Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Tell it to the Padre*

This article - by Madonna King - was printed in today's Courier Mail.
It's not available on their website, so I've published it in full. The image is also from the same article.

It is called Teachers - a Class Apart

Wanted: A mature adult, with tertiary qualifications, values, ability to work long hours to educate tomorrow's leaders in everything from Maths to English to good manners. Need to be able to be criticised, abused and possibly even assaulted.

Tough job ... and a barrage of complaints from parents is only making it tougher for Queensland teachers. Who would apply to be a teacher in 2009?

As the school doors closed last year, the debate centred around whether red pens should be used in classrooms and whether building a replica of Noah's Ark amounted to Christian indoctrination. But as those teachers prepar­ing to go back into the class­room this month will tell you, that's only the beginning. Each day, someone will ques­tion the decisions they make. They accept that. But more and more often, the questions become complaints, which are taking up more and more of a teacher's time.

And it's the consequence of that that we should be worried about. Teachers are rethinking their career choices; many with years of experience are choosing to leave and none of the debate is focusing on where that leaves our education system — or the children at its centre.

The following is a list of real examples you will not have heard about; they are com­plaints given to organisers of the Queensland Teachers Union.
A primary school teacher had a complaint lodged by a parent because she had given the kids a worksheet headed "Spelling demons". The parent's objection centred around "the association with the supernatural" and thought the children would be frightened.

A primary school in a regional area in Queensland withdrew yoga classes that had been offered to students as part of their fitness program. The reason behind the forced with­drawal? A parental complaint about yoga's association with "foreign religions".

Another primary school removed Harry Potter posters after a parent complained that the posters introduced children to witchcraft.

Similarly, parents of a high school student complained about Macbeth being studied in English classes because it "promoted witchcraft".

The parents of a high school student who complained about "the grave health risk to their child" who was asked to pick up papers from the school grounds as a consequence of persistent dis­ruptive behaviour.

Melbourne Cup Day was diffi­cult last year — as it is every year — because of the litany of complaints it brings. For example, the last race prompted complaints from parents because students were not allowed to discuss "the big race". The teachers were accused of being un-Australian. But the same day — and race brought complaints from parents of children who were allowed to discuss it, because it allegedly promotes gambling.

In cases where Santa was allowed to be part of recent classroom celebrations, these complaints were logged. Santa promotes a fantasy figure and should be banned. Teachers were promoting an unhealthy overweight role model to children and should be brought into line. The presence of Santa in the classroom promoted "greed". You'd think that would make a teacher's plan for the next Christmas easy. Ban Santa and stop the complaints. But no. An equal number of complaints are received each December when Santa is not part of celebrations. Parents have complained that (a) it is political correctness "gone mad"; and (b) that teachers are denying children exposure to a well-loved tradi­tional and cultural figure.

Even the sun-safe "no hat, no play" rule — which has been in place in Queensland state schools for years - - brings regular complaints from parents who claim their children have been "discriminated against" if they are not allowed on to the oval because they have no hat.

The issue of homework, too, is fraught with problems. Some parents argue that children should do all their work during school hours. But those on the other side say not giving enough homework means teachers are not fully providing for their education and how can all education be achieved from 8.30am to 3pm five days a week?

Add to that the appalling pay given to our teachers, and you wonder whether we are setting our education system up to fail. Of course, parents should have a say in the education of their children. But surely once you investigate the options, and select a school for your children, barring real evidence that your child is being damaged, shouldn't we leave the edu­cation to those trained to do it?

The spectre of daily com­plaints and even legal threats must have an effect on those at the front of the classroom. Why would you go the extra yard, think outside the square, or add to the curriculum if the risk is a barrage of complaints and the threat of legal action? It's our children who risk missing out here.

The story throws some light on what has become a major issue for teachers recently, but it really engages school principals. The amount of time taken up with managing complaints has become nothing short of a scandal. Precious time that should be used for educational leadership, supervision (of teachers) and mentoring has been taken from principals whilst they deal with complaints which are often a product of neurosis, vindictiveness, or sheer bloody-mindedness.

Last year, I bumped into a principal colleague of mine that I hadn't seen for a few years. When I asked him what he was up to, he told me that he had been appointed District Complaints Officer.

The district in which his school was located had been so concerned about the time used for complaints management, that they had created a position (on a principal's salary) for someone to do nothing but manage complaints. They decided that this was a better use of taxpayers' money than allowing each school to deal with it.

He was about to give it up and go back to his school, because he was tired of the abuse he was receiving. It kept him very busy - the phone rang all day long. There are a series of protocols developed around complaints, involving a great deal of paperwork. These protocols featured a flow chart designed to ensure that the complainant felt satisfied (vindicated??) at the end of the process. He reported that this was a rare outcome.

He told me that the bulk of the complaints weren't directed at the schools or teachers, but at the other students and their parents. People such as bus drivers, taxi drivers, crossing supervisors and tuck shop volunteers also came in for their fair share of criticism.

As a principal, I usually found that half an hour face-to-face with a complainant was the most successful technique, especially if the ears were turned on, the mouth turned off, and my behaviour wasn't defensive. The time was best used to get to the bottom of the issue (which wasn't always what was being complained about) and doing a little lateral problem-solving. As I remember, only once in twenty years did this not work, resulting in the parent going over my head.

In this particular situation, the teacher concerned had indeed behaved badly, but out of pride would not apologise. A simple apology would have restored the necessary confidence and respect. It meant lots of reports and paperwork, which I could well have done without.

* Old army saying - usually a response to a complaint.

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