By Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA) president Malcolm Elliot.
At time of writing the world is filled with optimism that vaccines will change the course of the pandemic and life will return to something akin to our normal.
Our normal, though, the normal of teachers, students and families, had been affected by a rise in awareness and number of issues in mental health for Australians.
This included students. An APPA survey report published in February last year found that parents and teachers felt at a loss as to how to address mental health issues in children.
The background to all this, experts suggest, may lie in inter-generational anxiety. Adults are understandably concerned about climate change and political upheaval destabilising economy and feelings of world security.
We have all been living with the spectre of nuclear conflict which emerged at the end of the second world war in 1945. As I write these words it is as if I am writing the plot for a science fiction novel of apocalyptic vision.
I do, though, feel somewhat optimistic. The foundation for optimism is people empowered by high quality education which I believe we have in Australia. Our biggest challenge is to keep working with vigour and commitment to redress social and economic disadvantage.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that teachers, principals and other school leaders received with deep gratitude the praise and recognition of the community.
Lockdown brought parents, grandparents, friends and neighbours into very close contact with what education really is: complex, different for every child, and very demanding.
There was angst about Year 11 and 12 completion and ATAR. At the other end of the age spectrum families and friends experienced the demands and delights of our youngest students. The older ones could reasonably be expected to largely manage their own learning programmes. The little ones are full of the wonder of the world as they play and learn. Constant supervision, constant concentration.
Teachers were deeply aware that their students would need some personal contact from them. Many families learned how truly teachers work from the heart as well as the head.
I met a teacher who had made a film to explain some mathematics for a child. The film was so successful that it was shared with the whole class and soon this became a regular method of teaching .
Not all families had the same chances of success. Hard enough with two parents, a three-bedroom home and a yard to play in. Harder still for sole or separated parents, parents who lost their jobs. Parents whose children present very challenging behaviours. Not enough space in the home. No backyard. No access to parks or playgrounds. No extra resources to call on. Very, very tough.
And when the lockdowns ended there were tears of relief and joy all round. The students had missed their teachers (possibly more than some they thought they would) and teachers had missed their students. The exhaustion of the rapid pivot to on-line learning was forgotten for a while.
The COVID-19 experience has shown us that we really are all in this together. There has been tragedy, sorrow, pain and sacrifice. But we also saw imaginative, creative, compassionate behaviour right across our communities. Australia has now become a positive case study for the rest of the world. As a nation we are succeeding.
This is not to say, though, that our success has been complete. Understandably, mistakes have been made. This means our states and territories must keep working together and learning from each other throughout 2021. By sharing information and ways of working we can make continuous improvement.
This commitment to continuous improvement applies to our students and our schools. Results from international educational tests PISA and TIMMS published late last year have highlighted public interest in how Australian education compares with other countries’.
If we judge the success of Australian education on league tables alone we may be in for a prolonged period of disappointment. There is every chance that Australia will rarely, if ever, be ranked number one in any category. We have a socially and culturally diverse society. We have a nation seriously challenged by disadvantage. Calm, thoughtful planning and action is needed and a sense of confidence in our teachers must be promoted. This is justified and necessary.
Competition and pressure to succeed come with significant costs – often in wellbeing including issues in mental health. Life is not a competition to be won on one day. Education is not a competition to be won, or lost, on one test. Like life, education is much more complex than that.
Upwards movement in international test scores may be the result of many intertwining factors. The pressure of competition is not one of them.
You can be sure, though, that the joy of learning is.