Musings of a teacher on the cusp of retirement

apple-256261By a teacher who is getting old.

I can see my own teachers shouting and rolling in their graves, how did she become a teacher?!

I was a teacher’s nightmare, little concentration (disengagement it is called today), lacking industry, messy, but despite all of this quite bright. Furthermore, I had been at the school for my entire learning life so it was unlikely I was going to be going anywhere else.

Leaving school in the mid 1960’s most women had a limited repertoire for future employment. There was nursing, university, secretarial and of course teaching. I tried several pathways and then I was encouraged to try teaching. I came from a highly educated family – five university degrees between my parents and a younger sister who was Dux at the same school I attended. I’m sure the staff thought my sister and I were related in name only.

I spent four uneventful years at University/Teachers College graduating with the facility of teaching either primary or secondary level. I began as a primary school teacher, taught several years as an intermediate teacher before heading for maternity leave and only ever teaching again on a part time basis and at a secondary level. This has been for the last thirty five years and next year will probably be my swansong.

The changes that have occurred over that time have been huge.

Who saw the technological age on our doorstep? Who imagined we could be talking to Tom, Dick or Harry in China, in London or the US while walking down the street to grab a latte? That log books for mathematics would be replaced by handheld devices called calculators at ever increasing levels of functionality? That texting would be a viable topic in English for NCEA Level 1. These are a few of the advances made in my working life that for most of you is the rule and you don’t even bat an eyelid.

This has impacted on us older teachers in strange ways.

To begin with, emailing has been a double edged sword. It is marvellous to make immediate contact with parents – either for remonstrations or applauding their offspring. But it works the other way too. We teachers are equally as accessible and while most parents don’t abuse it, it can become difficult and perhaps parents need to realise their student is not the only pip in the raspberry jam. However the immediacy does have benefits. Previously parent/teacher interviews were the only point of contact which could be too late or inappropriate.

With students bringing all kinds of devices I was concerned by the possibility of loss or theft. This hasn’t really been an issue, although in saying that my own graphical calculator has been “borrowed” for three weeks and it doesn’t look as if I’ll see it again.

The daily rolls are now completed on a laptop/iPad/computer. Great, except for when the Wifi misbehaves and we return to good ol’ pen and paper. The reports are completed in the same way. These are then read by parents on a portal. No hiding them now.

Calculators have become integral in maths, (haha an inhouse pun), often introduced a little later in Year 9 so that students still compute without. But of course they are only as good as their operator and the variety of make with their differing techniques can make the teaching a challenge. The more sophisticated calculators have memories and at certain assessment times need to be cleared by a supervisor.

Students often use the cameras on their device. Whether it be for photographing examples, recording test results or taking down the homework, it has its benefits. Despite all this, we still need people who can read, write and spell. It opens up a new world for those who have a need, but let’s not forget that literacy and numeracy are paramount in a functioning society – and heaven help us, what would happen in a prolonged power cut?

The changes in kids over the past four decades has been less pronounced.

Kids are kids, they will try it on no matter what, in some cases politely in other cases not so overtly. Students and teachers no longer have the distance between them which was once the case. There is a friendly affability between student and teacher today. Teachers smile and laugh and students are far less intimidated. Corporal punishment has disappeared. Boys found the strap/cane a slightly more desirable outcome for misdemeanors – it is over and done with fast. Today it is detentions which students see as a giant encroachment on their lives. Some teachers feel less empowered by the abandoning of the strap or cane. It does require a different form of classroom management – one’s personality is called upon. Some teachers use fear (and some readers will probably recall a teacher just like that), others prefer to use the voice of reason or, that students take responsibility for their own behaviour. This is certainly asking a lot of a Year 10 student who doesn’t really understand self-responsibility.

Subject content is much the same, although business studies type subjects are now popular, as are the performing arts, once severely poo pooed by the single sex boys’ schools in particular. Forty years ago almost all students were literate and numerate. This isn’t quite true today. Is methodology to blame or are we experiencing a burgeoning of learning difficulties and behaviour problems?

On a more serious note are the family situations. The “newish” scenario of single parents has an impact on teaching. Once a rarity, it is commonplace today and undoubtedly has fallout. Where parenting is shared, students who leave their school stuff at one parent’s house may not visit them again for a week or even two. This means the student hasn’t got his required equipment for that time – an awful nuisance. Of a more positive note, this situation seems to have prevailed in the lives of these children for some time, they do take it in their stride. When there is a recent breakup of a marriage, children deal with it in different ways, and when there is acrimony as there mostly is, it takes its toll and pastoral care within a school has become a growth industry.

Pastoral care, almost unknown at my time of entering the teaching profession has had to become dynamic in its approach and offers. Drugs, be it alcohol, nicotine and anything stronger is prevalent everywhere and a lot of energy and time is poured into counselling – the success rate unknown. Bullying, with one exception has been part of school life for ever. It is addressed better now I think with a no tolerance model held by all schools and wonderful peer support mechanisms in place to help handle it. There is however a new bullying that wasn’t conceived of forty, even fifteen years ago. Cyberbullying and text bullying. Whether it be words or pictures, its fallout can be fatal. It is widely known that depression and suicide can be traced to these events. Also within pastoral care comes hungry kids. Kids just weren’t hungry in the seventies, or at least it wasn’t obvious. Many schools have breakfasts offered prior to the school start – that is of course if students can wake up in time after a night playing computer games or in contact with friends. This all night gaming thing is a recent addiction and it’s a bigger problem than many people realise.

The school year is much the same in length although redistributed over the twelve months. Instead of three terms of approximately 12 weeks each, we now have four terms of roughly 10 weeks each. Quite possibly the latter is a better idea. Students got tired and their immunity towards the end of the winter term under the three term regime was less than adequate.

The social side of education I think now has a greater profile. No longer do we exercise the brain and the body but the ability to communicate with a diverse society is key for maintaining healthy relationships in the workplace. Employment thoughts have now made for a career’s section in a school an integral part of school life and the introduction of work practice in the school for students is very welcome. Courses are now set up for students to have regular work experience which is an excellent idea – we now have almost all students who will carry through to Year 13 and then leave school. This has made a difference to schools in my teaching lifetime in what was once a pyramid shaped year grouping with the cohorts at their widest in the first year of secondary education to now being inversely proportional. Part of the reason for this is the absence of trade apprenticeships and other careers offering cadet type training. Almost all students (and parents), irrespective of their learning, see universities as the best place to further success in the workforce.

NCEA replacing School Certificate/University Entrance/Bursary and Scholarship in 2001 arrived with a few hiccups which for the most part have been ironed out. Tweaking of this system has made for improvements, particularly rewarding the more able student with a scale of recognition and a financial reward at university level. Close monitoring is essential as courses crept in of a dubious nature and were assessed on the same level as the more academic subjects. Scholarship still carries enormous kudos but once only the very, very best student would sit these examinations, today there are many more now having a go. And, opinions of secondary schools are often perceived by these results.

The future is hard to imagine. Kids will still be kids. Technology evolves almost on a daily basis. Public exams will most likely be completed totally online. Will teachers be replaced by technology? I hope not. It won’t happen in my lifetime, but as our famous model Rachael Hunter said  coyly in the advertisement for hair product, it will happen.

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3 Comments

  1. Great piece of writing by a pretty smart person!

  2. Well done Sis!

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