Monday, May 24, 2010

Sometimes It Pays To Be Explicit

At the top of this page there is a statement that declares - "My behaviour in front of relievers needs to improve." Below this statement is another that declares - "I must not slap other children." - Let me explain:

Today I went relief teaching in a local primary school. This piece of paper was blue tacked onto the whiteboard in the staff room. The paper had its genesis as a result of an altercation the previous day. A child had slapped another child during class time when a relieving teacher had been in the room. The child was sent to the Principal. The child was given a piece of paper by the Principal who said - " Your behaviour in front of relievers needs to improve!! I have written down here on this paper exactly what you must not do in future!! Now write me a page of lines!!

That's exactly what the obedient child did. He wrote a page of lines - and personally I can't fault them. There has been no attempt to avoid the punishment. Every horizontal line on the page is filled with little vertical lines.They are reasonably straight lines, well spaced and legible. One could not mistake them for anything other than..... well....... lines.

Meaning is implicit as well as explicit. Sometimes it pays to be very explicit indeed.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

What Are You Grateful For ?

The local Whangarei Museum is currently showing a travelling exhibition from the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam. I found viewing this exhibition a deeply moving experience.

The exhibition is in the form of 10 adjoining panels that contain a time line and photographs. The panels begin with the birth of Anne Frank and end with the death of her father who survived the war and died in 1980. The time line weaves together the Frank family history with the wider historical events leading up to and including World War Two. I was informed as I silently read of the impact on the Frank family and all European Jews at that time. It made for harrowing reading. There is no sound track. I stood and moved slowly and silently with other witnesses in the room. The facts of this barbarity are not new to me, but the impact of the facts does not lessen on a revisiting. It became a sombre walk as I read my way slowly along the panels.

There were lots of photographs, some taken in the carefree days in Germany, others taken in The Netherlands where they had fled to. I thought this one was the cutest and the most endearing. It shows a young Anne outside her fathers place of work in Amsterdam. She is checking her watch.
The Nazis sent little girls like this to the gas chambers all over Europe. Its beyond belief really.

This photograph was taken circa 1935 which makes it nearly 80 years old. From time to time I see very old photographs like this. They are taken in bright sunlight, usually with the sun at the photographers back. The shadows are sharp and the image is crisp - so much so that it seems as though the photo was taken yesterday. For me this creates a special poignancy that reaches out, calling and echoing across the years. Despite the unfolding tragedy of what I was reading I couldn't help but look and smile at this image. One day I hope to go back to The Netherlands and visit the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam.

This display was at the exit to the museum. It asks a question. It sounded slightly like a challenge in light of what had just been viewed. If this question was the name of a song on one side of a old styled vinyl record, the other side may well have said, "Count Your Blessings".

It's a very good question - What are you grateful for?

Physically separate in another part of the museum but part of this exhibition, there was a video to watch. Two survivors of the concentration camps were interviewed about their experiences. One of them quoted the English philosopher Edmund Burke who said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing."

It is those who did something that I am grateful for in this context - good men and women helped and hid, at the risk of their own and their families lives, those fleeing from the Nazi terror. The outcome for the Frank family was a bitter one with only the father Otto Frank surviving. But for many in a Europe on the brink of a new dark age, the courage of those prepared to do something rather than nothing, was the difference between life and death. It is this spirit and this imperative that lives on. That is something that we can all be grateful for.


Monday, May 17, 2010


Transcendent Light - Painting by Michael Callihan

A very old memory welled up from my subconscious today. It was a memory of a documentary filmed in a hospital ward in England. In one room of the orthopedic ward of the hospital were a number of men with broken limbs. One of the men was a Japanese tourist who had broken his leg. One of the Englishmen, despite the language difficulties struck up a great relationship with the Japanese man. There was a chemistry between them – there was much laughter, bonhomie, fellowship, caring and the swapping of family photographs. The whole room full of patients attended court to this relationship which dominated the social dynamic of the room.
One day the Japanese man got on his crutches, said goodbye and left. The documentary showed how over the next week the social dynamic in the room changed. Those on the periphery now asserted themselves. Those who had been in the limelight now took a different place in the scheme of things. It was a story about change. It was very interesting and intriguing.

Last year I retired from teaching but like many before me I have gone back occasionally to do relieving teaching. It is all care and no responsibly and very enjoyable. Many of my relieving days have been in my old school.
Since I have retired there has been a bit of an exodus from the school. My old Principal has retired as have other teaching colleagues who like me spent many years at the school.
My old school now has a brand new Principal. There are other newly appointed members of staff. It is a mixture of old and new, and yes, it is interesting and intriguing to observe how the dynamics have changed.

Some of my colleagues who in the past I may have crossed swords with have mellowed somewhat towards me and view me a bit like an old familiar shaggy dog who you pat on the head. To others I appear as a sort of much loved old mascot like a teddy bear. Some have found a new alliance with me within the great changes that a new administration broom brings. For better or worse I am part of their past, I share an institutional memory with them …. Do you remember when?........ and as I observe what is going on in my old school I see, as in the hospital documentary – those on the periphery now asserting themselves, those who had been in the limelight now taking a different place in the scheme of things – it is very interesting and intriguing.

When I look back over the years at that school I can remember the whole spectrum of emotional feeling regarding my experiences there – moments of creativity, frustration, accomplishment, disappointment, anger, loss, genuine happiness and much more. To look back is to feel nostalgia, happiness and a bittersweet quality that comes from the realization that our lives and the contexts we live them in are constantly changing.

The Buddhists call this concept of change the “Dukkha or difficulties caused by changing circumstances” which is linked to the First Noble Truth i.e. Life is difficult.

The Buddhist response to the First Noble Truth is to become liberated from difficulty by leading a compassionate life of virtue, wisdom and meditation.

I feel the Buddhist response is entirely sane but I also sense that the every day difficulties and the big life changes contribute towards forging something valuable - Something of value that doesn’t require transcending. Somehow whatever is being forged in the human spirit is part of something much bigger than ourselves and that something has a transcendental quality about it


Sunday, May 9, 2010

"Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends, Once More ......." ..........Until We Finnish.

I told myself that I would not do this, I promised I would give myself a long, long, long, break from teaching but within a month I had been rung up and asked to help out for a day at my old school - so I went. I took along my trusty guitar, my song charts and really, really, really enjoyed myself.

Since then I have relieved around the town in a number of schools and enjoyed myself immensely.

I am told that being a grandparent is "all care and no responsibility." I am not a grand parent yet but that term could well apply to relief teaching. You walk in, teach, and walk out again at the end of the day and leave, really leave everything, except the joy of the day, at the school - the baggage stays behind.

Its a sad commentary on, but enlightening as well, to feel that freed from the worries of a vastly overloaded curriculum, perpetual compliance testing and the internal school politics distorted by stress and worry there is time to connect - I like that word - Connect! in an authentic way with children and their learning - Its been a time to smell the communication roses, to see, feel, hear and interact with childrens smiles, laughter and intelligence - To wonder at that uninhibited rising sap of enthusiasm that is the lifeforce that drives growing lives.

Retiring from it all has also been a time to reflect and read a little about the direction of New Zealand schools. We do some things well, but in terms of some of the changes that are presently being wrought it seems to me that we have lost our direction - We should start looking at the compass again. The compass points to the empirical data, not anecdotal evidence or the whimsy of totally ignorant and misinformed politicians.
What does the data tell us? Well, the country that tops the charts educationally is Finland. Since the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) began in 2000, Finnish students have ranked at or very near the top in science, maths and reading. Their high performance has seen educators and policymakers from around the world including NZ flock to Finland to learn more.

What they find is a Primary School system with a number of features. New Zealand schools share hardly any of these features, neither do any other schools that have been influenced by the neo liberal policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Policies that turned to market driven educational reforms - more testing, greater accountability on teachers, increased competition etc.

In Finland:
-All children start school in August of the year they turn seven.
-Class sizes are around 20.
-NO nationalised standards or testing, although teachers
use a range of everyday assessment tools for student learning.
-A high level of teacher autonomy. NO national school
inspection or review process. Municipipalities govern and
monitor local schools.
-The teaching profession is highly valued in Finnish society.
Only one in seven applications for teacher training are accepted.
-Teacher education is research based and to high academic
standards. Students graduate with a five year masters degree, and there's no probationary period.
-The school day starts at 8.30am and finishes around 1.30pm.
-Relatively few teacher staff meetings.
-All students provided with a hot meal daily, free health and
dental care, and all learning materials.
-All students receive the same comprehensive schooling for
the first nine years.
-Finnish teachers are held in such high regard
(because they and the system deliver) they top polls of the
most respected profession.

As our new and very stupid government (You know, the ones who want to rip the guts out of our national parks by mining them) embarks on a system of national testing and national standards (against all the international evidence and advice) - they need to listen to the advice and good will of the teaching profession, international experience, international educational advice - those who have the real interests of kids and their learning at heart, not misinformed populist policies.

Food for thought.