After 20 years in and out of the Australian education system, I have come to some conclusions about the role of education. I have taught in four Australian states, in Catholic, Islamic, State and small private schools and across many learning areas and from Kindergarten to Year 12, but what I have learned is that the most important things we should teach young people, are not preparing students for working life or even broadening their minds. But instead we should be preparing young people for adulthood. We should be ensuring that they are able to both build respectful relationships and take responsibility for their lives beyond the classroom environment.
The Australian Curriculum is a full and expansive list of what the Government-of-the-day collates as the things that they want all young people to know by the end of their schooling; English, maths, science, history and social sciences, arts, health and physical education, information technology and foreign languages. It is hoped that during their schooling, young people will have the minimal required exposure to all of these things. I, for one, love the curriculum. I like its comprehensive nature of all the learning areas and it really does create a level playing field whether you are in a private or public school (but that’s altogether another debate). I like the fact that there is flexibility for individual schools and/or teachers to add their own spin on it. I like it for its order.
And yet, within the curriculum, there are cross-curricular priorities: Sustainability, Australia, Asia and the Pacific and Indigenous Australia – all integral parts to creating a wonderful future as well as the General Capabilities that teachers need to integrate into their planning across all learning areas: literacy, numeracy, ICT, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding. Teachers need to integrate all of these formalised ideas into the curriculum in our daily interactions with young people, and for most of us, we do our very, very best. On top of this is the expectation that at the end of school that students should be able to be ready to enter the world of employment or go onto further study. Phew! Still think teachers get paid too much??
Yet, underlying all of this is the most important job of a teacher. It’s not delivering curriculum, it’s not making sure they pass all of their subjects and it’s certainly not to prepare them for the world of work, it’s actually two things:
1. Building honest and open adult-child relationships. That means, we build relationships with young people. How do we do that? By sharing who we are and being ourselves but also valuing and asking about the lives of the young people in our care. There are some spectacular young people in schools, and in 20 years of teaching there have only been three students who I could not find any redeeming qualities in. And all three of those needed professional psychological assistance and/or diagnosis for sociopathy or psychopathy as a result of severe trauma. So many young people do not have responsible adults in their lives and they come from homes where abuse, drug use and violent conflict resolution reigns. These young people, in particular, need honest and open adults in their lives who genuinely care for them and have access to services that they need to heal and grow into honest and open adults.
Our young people need and want adults in their lives who will role model and live by their own values – not parade a false set of “Australian values” as laid out by the government. Australia is a diverse country and just as our students come from a variety of cultural, religious, socio-economic or just plain strange families, as do teachers. Students want to know what makes us tick, they want us to be ourselves (within the confines of professional behaviour), they want us to ask them about their lives, their story and their worries and their happiness. They want to know about how other people live their lives, especially teenagers who are experimenting with their identities. And yet, many teachers are so bogged down with the heavy curriculum (above), marking, meetings and other things to be able to spend time doing this, or indeed, don’t know how to do this. Our system has become so curriculum driven, thereby forgetting exactly why education exists, and that is to pass on our knowledge to the next generation and hope that their ideas sprout roots and become even greater than what has come before. The goal of a teacher should be to develop such a positive working relationship that the student is self-inspired to do well, which brings me to point number two.
2. Secondly, we need to teach young people self-responsibility. This means being prepared for classes, finding and asking for help if required for uniform, food, shelter, schoolwork, a shoulder to cry on. Self-responsibility means listening and learning and taking charge of their own education, by being attentive and doing the very best that they can. We need to teach them to be able to resolve conflict with others without violence, to not distract others who wish to learn and to learn the socially-acceptable behaviours – yet at the same time allowing them to be exactly who they are. It’s a delicate balance. I see so many people in our communities that take no responsibility for their actions – of violence, of crime, of poor relationships, of the struggles of life. A mature adult is one who has taken responsibility for their lives and their decision-making process that lead to the scenario.
Teaching self-responsibility starts when children are very young when we teach them to brush their teeth, comb their hair, use the toilet on their own and pack up their mess when they make it. At home, it manifests in helping with housework and cooking, finishing schoolwork and in school, this manifests in the ways above and so much more, particularly the responsible use of electronic devices (again, another topic altogether). Teaching self-responsibility doesn’t end in independence from the mother (or primary carer) it continues well into adulthood and we have a responsibility to teach young people strategies to help them to do this.
There are some outstanding teachers out there. They are hard-working and are making an impact every time your child walks into their school. They do their jobs without complaining about the workload or the abuse that some young people give us daily. And we show them compassion and give them boundaries and ultimately, we see a part of them that parents rarely get to see; how they interact with their peers.
Teachers teach so much more than curriculum, of filling their minds with information that most of them will never use. Neither is it to prepare them for working life. It is to prepare them for life. It is to prepare them to be a self-responsible adult capable of mature, open and honest relationships. I feel honoured to be the teacher that students have come-out to, have disclosed abuse in their families and to themselves, and have sat with them while they cried through their frustrations and heartbreak. There have been many times that I’ve wanted to leave the profession, but something always brings me back to it, and it’s these big (and small) interactions with children and young people. Think back on your experiences of your favourite teacher; you will not always remember what they taught you, but you will remember who they were and how they made you feel. And this, is exactly what an excellent teacher should teach.