February 24

Big kids and projects

I sometimes forget, in the rush of being in a K-9 school, (and loving the celebrity that comes from walking through stage 3) that most of my history in teaching is actually teaching big kids. Really big kids.  For the past ten years, aside from teaching in my current setting, where little kids (and yes, they do scare me) are rife, my experience teaching mostly lies with senior TAS subjects. A range of subjects, a range of kids.

I’ve taught a number of subjects across the KLA to a year 12 cohort, and have taught in this time a range of students. My favourite though is major project subjects. The pressures of major project teaching I’ve always found to be greater than that of a normal exam based subject. Your own blood, sweat and tears, and sometimes, also funds (thousands of funds) go into the projects, and often times the new ulcer that you develop every year as you coax, push and cajole students across the line feels like you care more about their projects than they do.

Nothing beats that day though, where they are standing in front of their project and it’s completed. Where a student can stand there and say they’ve done a substantial amount of work and that they can see the culmination of that work. That their work is complete, finished, and for a lot of those students, better than anything they’ve done in their schooling career. That they have something that they can see is the fruit of their labour.  My favourite projects are always those kids that you have to “hassle” the hardest.

The other day I heard my principal talking about good leadership being knowing what levers to pull and when. This is so relevant to general teaching as well as leading.  Knowing that sometimes you can stand there with a student that has done nothing and what to rant but what comes out is “That’s okay….you still have time….we can fix this…” to setting goals for students, to calling parents, to hassling but with love.

This is the job of a teacher of projects.  And this starts with empathy.

Maybe that pressure is because you can see kids wasting time over the course of the project. Maybe it’s because you can see that dip in their spirits as they realise that the date is coming up and they will never (even the best project) be completely happy with it.

The job of the project teacher is to be their support. As I said to a year 4 teacher once…I teach 17 year olds. I expect them to be organised, but I’m not stupid enough to trust them to be organised. We are the safety net for kids.

But that pressure is also flipped to pride when you see what the project is….fulfilment of potential.  What an honour to be a part of that.

February 15

It’s not about the chairs

About 13 years ago, my classroom (in a previous school) was firebombed. Although it was pretty horrific at the time, it gave us a chance to redesign the computer rooms from a room that had 15 desktops that were set up around the edges of the room, to bays where students could both write notes and work on computers. They had ergonomic chairs that could spin between the work station and a writing station in the same space, while also allowing students to work in groups. Ergonomic chairs and the placement of the teacher desk at the back of the room so that we could see all the screens were the great innovations of the time. We had desks specially made and people came to visit to see what we had done in the set up of the room. We were a “lighthouse” school in the diocese and people would say “we could do that but we’re not that school”
Fast forward three years and I’m in a different school. I remember secretly taking a photo of the room from my first staff meeting. It was placed on Facebook with a “yes, this is a classroom” comment. I was stunned with the bank of local laptops and the use of LCD screens centrally controlled from the teacher podium (not desk). The office style room, with round tables and chairs, for students to work in groups, with 60 ergonomic chairs and a small break out space were the innovations at the time.
Slowly, the school removed all teacher desks, and replaced all the tables and chairs throughout with round tables. The idea was to take control away from the teacher. There wasn’t any way that those classrooms could have been re-jigged to straight rows of chairs and tables. Every classroom throughout the school was replaced with these tables, to the point that we then had no spaces to run HSC exams and had to rent spaces in the local university campus.
People came to visit us all the time to see what we were doing with pedagogy, and you often heard people say things like “good for them they get all the money” and “we could do this but we don’t have the furniture”. Essentially “we could do that but we’re not that school”.
Now, in my third school, we have gorgeous rooms, and beautiful, colourful, comfortable furniture thats’ designed to be set up to align with the vision of learning at the school.
Again, we  still get visitors coming through  and saying “if we had furniture/budget like this, we could do this too”. Interestingly though, the school is now growing at a rate that we can’t keep up with with our beautiful furniture. Furniture companies take time to make stuff, and we’ve grown in 3 years from 86 students to over a thousand.  That’s a lot of chairs.
In three years, our year 9 class has been in 6 different spaces due to growth of the school. Teaching and learning in each space is a little different, and needed to be reacted to differently, but there was still great learning in each space.
This year, we’ve had to supplement for three weeks with fold up tables from Bunnings and the chairs that we use for assembly. This didn’t effect the teaching and learning however.
The message is the same thing that I’ve been saying for the past 13 years: It’s not about the furniture.  Good teachers with good support could teach on the oval (and do). What is required is persistence when faced with difficulties.  The courage to admit that maybe it’s not about the furniture and it’s about what you do in the classroom. It’s being creative in the way that you work. It’s about relating to students in a different way, and to your team teacher that you spend more time with than your partner. It’s about a constant cycle of try-reflect and try again. It’s about going home even after a terrible day, but having the strength to go back knowing that you are doing the right thing, that you have the right vision, that you’re not going to get everything right the first time and knowing that it’ll be okay because students are the centre of what you do.
It doesn’t have anything to do with the furniture. It’s about people.