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Curriculum cart

Last week at work a young man pushed me around and threatened to bash me, another walked into my classroom and flung chairs and tables around. The last school counsellor left because she requested a second counsellor to help with the workload (she was seeing on average three girls a week who’d been raped) and was refused.

My students rarely hand their work in on time and come to school sporadically. I asked one Year Ten student, who took half an hour to get his book out of his bag and another half an hour to write one line, why he was so unfocused. He told me his mum was profoundly disabled, his dad chronically depressed and he had to work to support the family as well as go to school.

Another student, whose attendance had dropped right off, told me one afternoon he’d just got to school because his mum was in hospital so he had to take care of the house and his younger siblings.

A Year Eight student of mine was eating chips and lollies for breakfast and bouncing off the walls. I rang her mum, who explained she didn’t know what to feed children and she thought that was an okay breakfast. Many of the students in that class only had one meal a day: dinner.

With one or two exceptions, most of my Year Ten class is reading and writing at a Year Eight level, with a few performing at Year Six or below.

The students call the school a ghetto school. It’s a large school in an economically disadvantaged area of Darwin. It’s a tough school to work in and some teachers from other schools who end up there don’t last more than a week, some tough it out for a term.

I don’t think it’s an unusual school. There are plenty of schools in Australia that are similar –and some that are tougher – places to work. They’re the schools with a high teacher turnover, poor attendance at parent/teacher night and more students who graduate to prison rather than university.

The solution to this educational tragedy is supposed to be Labour’s Education Revolution, the new National Curriculum. There’s some merit in a national curriculum. The return to teaching phonics, grammar and punctuation in English may improve literacy in the long-term. As a secondary school teacher I may see some benefits in 10–15 years when today’s primary school students hit my classroom, but in the interim it’ll be more of the same.

Annabel Astbury’s says ‘…there’s a lot to like in the document, it also raises some serious concerns about how achievable a curriculum like this will be in a real-world setting, where what can be taught is limited by class time and by teachers’ professional learning.’ She goes on, ‘A…problem, and one which is more likely to alarm teachers, is the vast amount of content that is supposed to be covered in secondary school (Years 7—10).’

The same criticism was made of the much-maligned Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE). It combined History, Economics, Geography, Legal Studies and Civics and Society into an umbrella subject in which everything was taught in the most superficial of fashions.

A teaching year is broken into four ten-week terms, meaning you have ten weeks to teach whatever component(s) of the curriculum you are focusing on. In reality there’s seven to eight weeks teaching time. The first week or two of any term is taken up with the movement of students into and out of classes as the school sorts out class allocations and teaching timetables. The last week or two of any term is taken up with report writing, meaning assessment items need to be in before reports are written. (Once reports are written, and the students know they are, they cease work and often don’t even bother coming to school.) Therefore, a ten-week term will have between six to eight weeks teaching time, and half that time may be taken up with behaviour management.

Is it any wonder that I had a number of Year Ten students tell me recently that Germany was an Australian ally in World War Two?

Of course this won’t be true of all schools, but I’m sure you’ll find a similar story at any school that has a comparative demographic to the school I work at.

In an ideal school with an ideal teaching and learning environment, the new National Curriculum may improve teaching outcomes dramatically. The problem is that there are very few, if any, such schools in Australia and if there are, chances are they’re not government schools. In many respects, the National Curriculum is putting the cart before the horse. A National Curriculum is going to be just another piece of educational bureauspeak for teachers to tackle as they attempt to maintain equilibrium in the classroom.

For the National Curriculum to really be effective for all schools, the school and community they’re a part of need to have economic and resource parity with every other school and community in the country.

It’s not as if parents and students, upon hearing there’s a new National Curriculum, are going to say hoorah, off you go to school children, there’s a new curriculum and finally you’ll learn something. Nor will punitive punishments, such as suspending parent(s) welfare payments if their children don’t go to school, get children to school.

I’ve rung up countless parents in my time regarding absences and bad behaviour. Most of the time the parents are at their wits end as to how to deal with their children. Their children don’t listen to them and/or bully them. Or the parents leave for work before the children go to school, are often working two jobs to survive and don’t get home until their children are hopefully in bed.

If low-skilled and casual workers, for example, didn’t have to work extraordinarily long hours to keep their heads above water, maybe, they’d be at home more often. They could ensure their children get to school, or at least get home from school and do homework and even talk about school as if it’s part of their thinking life rather than an extension of their social life.

In a few years time, I’ll be pacing in my classroom teaching the National Curriculum. If the students are hungry, working to support their families, have special needs but no extra support or have parent(s) working long hours, then I’ll still be teaching to a disinterested and unfocused clientele. If the students have managed to fail every year of school but still be put into the next year level (as occurs now) so as to avoid traumatising them, then I’ll be spending most of my time dealing with behaviour management.

And in fifteen years time, some bright spark will decide we need a new curriculum. After all, it’s easier to write a new curriculum than rewrite society – and there are more votes in it too.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Rohan Wightman is a Darwin-based writer & teacher. He’s been shortlisted for the NT literary awards four times, including this year. He has been published in Going Down Swinging and has been shortlisted in a few other writing comps and won a few less well-known comps. He started writing when he was young but really hit his stride when writing for Squat It, the magazine of the Squatters Union of Victoria, in the late 80s. He has piles of manuscripts but no publisher. His under construction website is www.rohanwightman.com

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Comments

  1. I have little to offer by way of a comment, except to say I find this extraordinarily depressing and to make the rather unsurprising observation that virtually all teachers I know are exhausted and stressed and as often as not want out, if they haven’t left already.

    As the single mother of a 3 year old, living an an area with its own socio-economic problems, these are concerns which have weighed on me since becoming pregnant. Perhaps that sounds excessive (and even selfish), but they do.

  2. It’s all that you say Lani, but I still love teaching, love it for those few students who you see progress despite the economic and cultural hurdles they have to jump and I love it when you break through the bluster and make a real connection.

    As for your concerns RE: your 3 year old and the area you live in, the best thing you can do is give a shit, which I’m sure you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading and writing on this blog. Be involved in your 3 year old’s education, teachers love nothing more than a parent who is involved does care. And hey you’re not being selfish, just caring. I have a 2.5 year old and I think about her educational future in a governement education system dying the death of a thousand cuts.

    Rohan

  3. Hi Rohan,

    This is one hell of a bleak picture. I’m curious, do you think it has solely to do with poverty? Or is it partly Darwin being a small centre, a long way from things?

    I’m also curious… I don’t want to play a racial card, but I did some work with the indigeneous community and am curious. What kind of ethnic background do your students have? Is there a large indigenous component?

    I’ll repeat Shaun’s question, what do you think is the answer?

  4. Hey Lani and Shaun,
    the issues are partly poverty or the need to work long, and sometimes 2-3 jobs to keep paying rent and buying food, therefore parent(S) have no time to be with their children and make sure they are at school or doing homework. It’s also to do with Darwin being a long way from things, resources are out of date (I was teaching pre-contact indig history and the only text books were written in the 70’s and when teaching social geography the text books I was using refered to the Berlin wall as if it, and the cold war, still existed, and never mentioned AIDS), and for example the much mooted laptop for every student hasn’t made it up here yet. There’s probably about 30% Indig background and 20-30% students from non-english speaking background and no where near enough specialist support to help out. Although I must say the indig students are better behaved than most, although they don’t do much work.

    As for solutions, well the easier ones are things like stopping the stupid process whereby a student can do no work and fail every subject every year and still be put up into the next year. The lesson with that process is, do nothing and you’ll still succeed. Students who fail need to be kept down, which was the norm when I was at school and was a great motivator to work. Of course there’ll need to be financial and support provisions for those students who have genuine learning difficulties. Smaller classes and better resources would help as would an increase in full time work rather than PT and casual work so a lot of the poorly skilled parents of the students aren’t working erratic hours to survive. I don’t have a real answer though, the answer needs to come from parent’s, teachers and I guess Education apparatchik’s listening to parents, teachers and teaching executives. Also I guess giving teachers permanency rather than keeping on casual term by term contracts would help, which results in teachers leaving or having poor morale as they don’t know if they’re going to be employed the next term or the next year, as would working on ways to keep teachers. The English/SOSE dept I work in has lost 4 teachers this term and the students feel that, they don’t like losing teachers (unless they’re especially nasty teachers) as they feel no one wants to teach them.

  5. In terms of funding the Aust govt need to rectify it’s funding model for schools. Howard began the rot by funding private schools more than public schools and Rudd’s done nothing to change it (Latham, for all his faults saw the reality of education funding and wanted to change it.). The way things are going Aust will soon have a two tiered education system, by and large private schools will feed into universities and public schools will feed into trade schools and the rank and file military. Already many public schools offer school to work progams rather than a good selection of Yr 12 subjects

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