Are we afraid of connecting?

As my year 12s finished school this year, they gradually found me on Facebook. I’m loving this different way to connect, and the confidence that we will keep in touch. These people have a special place in my heart, as all my students do. Once you’re one of “my kids” it lasts a lifetime.

It’s been interesting connecting with them and flicking back through their timelines, because I have learnt a lot about them that I didn’t know before. I suspect some of them have learnt a lot about me the same way.

For example I now know that one of them plays the piano alarmingly well – and although I had a great relationship with this student, somehow I’d never found that out.

I also know that another is a lot more politically aware than I ever realized – and that our politics are very closely aligned. Think of the conversations we could have had!

I know that still another came from a school just around the corner from my house, and that we have friends in common. Also that he is a loyal and loving friend (which, to be honest, did not come as a surprise).

I know that another is an amazing athlete, has a part time job, and stayed up all night to finish one of my assignments (sorry!).

And one has the most incredible artistic talent – how did I miss that??

I know which ones are in long term relationships, which ones have strong ties with friends from their previous schools, and which ones have pets. I know what music they like, what issues they are passionate about, and what they believe in.

Of course, not everybody posts much on facebook, but for the most part being connected this way has enhanced my understanding of them – and no doubt their understanding of me.

Yet there is an unofficial, unwritten rule that teachers don’t friend students on Facebook. And I can understand why – kids don’t need to see pictures of their teachers getting blind drunk on Saturday night (although really, if that’s what’s going on your Facebook feed then you’ve got some serious questions to ask yourself, teacher or not). But in this increasingly public and online world, not much is private anymore. The chances are that students can find those pics of you if the pics are online, especially if someone else put them there and they’re not careful with their privacy settings.

I also understand that there is concern about blurring the boundaries between teachers and students. That some people feel the more formal, distant relationship maintained by using teacher’s surnames and never seeing them outside the school grounds is an important ingredient in maintaining discipline and avoiding “inappropriate” relationships forming, especially between young teachers and students who may be only a handful of years younger. Yet going on camps inevitably blurs these boundaries anyway – sometimes first names are allowed on camp, casual clothes are worn, and interaction is inevitably more casual and less constrained.

The truth is that we are all going to have to be professional and draw the line at times, whether we are connected on facebook or not. And it’s true that sometimes knowing where the line should be is tricky.

But I do wonder if we are losing opportunities to reach our students, to build meaningful connections and understand them better. Of course I know that sometimes teachers and students cross the boundaries, but I am becoming more and more convinced that in trying to avoid that we have swung far too far in the other direction. We have all but banned touch between teachers and students, and if you are never allowed to pat them on the shoulder, hug them in times of stress, or hold their hands when they are scared, surely touch becomes far more highly charged and problematic when it does happen?

And, as teachers, our duty is to support and nurture our students as much as to educate them, and as social mammals, touch is a crucial part of that.

One of my students was once so overwhelmed by having passed an assignment that she cried out “oh! Can I have a hug???” and I gave her one. Telling this story in the staffroom later got a whole lot of horrified looks. “oh, you took such a risk! I’d never do that!” they said. How tragic it is, and how impoverished our interactions, that this is where we have arrived. In a place where we can’t touch, mustn’t acknowledge each other as human beings with lives outside the classroom, and draw careful boxes around our private lives. We are more concerned with not putting ourselves “at risk” of an accusation than with the emotional needs of our students.

Similarly never interacting outside school, never recognising that we are multi-dimensional human beings, not simply students and teachers, might actually create an unrealistic portrait-style image of each other that intensifies the risk of unrealistic and inappropriate relationships.

I think these nice safe lines that we are drawing are far outside the range of what’s reasonable. I think that in protecting ourselves we might just be leaving our teaching impoverished.  As one of my former students said to me last night (on facebook, as it happens): “But to be honest, I reckon I’d be way more likely to pay more attention in class and have a better attitude to learning if I had a better relationship with my teachers.”

I’m really not sure. Social media is a whole new minefield that we, as a society, have yet to really understand, for all we have dived into it headfirst. We don’t actually know which way these connections might lead us, so maybe it’s sensible to plump for the most conservative option.

So what do you think? Have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater here? Are we protecting our kids, or are we actually depriving them of meaningful connections with their teachers?

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What is the most important thing you will do today?

What is the most important thing your daughter will do today? What do you want her to believe is the thing people will judge her on? Because, as a society, even here in 2014, we are still teaching our daughters that the most important thing about them today is the way they look.

“Oh!” you scoff, “surely you exaggerate!”

But let me ask you this: If you are female, how much time do you spend on grooming in the morning? Are you careful to ensure that your handbag matches your shoes, and that they both match the rest of your outfit? Do you always put on makeup before you show your face in public? Do you ever ask “Does my butt/tummy/body part of choice look big in this?”

Do you ever say “that dress makes me look fat” or “gosh, she shouldn’t wear that, it makes her look old/fat/short/tall/flushed/pale”? Do you obsess over whether your hair is frizzy/curly/straight and spend hours with a straightening wand/curling iron/leave-in conditioner and a hair dryer?

What do you think this says to your daughters?

Some time ago I was chatting with a bright, talented young honours student. She was about to deliver her honours talk, summarizing a year’s amazing research. Do you know what was worrying her most? She had a pimple on her nose. What would people think?? Never mind the quality of her research, it was her appearance that she was convinced people would care about, and remember. I never, ever, heard a male honours student fret about his looks before his honours talk.

But who can blame her? Our first ever female prime minister endured regular commentary on her dress sense and hairstyle. Yet, apart from the occasional justifiable shudder of horror over the budgie smugglers, our current PM’s dress sense rarely rates a mention.

Karl Stefanovic recently wore the same suit on TV every day for a year. Do you know how many people noticed? None. Until he started to make noise about it to make a point, bless his smelly jacket. Imagine if his female co-host had worn the same outfit every day for a year. The screaming! Actually there’s no way it would have lasted a year, it would almost certainly have cost her her job inside a week.

Yet the screaming and the clothing critique is largely a female phenomenon. It’s not men imposing this on us. It’s not men saying “hey, aren’t you going to hide your face before you go out?” (Except possibly in the media.)

This is only the norm because we make it so. We say “I have to put on my makeup before I go out.” Newsflash: you don’t. I haven’t put on makeup in 15 years, and I make it out the door just fine.

We say “I can’t wear that, it makes my tummy look huge.” and our daughters hear “Big tummies are shameful. We have to be careful of how we look.”

We say “I have to go to the beautician, my legs are hairy” and our daughters hear “Hairy legs are shameful. We have to be careful of how we look.”

We say “Hang on a minute, I have to put on my makeup before we can go” and our daughters hear “Our faces are shameful. We have to be careful of how we look.”

Pretty soon our girls are obsessing over their weight, their pimples, and their hair, and we wonder why. After all, don’t we tell them they’re beautiful? Well yes, we do, but what we show them, is that beautiful is a perfectly made up face, a meticulously composed ensemble, and matching shoes. What we show them is that this stuff matters. That when they leave the house tomorrow what they will be judged on is not the quality of their work, their kindness and compassion, or whether they leave the world a better place, but whether their makeup cracked or their hair frizzed in the rain. Oh, and whether their clothes are so last season.

What we show them is that appearance is all important. That we must always be careful of how we look before we show our makeup (and never our faces) in public, because we will be judged by that more than anything else.

But you know what? We don’t have to be careful about how we look. Sure, it’s lovely to wear nice clothes and to feel like we look good. But it doesn’t matter. We don’t have to spend hours applying makeup and styling our hair before we leave the house. If you don’t believe me, ask Tracey Spicer. She has cut down her grooming time by an hour a day (AN HOUR! PER DAY! I haven’t got the patience to spend that long on my looks”). And you know what? Nobody died. These things only matter to us because we let them.

We shouldn’t be judging ourselves, or anybody else, by how well our earrings match our designer dresses. And we shouldn’t be teaching our daughters to, either.

 

Newsworthy

My kids keep coming home from school with the recommendation that we extend their reading by making sure they read newspapers, and that they keep up with current events by watching the news. I certainly believe they should know what’s going on in the world. We talk about current events around the dinner table all the time, and they are well aware that I have strong political views. They have some pretty strong views of their own. But I will never agree that kids watching the news is a good idea. Even I don’t watch the news. Instead I pick and choose very carefully the news I read online.

We have this vague idea that “news” is a public service. That it is designed to inform us, educate us, and keep us up to date with what’s going on in the world. But it’s not. It’s not a public good. For all a strong democracy needs a well informed population, “news” is increasingly not serving that function. We need to keep firmly in mind the actual purpose of news: to make money. To sell newspapers, to sell advertising spots, to make money for its owners. That is the purpose of news. There is no other. Even the government broadcasters design their news to lift ratings and thus justify their own existence, and they have to match the commercial networks pretty closely to manage that.

I have no deep philosophical objection to making money. That’s not the problem. The problem is that to garner page hits, ratings, and market share, news has to be the stuff that attracts attention. So a quick look at the front page of a commercial news site will reveal: details of a horrendous murder (overseas), details of a horrendous rape, a heroic rescue from a warzone (overseas), speculation about Schapelle Corby’s boyfriend, criticism of a model for being too thin/fat/attractive/unattractive, a famous person’s suicide (which happened months ago, but details of which are on the front page almost every day), and fashion tips about what you absolutely must do.

Go look at the front page of any online news service. True, I picked a Murdoch paper for the above summary, which is, perhaps, a little unfair. But go look at the ABC site and ask yourself which of those stories my kids “need to know” in order to understand the world.

“No shirt fronting as Abbott talks MH17 with Putin.”

“China unveils sophisticated stealth fighter aircraft.”

“Authorities investigate travel company accused of rip-off.”

“Voters want right to recall poor performing MPs, survey says.”

“New York doctor now free of Ebola discharged from hospital.”

(top 5 headlines from the ABC site this morning)

Young people (and the rest of us!) suffer from increasing levels of stress, depression, and even anxiety disorders. They need to come to grips with the world around them, and develop coping strategies for the realities of life. But these are not the realities of life, they are ratings grabbing manufactured dramas. They are not events around them. They do not include vital knowledge about ways the world around them is changing. They do, however, include a lot of things to get anxious about. A lot of ways to misinterpret the world. A lot of ways to raise their stress levels and make them feel like the world is out of control. A murder that is sufficiently grisly will get airtime around the world for months after the event, and then again when the murderer comes to trial. Celebrities get airtime constantly. But this is not “current events”. This is saleable gossip.

Sure, we might talk about some of these things around the dinner table, but not in headlines. Not with sensational trauma stories designed to get ratings, but with reference to justice and compassion, in ways we believe our kids are old enough to understand.

And it’s not only the killings that we don’t want our kids to see. It’s the twitter attacks, the abuse of public figures because of the way they dress, and the obsession with Kim Kardashian. None of this is healthy. None of this is in the public interest. As far as I can tell the messages are: “The world is a terrifying and dangerous place, your body is both public property and the wrong shape, and celebrity equals importance.” None of this is stuff our kids need to have shoved down their throats 24/7. Certainly they will need to learn how the world “works”, but not at 7, not even at 11, do they need to hear these relentlessly negative messages, when they are so ill-equipped to process them.

When I watch the news I get increasingly alienated and depressed. I hate to think what it would do to an impressionable, compassionate 11 or 7 year old.

 

Nothing is really disposable

My ride to work route goes through several industrial estates, past a McDonalds, and alongside a university. Naturally the roads, footpaths, and bushes in the area are clogged with an inordinate amount of rubbish. Over the last four years it has amazed me how I can pass the same rubbish week in, week out, and it never moves until there is a big storm at which point it is magically whisked away, out of sight, out of mind, to be replaced a new crop of flotsam from somewhere upwind.

Last week I finally got around to buying myself a long “claw on a stick” device that means I can pick up rubbish without getting on and off my bike, having to bend down, or getting my hands grubby. I take a shopping bag with me, fill it up with rubbish, then empty it into a bin when I get to the end of my ride.

Today's haul included a balloon on ribbon, several lengths of polystyrene, juice boxes, plastic water bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups, and straws.
Today’s haul included a balloon on ribbon, several lengths of polystyrene, juice boxes, plastic water bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups, and straws.

Taking an extra 5 minutes to get to work gave me time to pack a standard plastic shopping bag with rubbish. On the way home I did that again, and this time also picked up a huge length of pink plastic bubble wrap that has been sitting in the bushes for weeks.

I like to think that this will make a difference – there are a lot of plastic cups, plastic bags, straws, and juice boxes that won’t wind up in Port Phillip Bay because of me. There was quite a lot of polystyrene (where does it all come from?) which breaks down into little white balls that look just like fish food in the water, and it’s now safely in bins because I took those 10 extra minutes out of my day.

But in practice I will still look at those spaces and be appalled by how much rubbish there is there. I can’t pick it all up, even over time, as it accumulates faster than I can pick it up. So I started pondering how we could stop it – maybe make McDonalds responsible for all of their rubbish? Make them pay to send cleaners out and pick up every item of branded trash within a 5km radius?

Make businesses responsible for the roadside rubbish outside their premises? What about the parkland? Who is responsible for that? Pay people for the rubbish they turn in? Container deposit schemes for plastic bottles? What about the lids on coffee cups?

Until it finally dawned on me that this was very much post-horse-bolting thinking. Picking up the rubbish is not the point. Stopping it being dropped is not even the point. The point is that we can’t afford to continue generating rubbish. We really can’t. We need to come to grips with the idea that there truly is nothing disposable. Rubbish persists, whether it’s in the streets, floating in the bay, or in landfill. It takes energy to create it, to transport it, and to trash it, and it still remains, a toxic blight on our landscape.

There are so many ways to avoid rubbish – keeping a water bottle with you for refilling, having a keep cup for your coffee, buying fresh, unpackaged food – yet most of them require effort. And goodness knows we’re all busy, exhausted, and stretched to our limits. But until we recognise that “disposable” is a myth, we’ll go on making the wrong choices every day, piling our earth high with rubbish that none of us wants in our garden.

These days everything is temporary. Hole in your jacket? Chuck it. Phone a couple of years old? Toss it, it’s obsolete. Ipad not the latest model? Upgrade! Microwave door broken? Get a new one! (microwave, not door)

We don’t repair things anymore. We are ashamed of things that are old, not the latest model. We have to have TODAY’s fashion in devices, clothes, and cars. But in the long term? This is just not going to work. We are going to be outnumbered, out-massed, and outlived by our own rubbish. What an epitaph.

Hands off Point Nepean

Have you ever gazed out over a pristine beach and felt both awed and calmed by its beauty?

Beach scene

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a forest, breathing in a sense of peace?

Have you ever wondered what it is about natural places that causes them to speak to us in this profound way? That changes us every time we interact with them? That draws us in and gives us a sense of connectedness and belonging?

These are the reasons we preserve these magical places in National Parks. According to the Australian government:

“National parks are usually large areas of land that are protected because they have unspoilt landscapes and a diverse number of native plants and animals. This means that commercial activities such as farming are prohibited and human activity is strictly monitored.

Like zoos, national parks have several purposes. The foremost of these is to protect native flora and fauna. But national parks are also there so Australians and foreign visitors can enjoy and learn about our unique environment, heritage and culture.”

Unfortunately somebody will need to update this – it is becoming increasingly clear that national parks are now nothing more than commercial opportunities. After all, we wouldn’t want our forests “locked up”, would we, Mr Abbott? The Federal government plans to put a coal port slap bang in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef – not merely a national park, but a world heritage area. An irreplaceable treasure.

And now the Victorian government plans to excise a huge chunk of the Point Nepean National Park for commercial development.

Pt Nepean was declared a National Park in 2009, after years of vigorous campaigning by the local community.

Beach at the Quarantine Station, Pt Nepean National Park
Beach at the Quarantine Station, Pt Nepean National Park

Understandably, they believed this meant that the park was now protected, open to the public for ever more, to be preserved and maintained as a national treasure.  Point Nepean includes the old Quarantine Station, and if you have never visited, I urge you to make the time to go while you still can, because it is an amazing site – a wonderful combination of stunning scenery and the incredibly moving stories of those early settlers, brought off ships and housed in quarantine on this wild and remote patch of coast.

See it while you can, because if the State government has its way it will be rezoned, stripped of its environmental and heritage protections, and access restricted to wealthy clients of the “Wellness Centre” and “Geothermal Spa”. Of course, there is no geothermal spa at the site, but it’s only a matter of drilling around one kilometre into the earth, and with any luck they will find some nice hotsprings to bring to the surface – without damaging the surrounding bushland, you understand, because of course drilling one kilometre (one thousand metres! Can they really be serious?) into the earth is so easy to do in a non-disruptive, non-destructive fashion.

The proposed development includes a jetty designed to allow easy access for speedboats coming from around the bay. Which sounds all very fine until you realise that the jetty would be right in the middle of an integral section of Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park, and a known dolphin nursery. According to Parks Victoria, the thinking behind the park is this:

“By keeping some of these marine areas in a natural state, free from potentially damaging human activities, we will protect these environments into the future. Victorians will also benefit from the positive effects that this protection will have on recreation and tourism, community education and scientific research.”

Which seems rather at odds with a high-traffic jetty encouraging speed boats and jet skis through an already fragile area. The development is being fast tracked and deliberately placed outside normal planning controls and public scrutiny, which is always a red flag. If it is truly of benefit to the community why try to hide it, and avoid public discussion and debate?

I often think that the measure of a truly civilized society is the value it places on intangible things that don’t fit in traditional economic models. On community, on nature, on sustainability, on relationships.  On things we can’t easily label with a price tag. Our relationships with these wild places are irreplaceable. As we break down our connection with the natural world and base our lifestyles on foundations of ipads and concrete, we lose a vital part of ourselves.

I often walk on the beach at Pt Nepean, and I frequently see dolphins playing in the shallows. My family and I pick up rubbish along the beach, most of it washed up from other areas of the bay. When I told my girls, aged 11 and 7, that there was a big development proposed for the area, they were horrified. “There’s too much rubbish there already!” they cried. Sums it up, really.

PS. If you want to protect our history and our national parks, you can contact your member of Parliament and urge them to act.