Why I’m writing reports

Victorian teachers are currently implementing work bans, protesting against the state government’s failure to negotiate a reasonable deal. They want to increase our workload and in real terms decrease our pay, and they don’t seem to be able to understand why we’re not thrilled with this as a negotiation position. They appear to be playing hardball, coming back at us with the same proposal, never moving an inch. We’ve been on strike and got nowhere, so now the union has implemented a ban on report writing.

Report writing is a painful, time consuming process, and the bans are intended to highlight the countless hours we work over and above the time we are paid for. I have supported the strikes, and I intended to support the report writing ban too. There is also a “work to rule” ban for next year that will see teachers working only the hours we are paid for – which will bring the education system to its knees in short order, as it’s simply not possible to teach effectively in a 38 hour week, given our high teaching loads.

I wholeheartedly support my colleagues who are not writing reports, but after much soul searching I have decided I can’t join them. I know that standing together makes the action more effective. Goodness knows I want to see progress on this ridiculous, juvenile stalemate (can someone please teach the government the meaning of “negotiation”, “compromise”, or indeed “promise”?). Above all I want to see teachers get the respect and recognition that we deserve for the crucial job that we do with passion and commitment, and the government’s rhetoric on our performance and our productivity is not a step forward, to put it mildly.

But. (There’s always a but.) I made the move to teaching because I am passionate about these kids and their futures. I am making a difference, and I am so proud of what I do each and every day. My students worked so hard this semester, and so many of them achieved spectacular things. Reports are their only chance to have these efforts formally recognized. In the end I could not leave them without this enduring record of their work. I owe it to them, and to the bond we formed throughout the year, to give them this personal recognition.

For similar reasons I will not be implementing the 38 hour working week next year. I can’t teach properly that way, and coming to work and doing half a job will make me unutterably miserable. I love my job and I adore my students. I want to do the best by them every day. That’s why I’m in teaching.

That, of course, is what the government is counting on. Teachers who are committed to their jobs and passionate about what they do are so easy to exploit. That’s why I support my colleagues in their ongoing bans. That’s also why I’m a member of the union – because we need a collective voice to negotiate for those of us who find it hard to negotiate for ourselves. I know that these bans are in the best interests of the school system, and hence the students, in the long run. I know that the Government needs to be forced to recognize how hard we work, and the value of what we do.

As I worked myself half to death writing my reports this week I cursed my decision repeatedly, but I didn’t question it. Ultimately I have to be true to my conscience, to my beliefs, and to my vocation. So my students will get reports from me, with personal comments about their particular strengths and weaknesses, and recognition of how hard they worked. I hope they appreciate it!

PS if you are unhappy with the report writing ban, tell Ted Bailieu to negotiate in good faith and resolve the dispute.

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What do teenagers know about love?

I mean, really, what do teenagers know about love??

I was amazed to hear a man in his 30s ask this question recently, in a most dismissive tone. It was pretty clear that he thought teenagers were entirely ignorant on the subject of love, and thus should not attempt to be heard on the topic.

The wild inaccuracy of the assumption took my breath away.

We are born knowing about love. Watch a baby look into its parents’ eyes, and you will read everything that was ever written about love. To see a heartbroken 9 year old girl when her best friend moves away is to sample the eloquence of Shakespeare at his most tragic.

Kids know everything there is to know about love. Teenagers feel with an intensity that is both thrilling and a little terrifying to an onlooker. A broken heart at 15 is no less shattering and formative than at 35. What we learn as we age is not how to love, but how to recover from loss (if we ever learn that at all).

Experience teaches us more ways to be hurt, and how to recover. It teaches us how best to express our love, and how to care for others. It may even teach us how to recognize love, but it does not teach us how to love.

Psychologists used to believe in the tabula rasa – the blank slate. That children were born empty, without feelings or personality. Doctors used to operate on newborns without anaesthetic, utterly convinced that babies did not feel. The sheer breathtaking horror of such stupidity is hard to fathom.

We now know that babies recognise their parents’ voices in the womb. Their distinct personalities make themselves felt from before birth. They know who they are – they are simply limited in the ways they can show us their true selves. Nonetheless they are eloquent and expressive to those prepared to look. I watched a baby today playing a tickle game with an adult. She proffered her foot, snatched it away when the tickling got too much, and then proffered it again. When she tired of the game she grabbed a foot in either hand and clutched them to her chest, saying wordlessly, but nonetheless incredibly clearly “MINE!”

You don’t need a gameboy to tell you when it’s game over.

Babies love with every fibre of their beings. Teenagers do, too. It’s as we age that we become scarred, and if we are unlucky we learn to keep a part of ourselves separate and “safe”, closing ourselves off from the ability to give our whole heart to another.

It’s possible that teenagers know more about love than we do.

Oddly touching

I recently had the privilege of traveling with two students from my school. We went to Salt Lake City for a Supercomputing conference. It was a fabulous experience. Because one of the students was a girl, it had to be a female teacher who went with them. I shouldn’t complain about this – it meant that I scored an intensely stimulating and rewarding trip in the company of two fantastic students.

And yet… The implicit assumption in that rule really bothers me. Male teachers can’t travel with female students – who knows what might happen? But female teachers can travel with male students.  No problem there.

Every man is a potential sexual predator. Every woman is a potential victim.

There’s something wrong with this picture.

We don’t trust anymore. I know that bad stuff happens. There are stories of abuse everywhere. But our perception of risk has become horribly skewed. Horrifying stories sell newspapers, so the newspapers are full of trauma every day. They repeat the trauma ad nauseam – one dreadful story will appear several times a day for weeks on end, to make sure it is burned into our brains. BAD STUFF IS HAPPENING. MORE BAD STUFF IS HAPPENING. BE AFRAID. THE WORLD IS A SCARY PLACE WHERE PEOPLE WANT TO HURT YOU.

Many of the stories screaming out in headlines in our newspapers happened overseas. And the ones that do happen here are so rare that we have to hear the details of them over and over again, just to ramp up the fear and paranoia.

You know what? The majority of people don’t want to hurt you. They’re just getting on with their lives. I’m all for sensible precautions, but when we start treating every man as a predator, I think we are harming the very young people we are trying to protect. We are teaching them not to trust people, especially men. We are depriving them of touch – because goodness knows if I touch one of my students something catastrophic is bound to happen.

I have only been teaching in a high school for two years, but already I have experienced many encounters with distressed students. Many times I have comforted them with touch – anything from a hand on the shoulder to my hand covering theirs. Touch releases oxytocin, which is calming and promotes trust. It is the simplest and most effective way of dealing with distress. It also strengthens the relationship between teacher and student.

Yet if I were a man, I would hesitate to touch a student – in distress or otherwise – given the climate of fear and mistrust we have created around both men and touch. Anything more than a hearty slap on the back would be taking a risk – with my career, my reputation, and my future.

I work with some of the finest men I have ever known. They are wonderful, caring, dedicated people. I would trust them with my life. Yet the system is telling me I can’t trust them with my children.

Imagine you were 15 and in distress. Wouldn’t you want someone to hold your hand and talk you through it? Shouldn’t we be teaching our young people healthy ways of interacting with both teachers and peers? Of course some forms of touch are not ok, but it seems as though we have swung much too far the other way and rejected touch altogether.

That feels like a big mistake.

A yoga buffet

“Remember,” said Roman, “this is a yoga buffet. You can pick and choose. You don’t have to eat your weight in yoga.”

This is Roman’s way of reminding us that we don’t have to do every posture to the absolute limit every day. Every Saturday he is careful to tell us to do “what feels right for your body today,” rather than try to hit some arbitrary target.

I generally work best with deadlines, targets and goals. A vague “do as much as you feel up to today” tends to make me a little bit twitchy. It feels like a license to slack off, and I am the All or Nothing kid. But it dawned on me today that perhaps I have met my toughest challenge yet. Perhaps it’s time to master the things that really don’t come naturally to people in my family. So I’m making a list  (but I’m not going to check it twice, because that would be rather missing the point).

Number 1: Know my limits.

Definitely one of my weakest skills, this will be a tough one. Knowing where my limits are and stopping just short of them will leave me with more energy in the long run. Or so the theory goes. This feels a bit like something Piet Hein once wrote:

“There’s an art to knowing when. Never try to guess. Toast until it smokes and then twenty seconds less.”

I’m going to try not to get to the smoking stage. After all, smoking kills.

Number 2: Remember to breathe.

This is something my friends and family have been working on with me for many years, and a talent I haven’t really mastered yet. I tend to get carried away, focused on that distant and elusive target, and I wind up running just to stay upright. Stopping to breathe and watch the sunset is an important skill.

Number 3: Focus on the positive.

It’s a recurring theme on this blog that I tend to get caught up in the targets I don’t quite reach. It doesn’t matter how many goals you kick if you can only think about the one that bounced off the goal posts. (Look! A football metaphor! Can I claim to be a real Aussie now?? Just don’t ask me which team I go for…) I need to remind myself of my successes on a regular basis.

Number 4: There’s always tomorrow.

It’s really easy to get caught up in an artificial sense of urgency. This has to be done before I go away (even though I’m only going for a week). That’s got to happen before Christmas (even though it has nothing to do with Christmas at all). The other needs to get sorted straight away (but only because there are bees in my bonnet and bats in my belfry).

Sometimes I think our sense of importance gets coupled to our sense of urgency – if we are always in a big rush, we must be very important. But things can be important but not urgent, and they can even seem urgent without being important at all. Most of the time no-one will die if something gets sorted tomorrow, or even next week, rather than today.

Life is a buffet. We don’t have to eat it until we are sick. We have time, choices, and ups and downs. I might have been able to do push ups yesterday, but have to settle for kneeling pushups today. Listening to my body and doing what’s right for me here and now may be the highest metaphor I have ever scaled. But I’m betting the view from the top will be worth it.

A studied response

Today I finished my teaching qualification. Doing the Career Change thing, I was able to work part time, study part time, and feel human… well… occasionally. I’ve been very lucky – I’ve had paid study leave and a fantastic work environment. Given my higher education background, the research requirements of the course were not too taxing, and being a writer meant completing the written work was relatively quick for me.

(You know there’s a “but” coming, don’t you? Saw it coming a mile off. Sorry. I’m predictable.)

But… Studying while working is tough. Studying while working at a job like teaching, that happily fills all your spare time and overflows into your eating and sleeping space if you don’t watch it like a particularly paranoid hawk: It’s a challenge.

Studying while parenting? That’s tough too, even if, like me, you are fortunate enough to co-parent with the world’s greatest Dad (I will accept that it could be a shared title, but it is quite certain that none surpass him).

Studying, teaching and parenting – no-one would be that crazy, I’m sure.

Studying, teaching, parenting, and coping with random trauma that seems to hunt in large and vicious packs? Forget it.

But I survived.  And even though I didn’t think the study was a huge weight on my shoulders, I find myself standing straighter, walking taller and generally feeling greatly relieved to have it all out of the way.

Last night some of my fellow career changers met for dinner to celebrate the end of the course, and I dearly wanted to be there. But as with so many things over the past year, I had to invoke the CBE award: Can’t Be Everywhere. I have a dangerous tendency to try to be everywhere, do everything, and help everyone. It can’t be done, of course, and trying tends to lead to implosions of the sort that cause way more trouble than I was trying to fix in the first place.

Just to keep my head above water, sleep and family have to be my priorities. I am so lucky to have supportive friends and an amazing workplace that have kept picking me up, dusting me off and reminding me why the heck I keep doing this to myself over the last two years.

My mentor, ever handy with the frying pan of perspective, has received many a frantic late night email and repeatedly prevented me from doing anything overly crazy, using alternate hugs and (mental) slaps to keep me in line. My friends have weathered my crises, provided coffee, cake, and chocolate where necessary, and generally made it possible for me to remain (mostly) upright.

My kids have coped with the words “Not now, I’m busy” on seemingly endless repeat. My husband has borne the brunt of… well, of everything, really, with grace and good humour.

2012 has been brutal, but I have decided not to wait until 2013. My new year starts here and now, as I say farewell to study but never to learning. I have been getting feedback from my year 12s that is intoxicating in its appreciative encouragement. I must have been doing something right! I’m going to take that feedback and make it the foundation of my new year.

So Happy New Year to you. May it be full of contentment, fulfilment, and hugs.