We Need to Get Serious About Bullying

I find it hard to believe that the front page story in today’s Courier-Mail that outlines the desperate measures taken by a 13-year-old girl in a bid to secure help in dealing with schoolyard bullying would come as a surprise to anybody. It is hardly a secret that bullying is rampant in Queensland schools and that school authorities are loathe to take any genuine action against those responsible.

Claims by the Queensland Department of Education that bullying is not tolerated in state schools and that any situation that risked the safety and wellbeing of students was “dealt with as a matter of urgent priority”, is utterly false. Yes, all schools will have an anti-bullying policy in place and will claim zero tolerance of such behaviours, but these are just meaningless statements devoid of any real substance when it comes to preventing bullying and dealing with the perpetrators. Such policies look good on the school prospectus as part of the marketing campaign to convince parents that the school is genuinely engaged in student welfare, but the reality is that bullying and harassment remains rampant on school campuses and it will take a fundamental change in attitude from education authorities before anything changes.

Young people need to be resilient and we certainly don’t want to foster an environment that shields them from the realities of world in which people possess a wide range of values, beliefs and attitudes. Furthermore, we don’t want to stifle individuality in young people and create a generation that conforms to one very narrow way of thinking and behaving. However, we do need to protect students from being subjected to physical and/or psychological abuse at the hands of other students or teachers. It happens every day in every school and even though stories such as this one will foster sympathy and outrage in readers, ultimately nothing much will change.

Too often I have heard instances of bullying and harassment dismissed by school administrators and teaching staff with statements such as “well, teenage girls can be bitches, there isn’t anything we can do about that” or “boys will be boys”. I have also been privy to moments where a member of the school staff has told a student being subjected to bullying that they need to “harden up” and “deal with it”, while on other occasions I have seen students mocked by teachers or school staff for being “weak” should they dare to seek assistance in trying to combat sustained campaigns of harassment and bullying. Even when any action is taken, it usually comes very late in the cycle and much too late to protect the victims from harm. Schools need to be proactive, rather than reactive, in their approach to the issue. After all, it is too late to take action when the harm has already been done and we know that the end result from bullying, harassment and intimidation can be devastating. How many stories of young people taking their own lives do we need to read before somebody decides that enough is enough?

You see, schools are worried that if they take action against bullies, they will develop a reputation as an institution rife with behaviour problems. They would much rather do nothing as this enables them to declare, most disingenuously, that they have had “no instances of bullying”. After all, if there has been no action taken against any students, there mustn’t have been any bullying going on, right? That is certainly what our education administrators would like us to believe, even if the truth is a vastly different reality. It really does seem as though education authorities are standing in the corner with their eyes and ears covered, repeating to themselves “I cannot see you, I cannot hear you” when it comes to their approach to dealing with bullying, harassment and intimidation in our schools.

Unfortunately, it seems as though stories such as this – which you can read here – will continue to fill our news feeds until somebody, somewhere in a position of authority declares that enough is enough. Until then, bullies and thugs will continue to thrive and their victims will pay the price for the lack of genuine commitment to combating this plague of physical and psychological torment that has infected our education system.

 

 

 

The Race is on Again

The Race Around the Ekka School Film Competition is on again in 2016, offering Queensland secondary school and university/TAFE students an opportunity to produce a professional advertisement suitable for television.

Working in teams, students have just 24 hours to write, shoot and edit a 15 or 30 second promotional clip for the Royal Queensland Show (The Ekka). The advertisement must appeal to the target teenage demographic and meet the requirements of the project brief.

Race Around the Ekka

In addition to developing their practical production skills (camera operation, script writing, production design, sound recording, acting, directing etc), participating students also need to demonstrate effective time management, planning skills and team work to be successful in fulfilling the client brief. Each participating group must submit a storyboard prior to the commencement of filming, will have one day of shooting at the 2016 Ekka and will then have 24 hours to edit and submit their film for judging.

There are three categories – Junior Secondary, Senior Secondary and University/TAFE – with $500 first prize in each category. Filming will take place on August 8 and 9, with judging on August 11. Entry forms must be submitted by June 3, with storyboard submissions no later than June 24.

Having had students experience success in this competition, I thoroughly recommend that teachers encourage their students to take part. This is a rare opportunity for students to undertake a production project in accordance with a specific creative brief for a real-world client.

For more information, visit the Race Around the Ekka webpage or click here for a full competition overview, including the creative brief and judging criteria.

Scared of What Exactly?

The ignorance and disregard for young people demonstrated by members of the Australian Government in recent days has been disturbing and disgusting. The attacks on the Safe Schools program that is being implemented in over 500 Australian schools is typical of an administration that has thrived on creating and maintaining divisiveness within the Australian community. Cory Bernardi and his crackpot cronies need to stop it with their attacks on a program that, as far as I can tell from both those who delivering it and those who undertaken it, is doing a considerable amount of good. Given that few schools have any kind of genuine anti-bullying strategy in place, any program targeting such behaviours is a godsend and a program that specifically addresses one of the primary triggers of bullying in our schools – sexual orientation and  identity – is long overdue.

Tolerance is critical in establishing safe environments for all students and, for so long, LGBT students have been subjected to behaviours and attitudes that are borne from ignorance and intolerance, attitudes that are subsequently endorsed by attacks on the Safe Schools program and other initiatives seeking better treatment for members of the LGBTI community, such as the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

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Surely any program that helps schools develop strategies that helps both LGBTI students feel confident in their sexual identity whilst also educating others about the impact  of ignorance and intolerance – which typically manifests as bullying –  must be a good thing? Right? It is important that school communities enact strategies to eliminate any kind of bullying or harassment for all students, so the attitude of Bernardi and the like is mindboggling. Is he suggesting that LGBTI people should be subjected to bullying and mistreatment? Does he not think that everybody should have the same right to safety and security at school and in the broader community?

Bernardi’s suggestion that Safe Schools is ‘indoctrinating’ students is ludicrous in the extreme. You can’t make somebody gay, so what is he afraid of exactly? Providing information and trying to develop a greater understanding about other members of our community is not indoctrination, it is education. Furthermore, developing strategies that embrace diversity and encourage students to be confident in their own identity (such as eliminating gender-specific uniforms) is fantastic.

We have a long way to go before all LGBTI people, young or old, can live without fear of judgement or discrimination. If the Safe Schools program can provide LGBTI people with a sense of confidence about their place in the world and educate others about the impact of bullying, then it’s hard to see any reason why the program shouldn’t continue long into the future. Of course, the ideal scenario is that we become such a tolerant, enlightened and accepting nation that such programs are never needed.

To find out more about the Safe Schools program, click here.

 

 

Uniform Changes a Great Move

In another great story about progressive educators who are putting their students first, the new uniform policy at Sydney’s Newtown High School of the Performing Arts  allows “students to wear boys or girls uniforms regardless of their gender.”

Furthermore, whilst transitioning students previously had to seek special approval to access alternative toilets, students no longer need to seek formal permission. This means that anyone identifying as a girl, for example, can use the female toilets.

Newtown

This is a great advance for students and whist it has seemingly secured the support of parents, The Australian  Christian Lobby have – surprise, surprise –  spoken out in opposition to the changes.

It is so good to see a school taking a genuine interest in the welfare of students and making policy changes to better reflect the fluidity of gender and sexuality without kowtowing to Christian crazies and other narrow-minded groups who would like to deny young people the freedom to express their gender and/or sexuality with confidence.

To read more, click here or here.

 

All Hail an Education Hero

Queensland has a new hero! Paul Thomson, the principal at Kimberley College has taken a stand against the all-pervasive NAPLAN testing regime that has infected Queensland schools. According to a story published in the Courier-Mail today, only a dozen of the more than 300 eligible students at the school sat the NAPLAN tests last year and Thomson is adamant that such testing regimes only serve to place unnecessary pressure on students and deliver little, if any, educational benefit.

It is so good to hear somebody taking a stand and putting the interests of students ahead of the unquenchable thirst for data that, in reality, offers little by the way of meaningful information for students, teachers or parents. If any teacher or parent learns anything from a student’s NAPLAN results that they didn’t already know, then clearly they are not doing their job properly.

NAPLAN

In response, ACARA chief executive officer Rob Randall used all the approved vocabulary in declaring that NAPLAN was a “vital tool for parents, educators and the public”, declaring that “taking NAPLAN requires less than four hours over three days, four times during a student’s time at school, and from that small investment comes a wealth of student, school and national information.” Such a statement is disingenuous in that Randall would know (or should know) that schools spend considerable amounts of time ‘preparing’ students for the tests, such is the pressure on schools and students to perform at a level that satisfies the politicians and bureaucrats sufficiently for them to feel confident of remaining in their high-paid position; a position that they were seemingly able to attain without the need to sit a NAPLAN test. Yet, Randall claims that without NAPLAN testing, students will experience negative impacts through their life. Have you ever heard such rot?

It’s about time that more principals and teachers put their student’s interests first and took a stand against these pointless tests, the pressure they place on students and the disruption they cause to curriculum delivery. If student welfare and educational outcomes are the number one priority, then all school principals should follow Paul Thomson’s lead and remove the pressure and expectation that NAPLAN invariably brings.

To read the Courier-Mail article in full, click here.

No Place for the Individual in Education

The media coverage of the so-called ‘controversial’ farewell speech by Ravenswood Girls School captain Sarah Haynes at the end of last year was interesting to say the least. I mean headlines such as ‘Private School Captain’s Shocking Speech Goes Viral’ are far more extreme or provocative that anything Sarah said in her speech. Whilst the level of media interest in Sarah’s speech is more a result of it being easy, inexpensive news than any genuine interest in the state of education, the speech itself does address a really important issue that is worthy of much more comprehensive analysis. Of course, the ‘shock’ of Sarah’s speech stems from two factors: 1. She is just 18 years of age and the idea of any young person daring to speak their mind is beyond the comprehension of the mainstream media (and most adults generally), and 2. She is female. As such, her speech has generated considerable attention in both the print and digital media. I mean, holy crap, a young woman who is intelligent and articulate. Who would have thought it possible? Certainly not the media it would seem given their reaction to what was, in reality, a speech that offered nothing particularly revelatory about the way schools are administered these days. The fact that her comments came as a shock to anybody only serves to demonstrate just how out of touch the media and the broader community are with regard to the ways in which image and income generation are the key priorities of state and private schools, often at the expense of student welfare and educational outcomes.

Ravenswood

It is a sad reality that school administrators are becoming so obsessed with image and reputation that the real business of schools – providing high quality education in a safe, inclusive environment – is almost an afterthought. You would think that providing a good education would, in itself, be the greatest selling point a school could have in building a positive reputation, but schools are finding it easier to make themselves sound great – utilising marketing/public relations experts, image consultants and the like – than they are in delivering greatness to their students. Although Sarah’s speech dealt specifically with Ravenswood Girls School, it could just have easily been about any school. Image is everything and if projecting a positive image comes at the expense of educational outcomes and student welfare then, apparently, that is a price worth paying. At the end of the day, many of the attributes that schools emphasise in their marketing and promotional endeavours have very little to do with educational outcomes. It is purely about convincing parents that the school is somehow better than another, drawing on superficial and largely irrelevant information to do so.

The commercialisation of education has always been the modus operandi of the private school sector, but the state education system is now adopting a similar approach to the way in which schools are managed. The only difference being that the state sector is perhaps a little less overt, although this is certainly changing as schools come under increasing scrutiny to ‘demonstrate’ their effectiveness as an education provider. The problem is, of course, that the criteria used to assess the quality of a school rarely provide any real insight into the effectiveness, or otherwise, of a particular institution. There are protocols in place designed to limit the capacity of state schools to sell themselves to prospective clients (sorry, parents), such as the catchment regime that operates in Queensland. These catchments are, according to Education Queensland “a geographical location where a state school’s core intake of students must live” and are designed to “ensure every Queensland student from Prep to Year 12 is able to enrol at their local state school”, that is “the school which is closest to home…measured by the shortest, most direct route by road”. Sounds good in theory as a measure to prevent schools from competing against each other to lure students and the income that is derived from increased enrolments, both from Government funding and parental contributions, but the reality is that schools have little difficulty in circumventing these. Schools want students who they see as an asset, and by asset I mean somebody who can be used to ‘sell’ the school. Likewise, they don’t want students whose presence is likely to have a detrimental impact on the bottom line. Therefore, schools reach well beyond their allocated catchment zone in an effort to lure students and their families into the fold. Of course, the existence of the catchment zones means that it is very easy to refuse enrolment from somebody outside the catchment areas. However, that doesn’t mean that those students deemed to be of value to the school cannot secure enrolment regardless of how far beyond the catchment they may reside.

Expecting schools to accept any student who resides within the catchment simply encourages school administrators to find more creative ways to discourage the less desirable students from enrolling. By less desirable I mean students who may struggle academically, may be from a lower socio-economic background, may have a disability or may be deemed problematic for some other reason. Now, schools won’t necessarily reject these students outright, but they will go out of their way to keep them away. This might include, for example, the implementation of a fee structure that is beyond the means of low income families, something that is happening more and more. Not only does it keep away the riff-raff, but increasing school fees and charges well beyond the cost of the provision of resources and equipment ensures that, like the private school model where higher fees denote greater prestige, the school perpetuates an image of superiority. Refusing to spend money on improvements needed to improve access/mobility for disabled students is another tactic used by school administrators to avoid the ‘burden’ of such students on their fiscal fortunes.

System Failure

The intensity of the competition between schools has only increased since the emergence of NAPLAN and the public broadcasting of results. These results are used by parents to determine which school is ‘better’ and the schools themselves draw on this information as part of their marketing strategy. Of course, the fact that NAPLAN and other results and data used by schools to sell the quality of their education programs, such as the number of students who might receive a high OP score and/or secure a University place, actually offers no insight whatsoever into the quality of a particular school, its programs or its staff is conveniently overlooked. Schools just love to be able to spruik their ‘success’ to sell themselves as somehow superior, even though there is no evidence to suggest that the exact same cohort of students attending a different school would produce different (lesser) results. Testing regimes such as NAPLAN are so flawed that schools using this information to promote the quality of their teaching programs are being knowingly disingenuous.

In her speech, Haynes alluded to the interference from school staff with regard to previous speeches she had prepared for various school events. Again, this hardly comes as a surprise as both private and government schools have long operated on rigid regimes of censorship and control. What are schools afraid of? Why are school administrators so fearful of what students might have to say? What message does it send to these young people when their school doesn’t have enough faith in them to let them speak freely? Surely we want our young people to find their own voice, their own convictions and the confidence to say what they believe. It’s bad enough that schools deny students any sense of individuality through archaic policies around dress and appearance. I mean, apparently having blue hair somehow makes you a problem of some sort that is going to have catastrophic ramifications for the entire school. One can only imagine the chaos that will ensue should a boy choose to have his ears pierced or opt to wear anything other than the expensive brand of shoes demanded by the school’s uniform ‘policy’. I mean, this will be the end of the world as we know it. How dare any student expect the right to express any sense of individuality in the way they look or the opinions they express. Heaven forbid the student who dares to identify as gay or transgender because any such deviation from the rigid norms that invariably determine what is ‘acceptable’ is simply untenable. I mean, we cannot possibly expect that our schools would encourage individuality and independent thought amongst the student body. No, no, no, that is just too scary to contemplate. It is much better if everybody looks the same, thinks the same and acts the same because, you know, that will prepare them for the realities of the world beyond school. Good on Sarah Haynes for bringing the issue to light, it’s just a shame that more young people (and their parents) aren’t willing to take a stand.

Compliance

Of course, this culture of compliance extends beyond students to teaching and other staff as well. Any teacher who does not meet the rigid expectations of the school administration cannot expect to ever feel safe and secure in their positions, no matter how skilled they may be as an educator. Schools don’t really care whether teachers are good or bad at their job, what they want is be people who will happily rid themselves of any sense of individuality and blindly comply with the whims of the administrative regime. A great many highly effective teachers have been lost as a result of their frustration with a system that simply does not allow for any sense of individuality – either in their personality or their approach to teaching. Education authorities are counting the days until we reach a point where teaching can be delivered by robots programmed to deliver a curriculum that meets the political agenda of school principals and education bureaucrats. No more of those pesky teachers who might dare to challenge a particular policy initiative or treat the students with respect.

Sarah Haynes’ speech was just the tip of the iceberg. The issues she addressed in her presentation are widespread throughout the state, private and independent school sectors. It is a great shame that the media who were so quick to pounce on Sarah’s speech for cheap copy weren’t so keen on delving into the issues raised to discover just how fucked up our approach to education is in this country. We are forever lamenting our lack of competiveness in world education rankings, yet we make no effort to really evaluate where the problem lies. Our young people are as smart as any and we have some fantastically talented and passionate teachers, but none of that means anything if we continue to deliver education via a regime of compliance and control instead of one that encourages and nourishes individuality and independent thought. Stop operating our schools as business ventures and focus more on the delivery of a relevant, flexible curriculum with a pedagogical framework that demonstrates a respect for our young people and privileges the most passionate and dedicated teachers over those for whom teaching is merely a means to an end. We need an education system in which diversity, creativity and individuality are privileged over uniformity and compliance. We need an education system that is personalised, wide-ranging in content and perspectives and in which culture and identity can flourish. We need teachers who love what they do and we need to allow them to deliver education in a way that best suits their individual style AND best meets the needs of their students. It’s actually pretty easy to make education great, but nothing will change while those best placed to lead the way in revolutionising education delivery remain focussed on protecting their own positions of privilege and power.

Tackling Teacher Burnout

“When you’re working in a very demanding environment, even if you are extremely passionate, you still get a mental and physical fatigue, and it affects your attitude … When you’re a teacher, your job is standing in front of kids for six hours of your day. That can be very difficult and very stressful when you’re feeling worn out.”

The above quote is from an article in The Atlantic, a story I found particularly pertinent given my own experiences and the frustration being felt by many other teachers. As a teacher who left the profession for the very reasons outlined above, I can understand how/why teacher burnout occurs. Whilst my diagnosis with Depression obviously had a significant impact on the stress levels that developed over time, I know of plenty of other teachers struggling to deal with the physical and mental exhaustion that comes with teaching.

Teacher Burnout

Yes, there are plenty who see teaching as being “easy” because there are “so many holidays”, but such notions are far removed from reality. In my experiences, and from my discussion with others, the biggest problem isn’t so much the stressors that occur within the classroom (of which there are plenty), but more the additional pressures that teachers are being burdened with every day and the lack of support systems in place. Too many teacher are simply left to cope with the burdens of a highly important and demanding job with little or no regard from management at school or governmental level about how teachers are coping, both individually and collectively.

For anybody dealing with any additional stressors – whether it be a mental illness such as Depression or other factors, either temporary or longer term – the likelihood of “burning out” is high and, for whatever reason, Queensland schools are seemingly happy to let this happen. In my case, it wasn’t until I had reached a point that I was engaging in self-destructive behaviours and contemplating suicide that my stress and anxiety came to the attention of the school, and that was because I took it upon myself to notify the school that I had sought psychological treatment. The school administration was completely oblivious to what I was going through, despite myriad warning signs that students had picked up on, nor were they particularly interested in my plight once they became aware, which of course only increases any stress, anxiety and depression you may be experiencing as you realise that you are, essentially, on your own in dealing with it.

As suggested by this article, being too dedicated can drive teachers to suffer increased levels of stress and exhaustion and it is often self-inflicted due to an unwavering commitment to their students, as one teacher in the article states, “a lot of people will grudgingly admit that we as teachers are our own worst enemy in terms of burning ourselves out.” However, as another teacher quite rightly points out, working excessive hours if often necessary to achieve the outcomes we want for students, “I have to be here because the amount of time that we spend on this is absolutely necessary.” I know I can relate to such sentiment because I always felt that, no matter how much time I committed to teaching and preparation, it was never enough. Many times I spent an entire night reading essays and assignments that were handed in that day so that I could get them back to the students the next day. The lack of sleep was worth the sacrifice if it meant students had more time to improve upon their assessment and achieve a better result. I would often spend 12 hours or more a day at school and make myself and my classroom available on weekends for those students who needed extra assistance or access to equipment. That is what teachers do, but it comes at a price.

We are never going to stop teachers overdoing things because the dedicated, passionate ones will always go above and beyond to help their students. What we need is better support mechanisms in schools to identify those teachers at risk of burn out and have strategies in place to assist them. I don’t know how I reached the point of self-destruction without anybody noticing, but it is happening all too often. For me, reaching that point simply resulted in Education Queensland determining that I was no longer suitable to teach because they felt I was a risk to myself and therefore a risk to students. The fact that I had already taken steps to access treatment for my stress and anxiety was irrelevant in their eyes. As far as they were concerned, anybody who “can’t handle the pressure of teaching” is an unacceptable risk and should no longer be permitted to teach. Needless to say, such an attitude didn’t exactly help reduce my stress and anxiety levels and ultimately it was a battle with bureaucracy that I knew I could not win.

Burnout

It is the school administrators and governmental bureaucrats (many of whom have never been in a classroom as a teacher) that burden educators with an ever growing number of additional expectations and responsibilities without ever providing any of the necessary support mechanisms to help manage stress and anxiety. It is a disgrace how little regard there is for the physical and psychological well-being of teachers. Whilst I have come to terms with my own situation and moved on to a new phase of my life (even though I miss being in the classroom), this article just served to remind me about the demands of teachers and why it is that great teachers are often left with no choice but to leave a profession they love. It seems there are some schools in America at least that are making an effort to ensure teachers do not become prone to burn out, but when are Queensland education authorities going to take the plight of teachers seriously? Given the lack of support services that exist for students in schools here and the lack of consideration for their social, emotional and psychological needs, I guess the development of any strategy that might serve to assist and support teachers experiencing stress and anxiety is still a long way off.

You can read the full article here.