Sunday, 24 May 2009

A fine life

I've mentioned before that Maralyn Parker drives me nuts. Our views of how the education system should run and what it should provide are world's apart. Then again, what would I know - I'm just a stupid parent. I don't have a degree in whatever that enables me to speak Education Gobbledegook, and I am not a paid up member of the Socialist Internationale.

Here is a little story that illustrates the wide gulf between the state system and the private school system. It has little to do with money, and everything to do with passion, dedication, discipline, persistence and excellence.

A few years ago, one of my teachers retired. He started teaching at my school long before I was born, and he taught there for a further 15 years after I left. He was an institution - gruff, angry and a tough task master, both in the class and on the sports field. He left an indelible mark on everyone he dealt with, including the foreheads of students silly enough to doze off in his class. He had an excellent throwing arm, and he would hurl with great velocity one of those wooden chalk board cleaners straight at the head of the snoozer. He'd didn't care if snoozy woke up in time and dodged the wooden block and it hit the kid behind - he'd simply tell the kid who got hit that it was his job to keep dopey awake. No one was innocent in his world.

He was also a terrific character - I doubt he would survive any form of job interview in the modern world, but that did not stop him from rising through the teaching ranks on sheer ability and performance. It didn't matter if you were no good at the subject he taught - he ensured that you had a good grasp of it by the time you finished, even if it meant terrorising you for a year. I was pretty mediocre at his subject when I started, and went on to do the hardest units of it in my final year - those units only attempted by the top 10% in the state, and I achieved a good result.

He was truly a legend. Let me redo that as Legend.

When he retired, the school organised a farewell dinner for past students. Hundreds turned up, paying over $100 a ticket, to see him off and hear one final rousing speech. That dinner was so successful, dinners were organised in other cities so that the diaspora could do the same - he flew over to Sydney, and about 80 former students turned out for a great night. He repeated that in Melbourne and Brisbane and several country towns in WA. It was a night that brought tears to the eye.

He did that tour with a couple of other long-time teachers, and their former pupils flocked to have a beer and a chat with them. They were all tough cookies of the old school. I found out last year that one of them, who arrived from Rhodesia as it was then, had been in military intelligence before he left, and he was watched by ASIO for a while. He was truly made of iron, and I presume he had been forged by some nasty experiences in the bush war.

For unlike today, almost all my teachers were male. I was taught by women up to grade 3, and then exclusively men from that point on. And when I say "men", I mean MEN. They were ex-footy players, ex-army, ex-Olympians and so on. Most had been high achievers in another discipline before they took up teaching, and even if we could not scale the same lofty heights as they had, they made damned sure that we were pushed to our own individual limits and beyond. Regardless of whether you were sporty or not, academic or not, musical or not, you were pushed and pushed and pushed to give it your all.

We hated some of them for it at the time. Revenge was plotted by many a pupil.

But in the end, they knew best. What they did was right for us. We worked out better for it, and it was clear that they loved us. Not loved, as in some weird catholic man-alter boy way, but loved in that they got a kick out of watching us grow and develop and mature into men; men they could be proud of.

And we reciprocated that love by turning out in numbers for the retirement of one of the best of them. Later this year, I will fly to Perth for another reunion - something I do every few years - and I will have a great night of catching up with the blokes, but I'll also enjoy yarning with my old teachers - telling tall tales and letting them in on some of the dastardly things that we did when they weren't looking. If the family comes as well, that trip will cost us a pretty penny, but it will be worth it.

The thing is, whilst that particular teacher got the royal treatment on account of his exceptionally long and dedicated service, there were many others who were like him. I still look up to them all. When they visit Sydney and a dinner is held, I do my utmost to attend.

These teachers were not paid enormous sums. They were not paid lots more than state school teachers. Yet they put in extra hours every day coaching sports teams or running drama classes or organising school plays and band practice and all the rest of it, and they spent each Saturday on a sports field umpiring this or refereeing that. The Headmaster lived in a house on the school grounds, and would pop up unexpectedly at any time of the day or night to see what we were up to. The teacher's car park was always full until after 5pm.

As much as Maralyn loves to trumpet the wonders of the state system, I wonder how many of her contemporaries could say that they expect something similar will happen to them when they retire, or that they know of a fellow teacher who might get this treatment?

For the sake of our kids, I wish there were many. However, I think what she doesn't get is that few teachers in the state system are motivated to go that extra mile. There is something wrong with the culture, the atmosphere, the environment. The dead hand of the state system simply crushes those who are outstanding, and I don't see more money as being the answer. If you give an education department more money, the first thing they will do is employ more bureaucrats in head office, and it is they who are the problem.

Besides, I bet there is a stupid state government policy somewhere which prevents teachers from fraternising over an alcoholic beverage with former pupils. There's nothing like government for crushing the life out of anything worthwhile.


1735099 said...

The issue is less the system (state Vs private) and more the culture of the local school district or diocese.
I work across systems, and see examples of both inspiring teachers and those who are jaded and cynical in all schools. Generally, how teachers are mentored in their first three years of service is critical. The way they see themselves and their task in these first few years is how they'll function into the future.
This is why many leave after the early years. These are the honest ones who either realise they aren't cut out for the job, or lack the passion to put up with the crap that has built up around the profession through the influence of corporate managerialism on educational administration.
The dishonest ones who stay even though they hate the job do a lot of damage.
Those who are enthusiastic and love the work are the ones we need to support and encourage. They're the future - and there are plenty about.
You're right in your assertion that those who make the best teachers are those who've done something useful prior to teaching - and of course the gender imbalance is a major problem.

Boy on a bike said...

We were lucky in that we only had one complete spanner in the entire teaching fraternity. I don't know why he was tolerated - he knew his subject, but was completely unable to control his class.

Apart from him, the rest were pretty excellent. Although they had been at it for years, they weren't jaded or burned out. I guess their "take no crap" attitude saw them through.