The work of teachers remains essential in helping young people learn their way into the future, writes Phil Smith.
NAPLAN, BER, DER, excursions, meetings with peers and parents, department emails, professional learning, institute requirements, Australian curriculum, Empowering Local Schools, standards, grant applications, union campaigns and… Students that knocked on the door at lunchtime to ask about the cicada shell they found, or notes they’ve lost…
In schools there’s always much to do, and immediacy seems to rule. In 1975, Dan Lortie named this presentism – a survival focus on the here-and-now. It remains strong today: Some things just stay the same. This article looks at changes for educators in this century.
The 21st century. That’s not coming. That’s now. That’s here. And it requires systems, schools and teachers to adapt to this new world. That’s okay because that is what they are good at. Not always at the same pace as change outside classrooms. But adapt they do in order to meet the needs of students. A colleague said, “I love teaching, but it’s madness just trying to keep up!” Many others have echoed these sentiments.
Playing an inspector of an Intergalactic Audit Commission in his article, ‘The impossible and the necessary: Challenges for educators. Are you ready for this?’ Michael Barber says,
…while we help you sort out the mess you’ve made, can you do one thing – just one – really, really well? Educate every child and young person on the planet better, much better, than you’ve ever done before, because they are your sustainable future.
Here, Barber links the outside world with the inside world of classrooms. This visitor from space says being well-educated needs not just a focus on knowledge, thinking and leadership, but on the ethical underpinnings that drive education…
Your schools…need to prepare every young person to rise to challenges…and exploit the emerging opportunities – to thrive in vast, diverse cities, share the planet with other living things, preserve the wilderness, generate economic growth without waste, resolve conflicts peacefully and deploy wisdom and judgement at moments of crisis…these are matters…on which the quality of life, and perhaps life on Earth itself, ultimately depends… each school [is] a microcosm of the better society you might become; each teacher an example of the better humanity to which you aspire.
Teachers have important local and global roles. Michael Fullan believes they are up to it, “What energises educators is realised moral purpose.”
Good teachers have never taught like there’s nothing happening outside. And the world is making itself heard – global warming, ecosystem losses, fisheries depletion, water deficits, ocean pollution, global conflicts, diminished soils, scarce resources and minerals, disease and risk of pandemics, natural disasters, genetic engineering, the advent of ‘designer babies’, biotechnology, refugees, global migration…
Then there’s the unequal distribution of wealth through a global economic system that has the super-poor work for almost nothing to supply the super-markets of the super-rich. And there’s our determination to consume rampantly and believe in the possibility of limitless economic growth. (Phew! What role for schools and teachers in this?)
These and other issues are intertwining, morphing, and influencing each other. Events, threats, developments and opportunities are converging and changing to create entirely new situations. The role of teachers becomes one of helping students learn to live in this world – and improve it.
Still outside. Myths abound about the capacity of schools to make or break the Australian economy. According to Sandra Wooltorton at Edith Cowan University in Bunbury, there is no systemic link between economic prosperity and test scores. Despite this, governments demand tighter accountability procedures such as performance management, hierarchical forms of discipline and national testing, all of which serve to distract teachers from providing highquality, all-round education programs.
Another myth exists: Schools are the answer when things go wrong. It’s not surprising to hear Australian Olympic officials bemoan the ‘poor results’ recently in London (they know only how to count medals, not calculate per capita performance) and declare that schools need to address this problem. More funding and more sport in schools (all schools?) will equal more gold medals.
Such demonisation of teachers as the cause of poor performances on stock markets and tracks is not new. And it will probably continue this century as educators navigate shoals of political decisions and changing ‘good ideas’. Teachers will remain caught between ideologies of short-term economic efficiencies and the findings of educational research – between bottom lines and holistic student development; caught in the rough-edged cogs of funding formulae about resources and student achievement; caught by the Gonskis in the public-private funding debate; stuck between the so-far-disappointing results of national, standardised testing and teacher accountability (more effort is made to hold teachers accountable than trust them!). They are caught between class size and “effect” size (the impact of variables on student achievement); caught between the need for quick fixes and the value of slower, deeper cultural change; and trapped between transparency and public shaming (á là MySchool).
Teacher roles will also be shaped by the ongoing tensions and conflicts around the purposes of education. Professor Alan Reid observes how the emphasis on democratic purposes has been trumped by individual, private purposes that result in such things as marketing of schools, residualisation of public education and the growth in disparity of resources between schools, and by an economic purpose that casts students as human capital to be enlisted in the cause of economic recovery and growth. These emphases marginalise the important cultural, social, political and relational aspects of education; they cast students as workers and consumers rather than as local and global citizens.
He says we must rectify this focus for Australian education to help form active citizens. Sandra Wooltorton agrees and reminds us of the correlation between environmental degradation and the decay in the concept of citizenship. In this new world, we must help our students become informed, collaborative and creative citizens who make decisions and act. Consumers just wait for sales. We cannot afford to wait.
Jennifer Sumsion at Charles Sturt University says we must emphasise what she calls ‘critical imagination.’ This is the capacity to envisage a more equitable, just and sustainable world. It involves thinking differently in order to act differently; it requires openness to new ways of framing problems and a willingness to conceive better solutions. Social justice must be emphasised. Students need to be socially critical and willing to participate in democratic and ecological decision-making processes.
Teachers will also need to help students connect the dots – to recognise the relationships between selves and others, actions and impacts, problems and solutions, ideas and disciplines. These linkages are being fostered through integrated curriculum approaches that are more learner-centred than knowledge-centred.
Some of the roles of educators in these challenging and changing contexts are not new. But new life is being breathed into them by professional requirements and changing circumstances. All co-exist – it would be impossible to undertake them in linear or isolated ways. Teachers fulfill many of these roles simultaneously – they do this every day, and every single day is different.
Teachers as visionaries
Teachers are looking out and up at the bigger pictures. They are considering their own curriculum areas in light of what they see. They are inspiring students to operate with a bigger picture in mind and envisage and act towards a quality future.
Teachers as collaborators
The jury’s in – collaboration is the go. Teacher roles include learning with peers and networks and undertaking cooperative planning and multi-disciplinary initiatives. Teachers are sharing expertise within the school and reaching into the community for expertise and support. Team-based approaches are being implemented. Communities of professional practice are operating. The shift from siloed to holistic teaching is occurring. Teachers are teaching and teaching with each other. A new appreciation of other curriculum areas is occurring.
Partnerships of schools exist. And some teachers extend collaborations nationally and internationally as they seek to enrich learning experiences and opportunities for their students.
Collaboration between schools and home is being strengthened. Co-ownership of the educational processes is growing. This is especially important as parents increasingly ask that the special needs of their own children be accommodated.
The collaborations with agencies, business and community organisations are becoming more vital as education department resources diminish. Such connections open opportunities for creative initiatives, but they also require new sets of skills – and, often, more time.
Teachers as designers
Good teachers have always delivered quality lessons. Now, however, they are designing with a greater number of complex variables. The requirements of education departments and teacher institutes, the expectations and needs of parents and students, the changing world outside, and – importantly – their own levels of professional satisfaction are seeing teachers achieve this quality – even for individual learning plans – in the face of changing strategies, policies, acronyms, expectations, ideas and paradigms. The changing make-up of ethnicities in our schools is also influencing design and implementation of teaching approaches.
Teachers as adaptors
If it’s happening anywhere on the planet, teachers soon know about it. They are constantly adapting. Their students are keeping them up to it! Teachers and students are taking in new literacies; digital, political, information consumption, media, economic and ecological. Relevance matters as much to teachers as it does to the students.
And teachers – many, with children of their own – are adapting to parents of this century as the culture of work, speed, quick-fixes, entertainment, changing authority, media and technology are changing parenting and the nature of students who arrive at school.
Teachers as leaders
Not just the changing demographics of schools throughout Australia, but professional requirements and satisfaction in the job are taking teachers along leadership paths formerly closed or distant. More and more, they are looking for and finding opportunities to take on leadership roles in schools and in networks of schools.
Teachers as researchers
Evidence and intuition help teachers meet student and school needs. More and more, they are undertaking deliberative research into their own and others’ practices – individually and in teams. Action research is a key feature of many site-based professional learning programs, and teachers are building research skills.
Teachers as analysts
“Show me the money!” has its school equivalent: “Show me the evidence!”
With increased emphasis on assessment-led pedagogy and accountability, teachers are improving their skills in data collection and analysis. They are using data to find out more about teaching practice and student learning. And they are up to date with the latest research about what makes a difference to learning.
Using data, teachers are providing more formative assessment. Importantly, they are also building the skills of students to peer and self-assess.
Speaking about whole-school projects, Chris Smyth, Secondary Schools Consultant with the Wagga Wagga Catholic Education Office, links team work, action research, quality practice and professional learning:
Action research requires data analysis to establish both quantitative and qualitative information about student (and teacher) performance levels and beliefs… A data-informed community will see wide ownership of the school’s performance data and the strategies that can lead to an improvement. When all teachers own the performance of all the students in the school, the professional learning community is further developed.
Teachers as high-quality professionals
Teachers are currently in transition to meeting Teacher Institute requirements and changes to standards. These transitions are not happening uneventfully, but teachers are on the path, most with an enthusiasm founded on the belief that improvement will lead to greater professional satisfaction. Professional conversations and reading are already occurring. Learning isn’t just something for young people in schools. Teachers as professionals are life-long learners themselves.
“Standards recognise the professional value of teachers in schools and establish the teacher as the learning professional for those outside the profession,” says Anna McKenzie, Project Manager with the Standards Implementation Team, ACT Teacher Quality Institute. “Teachers are finding that gathering and analysing evidence of their professional practice against the standards is affirming and empowering. They are genuinely excited about the processes of enhancing their professionalism.”
Teachers as risk takers
Innovation and quality drive teachers and teaching. The inherent risks and enjoyments in creative approaches to pedagogy drive research and professional learning. Teachers are putting themselves on the professional line as they experiment and take risks with new approaches.
Teachers as facilitators
The expert at the front of the room died a long time ago. Not quite true. Teachers continue to apply pedagogical strategies appropriate to the specific circumstance of learning. Increasingly, they are taking on roles as facilitators and mentors. They are stimulating, guiding, moderating and monitoring learning.
Schools are supporting new processes, some in part enabled by technology such as mixed mode delivery, flexible learning spaces, connected learning and online learning. Teachers and students are working in global virtual classrooms. Teachers are acting on the findings of research around student voice and stepping back. Students are stepping up and creating not just recreating knowledge. Teaching is practical, flexible, child-centred and engaging. It develops learners instead of ‘teaching’ them. Teachers inspire students to pursue their own passions and to become independent learners in an interdependent world.
Teachers as models
The behaviours of teachers are always on display at school. As the values necessary for this century change, teachers are modeling them as a part of their teaching practice: tolerance, valuing difference, peacefully resolving conflict, views wider than just individual curriculum areas, global awareness, future orientations, and the importance of reflection in learning. They are also modeling how to deal with change itself!
Teachers as people with lives outside the classroom
New roles often bring increased workloads. All of the above and more take greedily from teachers’ time, energy and emotional strength. Perhaps, the state of being overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task is here to stay. Teachers will still need to find ways to have their own time and their own space in the face of change, complexity, uncertainty and rising expectations. When they do this, there are pay-offs for students: richer lives outside school enable teachers to take richer approaches in school.
Not all of the roles this century are new and changing. Relationships still matter. Quality teaching still matters. A positive classroom environment is still critical. Responsive approaches and feedback are still vital. Teachers make a difference when these things are in place. They know this better than anyone. Teaching is still a physically demanding job – more so as the world changes faster than it used to. At the core of the business of schools and the personal and professional commitments of teachers remain the prime goals of inspiring students and connecting formal learning to the world beyond the classroom. The work of teachers remains essential in helping young people learn their way into the future.
Phil Smith is a high school teacher and a consultant on sustainability education, community consultation, program design and evaluation for schools, local councils and state government agencies. He also works with HotRock – an environmental charity that supports sustainability integration in high schools. He runs professional learning sessions on sustainability leadership for teachers and students.
In his thirty-plus years in education here and overseas, he has designed and run programs in schools, TAFE, universities, community and community colleges. He has worked in state government agencies, including ResourceNSW where, as Manager Education, he established the NSW Sustainable Schools Program in conjunction with the Department of Education. Phil has also worked as the Director of the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre; during his time there, he coordinated local and regional community campaigns.
He remains active in regional, national and professional communities on environmental and educational matters. He is a Board Member of the SSEC and Immediate Past President of the Australian Association for Environmental Education. This Association recently named him NSW Environmental Educator of the Year. He is a writer, reader, bushwalker and cross-country skier.