Ask me no questions

One of the first things I do in my new classes each year is ask them if they trust me. If they believe me. They are lovely, polite kids, and they usually say yes. And I tell them not to. I tell them to question me. I tell them I can be wrong, misguided, or foolish.

I tell them that if I say something that doesn’t sound right to them they should call me on it. That if they’re not convinced by what I say they should ask for proof. And seek proof – or proof to the contrary – for themselves. The best classes happen when I am forced to reconsider some dogmatic statement. When someone proves something can be done that I said was impossible. Or when someone comes up with evidence that shows I am wrong. I love that. And I reward it.

I’ve known teachers who weren’t up for that. Who consider themselves autocratic, godlike figures who hold truth and wisdom in their own hands. Who take a challenge to their words as a sword to their heart, and must crush dissent with chilling ferocity, simply to protect themselves and their power.

But with everything that is happening in politics today – both in Australia and abroad – I have come to realise that there is nothing more important that I can teach my students than to question. To ask for proof. And to dissect that proof meticulously.

The people who will hold the line against evil, who will challenge accepted “wisdom”, and who will ultimately change the world, are the people who ask questions. The questions that no-one else is asking. The questions that we are told are unacceptable. The questions that other people don’t want to hear.

Those are the questions that need to be asked most of all. Those are the questions that will save lives. That will hold the line of compassion, of reason, and of justice.

If you have students, teach them to challenge you. If you have children, make sure they know that no-one – not even you – is inviolate. That no-one is perfect. That asking questions can be a difficult, even dangerous road at times, but that there is nothing more important for our growth – for our survival – than this.

I’ve worried about how to respond to what’s happening in the world, but it has become ever clearer that it is our immense gullibility that is the greatest threat. My work year starts today, and this has to be at the forefront of everything I do. The truth may be out there, but we won’t find it without asking a lot of tough questions.

Ask me no questions, and you will believe all my lies.

 

 

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Failing to succeed

It’s nearly that time of year again, when year 12 results come out (or have already come out, or came out and went back in again, if you got caught up in the glitch!). As usual there’s a lot of talk of of defining moments. Of deciding your fate. Of doors opening or slamming in your face, depending on the outcome.

Earlier this year in a school assembly, I was inspired to out myself. Here I am, passionate (verging on obsessive) Computer Science teacher, researcher, and writer. Absolutely where I want to be, doing what I love, and feeling as though I can make a difference. There is nowhere I would rather be.

But my first preference was medicine.

So was my second.

I didn’t get in.

I failed.

Oh, I didn’t fail my VCE, but I failed to get the score I needed to do medicine.

A better thing could not have happened to me. I drifted into a science degree intending, in a vague and fairly uninspired way, to study Genetics. I took Computer Science as a fill in subject because I had always liked machines that go “Bing!”

By third year I was studying nothing but Computer Science. I was never going to do honours. Certainly never going to do a PhD, and no way would I ever become a lecturer. All of these things inevitably came to pass. Quite quickly, really.

I suck at predicting my future.

I’ve always been faintly astounded by people who have 5 year plans and the like. My planning mostly consists of noticing an open door and flinging myself through it.

Occasionally I have to dynamite the door to make sure it’s open.

The point is that I thought I knew what I wanted, but not getting it turned out to be the best thing that could possibly have happened. It took a while, but now I am right where I want to be, doing something I love with a slightly obsessive passion (I may be lying about the slightly part). I’ve taken a strange and winding path to get here, but every step of that road helped to give me skills and attributes I would not have had any other way. I doubt I would be this happy, or this useful if I hadn’t failed to get into medicine.

Tonight my year 12s graduate at our school’s presentation night. (I know, I don’t teach year 12, but they are still MY YEAR 12s. Hush.) It will be a minor miracle if I don’t cry, because every single one of them has performed amazing feats just to get where they are.

So if you’re waiting on your final school results, remember this: there is nothing defining about these numbers. You are so much more than a number could ever express. Whatever happens, your future is in your hands, and you have extraordinary potential. Go get ’em, Tiger.

Every single valedictory

Monday marks my sixth valedictory dinner. The sixth class of year twelves who will take a piece of my heart with them as they fly free into their amazing futures.

For my first valedictory dinner as a High School teacher I sang in a choir of people who felt more like friends than students. I couldn’t wrap my head around saying goodbye to them, even as I dwelt on their extraordinary potential.

It was impossible to imagine feeling that way about another class. They taught me everything about becoming a teacher, a huge amount about being human, and quite a lot about computer science – PhD or no.

Yet every year a new class enmeshes itself in my heart – winning my admiration, my trust, and my affection. I know teachers are supposed to be dispassionate – calmly objective observers of studentkind – but I can’t operate that way. Each new class has a claim on my heart like no other.

I don’t teach year twelve classes, but my year elevens are profoundly special to me, and I love seeing them around the corridors once they move on into year twelve, and finding out what they are up to. I always get teary when they leave. With any luck next year I will see them around Facebook, or when they come back and visit, so that I don’t really have to say goodbye.

Last year’s year elevens taught and challenged me in a host of new ways. They took on extraordinary challenges and produced amazing results. From the ones who were outspoken and passionate during class discussions to the ones who sat quietly, and when pressed would add just one well chosen but deeply insightful comment that sealed the debate.

From the ones who had been programming for years and took on the craziest problems, to the ones meeting programming for the first time who came away with astounding skills. Not to mention the one who wasn’t actually in the class but aced it anyway.

From the shy ones to the ones who are still seeking me out to talk to me about their projects. From start to finish, pass to high distinction, these are my people.

We shared insights into the nature of intelligence, and the need for privacy. We solved problems and questioned orthodoxy. We evaluated some amazingly unusable websites, and learnt new approaches to user centered design. We tackled real problems in computational science with some very bizarre data sets. And we gave variables some truly inexplicable names.

We stretched and challenged each other, and we laughed quite a lot. We searched, sorted, and danced our way through Computer Science and out into a wider understanding of ourselves, computation, science, and the world.

In just a few short days they will be done with school, and face the relentless barrage of those daunting exams, but whatever the outcome each and every one of them is a searingly bright star in the firmament of the world. Each and every one of them will light up the world in their own unique way.

Some of them will no doubt go on into Computer Science, and some won’t. But if they learnt as much from me as I learnt from them, they’ll have a great foundation for whatever they choose to do.

 

 

Teaching myself not to burn

Tomorrow I start work at 8:20am, teach solidly all day, including over lunchtime, hurtle home from work to pick up my kids, drop one to drama, scoff some dinner and then hurtle back for parent student teacher conferences until 9pm. Being part-time my interviews only run from 5:45 until 9, over which time I will conduct 30 interviews with students and their families. I will likely finish later than 9 – oddly enough,5 minutes is just too short for some conversations – at which point I get to stagger out to my car and try very hard not to crash it on the way home. We are two days away from the end of a term that has been, for various reasons, one of the hardest in my teaching career.

The thing is, I think I have said that about every term since I started – except for the first couple which were, since my teaching career was at that point quite short, the hardest in my life. I don’t remember a term where I finished bright-eyed, bush tailed, and full of energy and ideas for the next term.

And it’s probably true that every new teacher reaches the point where they realise that they simply do not have the resources, either within themselves or within their school, to teach the way they would really like to. There is not time to prepare. There is not funding for resources. We don’t have the time or the energy to give the care and attention to every individual student that they need and deserve.

It is true that I am absurdly passionate about my job. I give it everything I have, which is probably unwise. My boss last year described teaching as akin to fly-in-fly-out work – we work chaotically hard for 10 weeks, and then collapse for two weeks and do it all again. It’s not a healthy work model.

At some point it becomes necessary to pull back and rationalise resources. To slow down. To say no to some opportunities, even though you would love to make them happen for your students, because it would take more than you have to give.

And that’s terribly easy advice to give, but remarkably difficult to apply. “How much is too much?” is a question akin to Piet Hein’s famous grook:

There’s an art of knowing when,
never try to guess.
Toast until it smokes and then
twenty seconds less.

I think last year I toasted until I smoked. And I’m still wandering round dazed and rather singed. I’m trying very hard to adhere to the “20 seconds less” this year, but unfortunately it’s a measure that tends to only become obvious as the smell of smoke fills your nostrils.

This, sadly, is the school model we have built. We are burning our teachers. And every year the government demands productivity improvements in exchange for wage rises. And that sounds great. I’d like to see some productivity improvements. I’d like to see less teachers burnt out. I’d like to see less kids fall through the cracks because their teachers are simply too overworked to see them clearly. I’d like to see teachers ending the term with the energy to plan for the next one.

I’d like to feel as though I have the time to do my job properly, rather than having to settle for second best because it’s all I can manage. The system is so broken that I’m not sure I’m making a difference anymore. I’m ending the term in pieces – again – and I still have tomorrow’s insanity to go. Tell me again how I can be more productive?

Work-work balance

Anyone who knows me, reads this blog, or makes the mistake of asking me what I do for a living knows that I love my job. I will rave about it endlessly at the slightest opportunity. To be frank, I’ll rave about it even if the opportunity is not presented. I sometimes think I need to wear a warning label when I meet new people. “Caution: do not get me talking about teaching. I never stop. Back away. Don’t make eye contact. Sorry.”

I am aware of the concept of work-life balance, in much the same way as fish are aware of hats. They might know hats exist, but they don’t see the personal relevance.

I am technically half time, but for the last 5 years of my career – my first time teaching in a High School instead of a University – I have used my days off as time for meetings, lesson planning, marking, and creating bold new units that have never been taught before. Chatting with an academic recently about a new Data Science unit I’m planning, he commented that it was fairly ground breaking teaching that sort of stuff at undergraduate level. Teaching it at High School is entirely terra nova. Which is fine, because everything I’ve done so far at my school is terra nova.

And I love that. I really do. It’s thrilling for me, interesting for my students, and a massive sea of opportunities open to us all. It’s a really wild ride. But it takes time, and vast reserves of energy. I could not do so much innovative stuff if I were full time, and even part time I find I am pushing myself to the limit and beyond far too much of the time. I end each term exhausted to the point of illness. I end the year with absolutely nothing in reserve, and deep in energy debt. And I’m not alone in that – I see it all around me in the staff room every December.

I’m becoming aware that I can’t keep working this way. It’s sheer delight having a job that I want to really throw myself into. But I can’t keep flinging myself at it so hard that I smash when I hit the end of term wall. It’s not good for me, and it’s incredibly tough on my family. When I pick my kids up from school I need some energy left for them, and all too often that’s just more than I can manage.

It’s simple enough to plan boundaries and specify ground rules, but they crumple in the face of opportunities. I just can’t say no. If there’s an opportunity for my students I’ll take it, without stopping to think about whether I have time. If a student needs extra help I’ll give it, and around yard duties and only being at school half the time, that sucks up my free time really fast. Being there full time wouldn’t help, though, because then I’d have twice the teaching load.

I guess what it comes down to is that I have to learn to compromise before I am compromised. I have to learn that I can’t do everything all at once, and that as one person I can’t offer everything either. Sometimes that means this year’s students won’t get every opportunity. Sometimes it means the curriculum won’t change as much as I want as soon as I want it to. Sometimes it might have to mean that while help is available in class time, I can’t offer up every one of my lunchtimes.

Balance doesn’t come naturally to me. If my students need help, or want to do something extra, I want to make it possible. So I’m looking for tips. How do you manage balance? How do you avoid burnout in a job you are passionate about? The last thing I want to do is become someone who is just marking time, but there is surely some middle ground I could learn to inhabit. Who has some clues?

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to my teenage self

At 44 I’m still a work in progress. I had a pretty rough time socially, as a teen, although once I got to uni things improved dramatically. But there’s some stuff that took me so long to work out, it’s just embarrassing. Some of it I know intellectually but really struggle to apply, other bits I am still coming to grips with. So in writing to the teenage me, I’m also reminding a 44 year old who really needs to learn to stand up for herself. Maybe one day she’ll listen. This is a list of the stuff I wish someone had told me when I was a teenager. Or indeed anytime in the last 44 years.

  1. Being different, thinking differently, and acting differently are the things that are singling you out and getting you teased as a teen. But these same traits are huge advantages once you grow up. If you can think clearly about it (which I know is a challenge through the fog of shame, guilt, and anger that teasing makes of your brain), all those people who happily follow the herd aren’t going anywhere new or interesting. People who think so far outside the square that they don’t even know where the square is – those people will change the world. Outside the normal is where you find opportunities, new perspectives, and solutions. It’s where you want to be. It gets better here.
  2. Your own judgement of your actions is what matters. Don’t let anyone else dictate to you how you judge your own behaviour. Ask yourself whether you did what you believed was right, and treated people the way you would like to be treated. If you didn’t, then do your best to make amends. But if you did, then you have the right to defend yourself. Which brings me to point 3:
  3. Defending yourself assertively is not an act of aggression. There is a difference between calmly stating facts, and attacking someone else. Learn to defend yourself and make the truth clear. Sometimes this means taking a deep breath and thinking calmly about the situation before speaking. That’s ok. No-one has a stopwatch out, and one deep breath can completely change the outcome. Sitting quietly and allowing yourself to be slandered in the name of “not causing a fight” will not end well for you or for anyone else. Learning to speak out before you either explode or give up (or both) will make your life immeasurably happier and more successful in the long run. Even if it hurts like hell in the short term.
  4. Sort out your own behaviour. Don’t waste time judging other people’s actions, or wishing they treated you differently. You can’t change someone else, but you can certainly change yourself and how you respond to them. Look at how you handle situations, and consider how you could do better next time. There’s nothing more potent than learning from your mistakes. Fortunately there will be plenty of learning material in your life! Also, a little compassion goes a long way. Remember that you never know what’s going on in someone else’s life, so cut the people around you some slack.
  5. Admit it when you don’t know stuff, and value the stuff you do know. Trying to bluff your way through not knowing something only ends in embarrassment at best, disaster at worst. But when you do know stuff, be confident and stand up for yourself and your skills. They have worth. You have worth.
  6. Speaking of worth, it lies in what you do, what you know, and how you treat people. Never in how you look, what shape you are, or whether you shave your legs. Never. Wear what feels good and makes you happy, and damn the torpedoes.

I think that’s enough. If you can live by all of that, then things will mostly work out. But don’t forget that you’re not perfect, and also that there will be rough patches you can’t control. You are loved. Don’t forget to allow yourself to lean on that love. It will save your life.

 

There’s no justice. There’s just us.

Death once famously said* to his apprentice: “There’s no justice. There’s just us.”

Granny Weatherwax had a similar position, when Tiffany Aching cried out “It shouldn’t be this way!” Her response was simple and to the point: “There isn’t a way things should be. There’s just what happens, and what we do.”

We human beings are very fond of the concept of justice. We are quick to say “it’s not fair” (which often means “I’m not getting what I want.”). We are eager to believe that our legal system actually dispenses justice, despite its manifest flaws.

And we still cherish the deep, although increasingly insupportable belief that a democratic government makes decisions based on facts and the good of the country as a whole, rather than on lobbying, donations, pressure from mining magnates and the country as a hole. We have the Minister for the Environment, who frequently makes decisions that put the environment at risk. We have the Minister for Education, who says we have a very particular responsibility for wealthy private schools – presumably believing that public schools are tougher and more able to fend for themselves. We have the Minister for Health who presides over deep cuts to our public health system. Yet we find it hard to name these ministers accurately and replace the “for” with “against”. It would explain so much. Minister Against the Environment. Minister Against Women. Minister Against Health.

Lately I keep coming back to Death’s quote. There’s no justice. There’s just us. We can’t rely on the government to govern in our best interests. We can’t rely on them to take decisive action on climate change. We can’t rely on them to fund research, to build up our health and education systems, to feed the hungry or protect the vulnerable. We can’t rely on them to be just, or fair, or even sensible.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that we can only rely on our politicians to seek power at all costs, and to misuse it once they have it.

And it’s easy to say there’s nothing we can do about that. It’s easy to complain about it, and believe we are powerless to act.

But we do have power. We have power at the ballot box and beyond. We have the power to vote for independents and parties that are not the big two, we have the power to STAND as independents, or as representatives of progressive parties whose policies are evidence based and in line with our own idea of justice. We have the power to speak out, to sign petitions, to attend rallies. To spell out the facts when we hear someone say climate change is rubbish. To explain reality when we hear someone say that refugees are queue jumpers. To stand up for our health system, and to rally for the education reforms we so badly need.

We have the power to tell our politicians that their behaviour is unacceptable. To make it clear that we do not accept this as an inevitable feature of our public officials, but as an unpalatable deviation from the ethical and moral government that we demand as our country’s right. Politicians are more poll driven now than ever before, so it’s up to us to drive the polls.

There is no fundamental balance that will pull our governments back into line. There is no moral compass on the floor of our parliamentary chambers. We are the government’s moral compass. There is no justice. There’s just us.

*Famous to Terry Pratchett readers. If it’s not famous to you, go read “Mort“. And then the rest of the Pratchett books. You’ll thank me later. :)