who comes to school because they get food. Or schools who are isolated with small rolls and one Science teacher.  Or schools with teachers less confident around trying new things.

Because, of course, this new school will be recruiting ‘excellent educators.

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a reply in the comments section from the blog

So some schools will ‘lose’ these excellent educators… and what happens to those they leave behind? they get a teacher with 6 weeks training on the teach first program? Or, they need to limit option lines, or get a ‘less’ excellent teacher. The teacher shortage is becoming more recognised. Especially in the ‘STEM’ subjects. Sigh.

Bonus of being able to teacher Chem, Bio, Sci and Maths with a twist of digital technologies/coding and a passion for helping others use technology better  – I’m pretty sure I’d have to try REALLY hard to get fired. 🙂


I then read this article about Haeata in Christchurch. It made me soooo frustrated. I know some of the educators at Haeata and how desperately hard they are working. How passionate they are about their school and their learners. Unlike some of the other new schools in NZ, these guys opened on day one with yr 1-13, with nearly a thousand kids. All the politics that went with the closure of schools in one of the most deprived areas of Christchurch. Of course the school is not perfect, because nothing is perfect. Kids thinking they need to take weapons to school is not ok. But I’m fairly certain this won’t be the only case in NZ, and it is probably again happening more in lower decile schools.

The other thing to remember is schools are run for people, by people, and people are messy. Wonderful, creative, hardworking, confused, disengaged, angry, MESSY. Teachers are all these things too. It interests me how highly teachers behavioural standards are held – and rightly so in some areas. But the expectation of professionalism is not always meet by the level of respect for the profession, the training and support provided for people in the profession, and in the pay packets on those in the profession. When I tell people I am a ‘teacher’ it is generally meet with either a ‘so, are you on holiday then’? or a horror story of the ‘worst teacher in the whole world’. Sigh

And then there is this story full of hope from Nelson. Getting kids feed, in the proper clothes and feeling like the belong, and what do you know, they come to school! They start to engage. The most vulnerable students achieving success – perhaps not in the traditional academic sense, but really does that matter?? There is a focus on hygiene for these learners!! They are happier and healthier and feel more valued. How can we build more places like this for our most vulnerable learners, rather than the proposed ‘bootcamps’

How can we justify having such disparity between our schools?

My school is decile 7 (although we will do ‘better’ under the new funding scheme) and we have some problems. To quote a colleague we may not be perfect, but we try damned hard to help every kid. Since writing this post about kids falling through cracks, more students have left. One in particular rattled me…a yr13 student left for a job – I’m not going to uni so why stay here? was her answer to my almost begging her to stay. And she is doing well in the job, and enjoying it, so maybe it was the best thing for her.

My school is changing though. The changes might be ‘glacial’ but they are happening. We are quietly doing out best to respond to students needs, we are listening to our community. IMHO, our ‘corridor’ are still a little reactive rather than visionary (please don’t fire me…) but there are definitely strategies in place to try and get a culture shift. Teachers have the freedom to try new things. We are slowly breaking down the ‘just’ us barrier that kids put up when they compare us to the ‘town’ schools. We try really hard to meet kids needs, whether that be freshly cooked cheese toasties for breakfast, screaming internally and staying relentlessly positive with that class, or sending a kid into the uni once a week for extension. Watching football in the rain for a kid who told you to ‘get lost’ that day.

In my campaign around getting more equitable access to devices through the TELA laptop scheme (hopefully some of this will come through in feb, and I’m going to keep chipping away) I was horrified to learn than teachers in different schools have such a disparity in their access to tech support device choices, software to install. I am constantly saddened by the ‘tightness’ of our schools PLD budget – hence my passion for free PLD, tweetmeets etc – and wonder how many other thousand teachers are in the same boat as me but don’t know about the free stuff. Or perhaps don’t have the same supportive family set up that I do, so I can spend an hour of twitter instead of reading bed time stories that night. I know not every person has that luxury.

So, as I reflect on those four articles/blogs, and others I have seen recently, I worry for education in New Zealand. So many kids are hungry, cold and sick. Some are parenting younger siblings, some are looking after other family. Some are so anxious about results and their future they can barely think about right now. Many are working long hours in ‘part time’ jobs. Some of them are at my school. I suspect there are many more in many schools around New Zealand.

And so many teachers are leaving. Last year I wrote this blog about some amazing educators flying away from the classroom, and still more have left. I have a constant internal battle about where I could be the most valuable…. in ‘the corridor’ (if I got a job…) I’d have more ‘clout’ so more of my ideas could be implemented, or if I went to work for a PLD provider (if they would have me) I could impact loads of teachers and possibly impact way more more kids. If I worked for the ministry (hahahhahahaahhaaaaa) I could possible change EVERYTHING and then I have weird day dreams about what I would be if I was education minister.

And then I set fire to something in my classroom, or help a kid with something, watch my students participate in global projects, or make slime/sliver mirrors/a robot dance/anything in minecraft, or a thousand little things that make connections and learning and a difference, and I decide to maybe hang around a bit longer 🙂

And be thankful for the people out there, like me, the ‘not so lone nuts’ who are working in ‘normal’ ‘messy’ ‘faultless in spite of all their faults’ schools (I do like me some Jane Austen) and doing their best to quietly change the lives of the students who come into their classroom for the better. Who have a box of muesli bars for hungry kids, or who buy a box of pens for the start of each term, or who pushes their kids to new heights, or who ignores their own kids while driving others around to sports. Who give new things a go, whether on paper, on a computer, in a sports field or in a staff meeting.To all the ‘invisible’ educators, the ‘just a teachers’, I see you, and I thank you for all that you do.

Kia Kaha and keep swimming. We’ve got this.

Posted in random ramblings

Heroic teachers or teacher heroics?

Recently I have been tired. Bone achingly, soul crushingly tired.I feel like the fire has gone from my soul. It is the end of term, I had a 2 day field trip last weekend,  meetings three days after school this week (including friday – who even does that..?),  Parent teacher interviews 2 nights next week plus a whole load of other stuff I should get done. I haven’t finished uploading the #scichatNZ #teachmeet videos, I haven’t finished a scholarship resource I planned to do, and I haven’t marked a level one science test my students did last friday. I’m also really certain I am not the only teacher in the country saying 6 days to go…… and then you see articles like this one saying holidays need to change.

And worst of all I feel like I am letting everyone down. Myself, my students, my schools, my family. The ‘guilt’ is crushing.

A couple of weeks back I had a chance conversation with some-one about my concerns for teacher workload and teacher PLD – how can we make is sustainable and fair and even accessible for everyone. I talked about scichatNZ and why we (Matt Nicoll and company) had started it, and how educamps and teachmeets might help fill that gap. The reply I got was unexpected and thought provoking…. it was something along the lines of

‘this is the problem with the heroic model, people fill gaps so the problem isn’t addressed, and then people burn out’.

Which is exactly what I have found – the team definitely burned out, and me with them. Even trying to be more sustainable this year, it has been a massive struggle to get people involved and contributing.

Having only recently been introduced to the heroic leader model by Welby Ings fabulous book disobedient teaching, I had never considered this to apply to me. I don’t consider myself a hero!! But in the couple of weeks since this conversation, and watching my colleagues crumble into piles of tired, flu filled ‘grump’ I think that perhaps many teachers and schools fit this model to a degree. We are asked to be heroes and champions, we are asked to do the impossible, every year gets more complicated and full, and we just keep doing what we do. And as Welby Ings says of heroic leaders….

In the end they become self defeating because the more heroic they are, the more they increase the gap between dependancy and empowerment.

(Ings, disobedient teaching 2017)

And as David Bowie says – we can be hereos, but just for one day.

So are teachers, by their can do attitude, yes I’ll pick up the slack, yip I’ll bend over backwards, actually causing harm by making the system too reliant on them? Are teachers fixing a problem for a short while, but unintentionally masking the real issues behind them.

So how does this apply to me in the classroom?

I can apply this thought process to my students learning. If I spoon feed them all the answers and don’t provide opportunities for them to fail, then I don’t think they ‘learn’. True, they might be able to repeat back some facts about Chem. But I don’t just want my students to remember Chem, I want them to learn resilience, compassion, empathy. I want them to relate what they are learning about to their lives and the lives of others. I’m struggling with the idea that to teach them these things, I might have to be less compassionate myself. It is a strange saying, sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind. Is it true though?

I recently went a bit ‘ranty’ at my level 3 Chem class because I got a torrid of excuses for not having completed some work and/or bombing in an assessment. ‘I couldn’t find the notes online’. ‘I was doing a different internal’. ‘I didn’t understand it’. Why didn’t you ask I said. Blank stares and I didn’t have time type defensive comments followed. So I told them all if pak n save rang for a reference, I wouldn’t recommend them for the job. They demonstrated they couldn’t follow instructions, avoided a simple task, and then did not take responsibility for not having done said task. If you were an employee and didn’t do something you were asked, and then said you didn’t know how but didn’t ask for help, I’m pretty sure most bosses would be saying see you later. You can imagine the looks and feels I got for that statement 🙂 But as a classroom teacher I do bend over backwards to help my students, I am available via email or text pretty much whenever, I give up noncontacts and after school for tutorials and questions, and I know I am not alone in this. I have heard of teacher picking kids up on weekends to get to a tutorial. I know the harm that this could cause my students – this idea that Mrs Chisnall will come along and save the day, so I don’t need to panic now – does, but I also really really want my kids to achieve success. And my school wants kids to achieve success, and my community wants kids to achieve success. At the end of the day, the credit crunch counts and it is my ‘job’ to get kids over the line.

Another (more heartbreaking and more complex and political ) way I think this can be applied to schools was this article about kids going hungry in the holidays because, in many cases, the food they got at school was the only food they ate all day. I was torn between anger at the fact that kids go hungry at all, frustration that poverty in New Zealand is so real that some families genuinely can not afford to feed their children, and sadness that some parents assume that school will feed their kids, and so don’t think about it when it is holidays. A prime case of dependancy rather than empowerment. Heroic schools and teachers are not just about changing education, we are being (in my opinion) asked to fill the role of parents more and more. That article lead to this blog post about why we still have cracks. So many students are still falling through them, despite all the heroic efforts of classroom teachers, schools and community groups. My school feeds quite a few kids in different ways, and again I have a box of muesli bars in my supermarket trolley each week for just this. Because if kids are in poorer communities, even with their teachers being heroes, they just don’t get them same levels of achievement.


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Image source

And again, there have been an increasing number of articles (here, here,…) about students unable to participate in sports teams and school activities because the cost is out of reach. I’m sure there are others. And it is awesome that the community rallied around these boys so they could get the money, but it does mask the fact that the family is living in poverty. And there are many families like this, who simply can not offer their kids the opportunities they ‘deserve’ because of cost.

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Image source

Recently I had another conversation about what was important in education. And how all the various ‘facets’ involved all probably think they are the only ones doing the right thing. Teachers are accused of moaning about conditions and pay scales – really we don’t care about the kids. Senior leadership in schools care about budgets and stats – really they don’t care about the kids. Board of Trustees care about the schools reputation and ERO reports – really they don’t care about the kids. The Ministry of Education is accused of cutting any and all costs – really they don’t care about the kids. The Ministry of vulnerable children is accused of meaningless paperwork and bureaucracy – really they don’t care about at risk kids in our schools.

But really, EVERYONE on of these departments/agencies/groups cares about the kids. Maybe they are looking through a different lens, but everyone cares. Everyone is being a hero in their own way, and we don’t always work very well together, or even look through the same lens, that often.

And teachers are leaving. Admit it or not, teachers are leaving in the profession. This is an article from 2002, so this is not new news! New teachers don’t stay, teachers are ‘burning’ out, teachers are leaving for overseas or for jobs in educational companies. At times, there have been too many teachers trained and so those teachers can’t get jobs and left. We are training less teachers than we did. Schools are being forced to use distance learning or change their options because teachers can’t be found. The much quoted ‘average’ age of teachers is in the mid to late 50s. Teachers are coming back from retirement to fill gaps (again, teachers stepping up to save the day!) because there are not the graduates coming through in the ‘right’ areas.

So then the really hard question is how to we break out of this heroic model. Because, by being heroic, teachers and schools are possibly limiting the ability of their students and communities to be empowered. By picking up the slack are we masking other issues of dependancy in the community? Are we slowly contributing to the falling status of our profession, and the reporting around teaching in New Zealand would be enough to put most people off opting into teaching as a profession?

By doing our utmost, are we actually doing harm?

It isn’t a nice thought, and it is one I am struggling with. By teachers and schools shouldering these additional burdens, are we doing more harm than good? If we keep saving the day, will the underlying causes never be address? Or is this the way it is now, and the gulf between the haves and the have nots will get wider and wider, and the champions will get fewer and fewer as they burn into cinders and ash.

And then, according to my favourite current heroine, Katniss Everdeen, fire is catching. How do we get those burnt out teachers back to roaring flames? How can we ensure we get new growth?