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.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Tortured Reasoning

We've heard plenty today from across the Pacific about the use of torture. Depressing topic - but it gets the crew over at Blair's blog in a real lather.

Interestingly enough, if the blog comments are anything to go by, some of the strongest proponents of state sponsored torture are female. I won't go there.....

Let's read something from someone who has been personally involved.

My experience suggests it (torture) largely doesn’t (work). I was a Military Intelligence (MI) agent in Vietnam in 1966. I watched as we worked to dehumanize the enemy, some calling them “gooks,” “slopes,” and other terms designed to differentiate between them and us, the good guys and the bad guys.

This from an individual trained in the techniques and writing from the experience of using them.

Australian soldiers in Vietnam as a rule treated prisoners well - or at least that's my recall. My recent travels in Vietnam and my conversations with Vietnamese of the war generation have revealed in them (even in old enemies) a strong respect for Aussies because we treated them with respect after capture, and VC dead were given decent burial.

After the conflict is over, the survivors remember, and use those memories to shape the future. Anger and resentment lingers and often grows into the seeds of further conflict. The torturers themselves are often as much the victims as those they tortured.

For no other reasons than those, torture should be anathema to the modern military. Yet there are those who still advocate it as a routine part of anti-insurgent activity.

Tony Smith, writing in the Australian Review of Public Affairs, puts it pretty well when he points out that it does not work , it cannot be controlled and it is unethical.

The argument put forward by its proponents, (that it's OK because of the atrocities committed by the terrorists) originates in the reptilian recesses of the primitive brain - in other words, it's about vengeance. God help us all if that level of reasoning becomes part of any sanctioned government policy.

But then, it did, for a time, across the pacific.

Level Playing Field

Today's Courier Mail has a refreshing article by Margaret Wenham, journalist and mother of three boys.

She writes about her experiences with their education in the context of the public-private debate. It appealed to me, in light of my own experiences, although I don't completely agree with this statement -

Australia's two-tiered structure is unnecessary. It's anachronistic legacy of British class system and it's time we shrugged it off.

I believe we need a range of educational opportunities, but we don't need "tiers". The strength and resilience of our community depends on its diversity, and the exposure of young people to that diversity. The more accepting of difference we are, the less likely our community will be to harbour conflict.

This is also part of our national ethos - Jack is as good as his master in this country.

We also need to be sure that all our young people, irrespective of parental income, race, creed or heritage, are given the best chance of success in life. Any lack of access to opportunity for one specific group will be at cost to the whole community.

I do agree with her to some extent when she says -

According to figures supplied by Minister Rod Welford's office, private school attract not that much less in state and federal funding that state school students - about $7500 per head compared with $10700. Political philosophies aside, is it reasonable for those who spurn the publicly funded universal inclusive education system to expect hundreds of millions more of public money to be spent propping up a separate, selective and exclusive private education system?

My concern is specifically for students with disabilities. Since 1971, I've worked with this particular segment of the school population in a range of capacities across the state. On coming to Toowoomba, which is renowned for its plethora of expensive private schools, I was surprised to find that almost all of them refused enrolment to students with intellectual impairments and/or Autism. They would occasionally admit students with visual impairments and physical impairments, but this was usually by exception.

Because I was at this time a principal, I joined the local chapter of ACE (Australian Council of Educators) and generally made myself unpopular at dinner meetings by asking the "why" question when told that they didn't have students with disabilities enrolled.

The stock answer was "We don't cater for these students".

If I was persistent enough to ask when that situation was going to change, there was usually no answer, but I was studiously avoided for the rest of the evening. I remember one (male) principal of a large co-ed Catholic school describing my work as "blessed", but he still didn't answer the question. He obviously wasn't interested in competing for that place in heaven reserved for special educators.

My simple point with all of this is that these private schools receive large chunks of taxpayer funding, yet do not provide the most basic component of an educational service, namely universal access to parents who can afford the fees.

My experience tallies with Wenham's in terms of the results of a state education. I am the eldest of six. Myself and all my siblings attended a combination of state schools, small convent schools, and large metropolitan private schools. This was a function over time of my parents' careers as teachers, initially in the bush and later in larger provincial and metropolitan centres. In addition, as both my dad and mum were promoted higher in the system, they were able to afford the private school fees.

My three bothers ended up respectively as a Deputy Director General, a Manager of a medium sized (and very prosperous) business, and a General Practitioner with a very busy surgery and an interest in emergency medicine. My sisters respectively became (apart from being successful mothers) a public servant and a music teacher.

My own children have all attended both public and private schools (for much the same reasons as myself and siblings) and have all been good students, continuing to study at tertiary level.

The point of all this is to reinforce my belief that the best preparation for life is an inclusive education exposing the individual to a wide range of individuals and experiences.

The term "exclusive" should never be applied to schooling. Leave it to purveyors of Real Estate.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Keeping the Customer Satisfied

I have five phone accounts and one internet account with Telstra. This is not a matter of choice. Because of my work in fairly remote areas I have no option but to use their services, as the other networks don't have their infrastructure.

This doesn't mean that I'm happy with either their corporate structure or institutional culture. In fact, it's probably not accurate to describe one institutional culture when it comes to Telstra. I've always found the people on the ground in the bush honest, helpful and obliging.

I can't say the same for those I've encountered in metropolitan areas, especially those involved in marketing. They generally come across as interested only in getting your signature on the contract, and revert to disinterested mode if there are any problems with services.

I did have some success in 2007 in having a problem resolved, but it took lots of time and determination. It all started with the shutdown of the CDMA network.

My handset (the standard one supplied when I had no choice but to exchange it for my old reliable and effective CDMA Nokia) simply didn't work in the bush. I was suspicious of the new network from the beginning, after many of the people I worked with in the styx kept saying "you'll be sorry" when I told them I was using 3G.

My suspicions turned out to be well-founded, as most of the time I had to stand on the roof of my car to make and receive calls. The yarn going around the bush was that they worked off the street lights, as you had to be in sight of these same lights to get coverage. After one particularly nasty situation when I arrived on the scene of an accident and wasn't able to summon help, I decided enough was enough. I went into the local Telstra shop and complained.

Basically I was told (without much courtesy) that my handset did work in the bush, because Telstra head office said it did, and I would have to prove it didn't.

I got myself a copy of the coverage map, and took it with me on every trip. Every time I tried to make a call, and couldn't, or had a call drop out, I made a detailed note on the map. In no time at all, it was covered with annotations. I took this data into a Telstra Countryside shop, and presented it to the local manager. He accepted it with good grace, and told me to expect a phone call. About two weeks later, I had a call from a "consultant" with an Indian accent, who asked me a set of irrelevant questions, including what kind of roof was on my home. Protesting that I didn't make mobile calls from home because I had a perfectly good hard line got me nowhere.

About a week later, a different Indian-sounding chappie phoned offering to exchange my handset for a Telstra "Bush" phone, and to credit my account with the cost of an in-car kit to suit. (My existing installation was incompatible with the new phone). Before the corporate mind changed , I scooted down to the Telstra shop with the magic job number I'd been given, and was duly relieved of my useless lump of plastic and metal, in exchange for a ZTE F165, which I was told was the bee's knees in the bush.

Indeed it is, but it's clunky and looks more like something that was current about ten years ago. Having said that, I'm happy, because you can actually make and receive calls on it in the areas in which I work. So I'm a satisfied customer when it comes to mobile services.

I can't say the same for Bigpond. When my bill arrived last week I discovered that I'd been billed for storage capacity I hadn't authorised.

I phoned the enquiries number on the bill, and after the routine shuffling from business unit to business unit (speaking to disembodied robots all the way), I got to speak to a human being. This person listened to my query (after I'd proved by quoting my birth date that it really was me calling and not some miscreant who had time on his hands intent on annoying Bigpond) and asked me to hold the line whilst she looked into my problem. I listened to all sorts of in-house messages, a variety of silences and examples of white noise, until 30 minutes later, the battery on my remote handset died. This of course terminated the call.

Today the phone rang, and a Telstra robot introduced herself and asked me to comment on how useful the original assistance call had been. Because I don't talk to robots, I neglected to hit any keys, but listened long enough to understand that Telstra seemed more intent on keeping a supervisory eye on staff than on meeting my needs.

In one call they'd succeeded in further annoying an already browned off customer, and if truth be told (and I'd cooperated with their mini-inquisition), an employee as well. I'll take the bill to the Telstra shop in an attempt to speak to a living breathing human being.

Wish me luck – I've been told that Telstra shop employees disown Bigpond enquiries, unless you're actually intent on writing new business.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Cens**ed by Timmeh

Demonstrating a conspicuous lack of moral fibre, Blair's censors refuse my comments on his blog. This, as far as I'm concerned, is a complement, given the standard of both his posts, and the comments thereon.

It's amazing how the erstwhile proponents of free speech go to water when their world view is threatened, even in the most light hearted manner. Apparently the very Oz sport of stirring has been consigned to the dustbin of history by the Blair or his minders in the MSM.

I guess the same flavour has gone from political debate. When was the last time you heard a healthy exchange between a pollie and a heckler? I guess the demise of stump speeches has removed the opportunity. It's a shame, because this kind of dialogue is the essence of a healthy democracy.

It's occurred to me that there may be some readers out there who have an interest in what constitutes, in the eyes of Blair's censors, unacceptable comment.

To this end, I've opened this thread which will feature any comment censored. You can make up your own mind, and unlike Blair's blog, your comments will not be censored - favourable or otherwise.

I'll update it as I go.

My censored comment on the thread Red Hot (see screen shot) -

OMG another VLWC!!!*
Save us, Timmeh.

*Vast left wing conspiracy.


My censored comment on the thread Great Kuwait Debate (see screen shot) -

Obviously this offence belongs in the same category as sharing your SIMs card with rellies and leaving the country to visit your new baby. Heinous!


My censored comment on the thread Make Them Pay (See screen shot) -

My thoughts are with his family and his mates. May he rest in peace.

I'm wondering what's objectionable about paying tribute to an Australian soldier. Any ideas?

Update (16.01.09)

My censored comment on the thread Bra Worn (see screen shot) -

Apart from the fact that the collateral negative effect of state-sponsored torture (radicalisation of sympathisers) is obvious, there has never been a clear understanding that it is effective.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Schools and Markets - Mutually Exclusive

Education is still in the media.

This may have something to do with the fact that the new school year is just over the horizon, and the media is cashing in on the annual surge in interest in schooling matters. Whatever the reason, the letters columns in the various papers that I read have been full of missives on the topic.

The letter featured was written quite some time ago and published in the Courier Mail on 15th December 2008. I'm including it here as it gives me a small excuse to have a rant on the topic. I also know the author from another life and respect his opinion –
There is a growing consensus that teachers can make a difference, and there is talk about improving teachers' skills as well as a range of other measures. Yet some problems that have given rise to continued educational underachievement by too many students have yet to be addressed.

Your editorial (C-M, Dec 13-14) states that blame for student underachievement may lie else­where. Providing teachers with regular in-service training, raising their salaries and working conditions, and improving community per­ceptions about the value of teach­ing as a profession addresses the problems in an unbalanced ap­proach.

For too long, reactive policy development, unnecess­arily conflicting ideologies and curriculum imbalance and inco­herence have been a hindrance to the day-to-day business of the work of principals and teachers.

I suggest that there is a long-overdue need to shift the chain of command back to the schools, to balance the chain of responsibility for student learning. One of the quickest ways is to provide princi­pals and teachers with coherent syllabus documents that contrib­ute to a shared understanding and language for teaching within and between schools.

Rod Campbell, Aspley

He touches on a number of issues near and dear to my heart. The first one is that in order to improve school performance, it's necessary to focus on teachers.

Back in the nineties, When Borbridge was in power in Queensland, there was an initiative called “Leading Schools”. It was decided that the best way to improve schools was to make them self managing. Schools were offered extra cash to sign up, and many did, especially high schools. At the same time as this was happening, research was commissioned which was supposed to show that self-managed schools would get better results for students.

When the research was completed a few years later, it showed absolutely no correlation between how schools were managed and results for students. What it did show was a strong link between teacher performance and student results. “Leading Schools” was abandoned after two years.

This is a long winded way of showing that the best way of improving results for students is by improving teacher performance. So far, no administration has tackled this, except for the ill-considered notion of performance pay for teachers which has been shown time and again to be counter-productive.

I'll list some suggestions from someone who's been teaching since 1968. Most of them bear directly on teacher performance –
Increase teacher pay by 25% immediately.
Transfer any teacher who has been on the same class or in the same school for more than three years to another teaching posting.
Mandate - by affirmative action - a minimum of 25% male teachers at every school.
Put the best teachers on the most difficult classes.
Fine parents whose children are suspended for bad behaviour - $1000 a throw.
Make OP scores for teachers 9 or better.*
Mandate a post graduate qualification for all newly graduating teachers.
Introduce a statewide internship programme, so that graduating teachers spend their last year of training in schools day by day - same as medical graduates.
Provide realistic bonuses for teachers who work in difficult and challenging situations. I’m talking thousands monthly.
Make teacher registration dependent on continuing study - in other words, if you’re not studying, you can’t teach.
Create a stream of teachers who are paid the equivalent of administrators (principals) to stay in the classroom, and mentor beginning teachers.

The unions would probably accept these initiatives conditional on the first suggestion (the pay rise).

Campbell also mentions "chain of command", in other words, system administration. The administration of state systems needs to change in the following particulars - Eradicate corporate managerialism as an overriding culture in state education agencies.

Restore the power of principals to determine the philosophical direction of their school communities.

Restore the division of regional education boundaries so that regional managers of remote and rural schools are located in the geographical centre of the regions they administer.

Eradicate the principle of contestability as a corporate mantra in these same agencies.

There is a dogma (which has been embraced completely by corporate managers), that unless competition forms a part of any organised activity, the outcomes will be sub-standard. This principle (“contestability”), has crossed the Pacific, and colonized the thought processes of corporate managers, both public and private; in much the same way as the cane toad colonized Northern Australia.

Unschooled as I am in corporate managerialism, I can’t for the life of me see how competition makes any difference to efficiency and effectiveness, unless perhaps your business is producing toilet rolls, and your employees respond like Pavlov’s dogs.

It is out of place in human services, yet has been so completely embraced that anyone foolish enough to be critical of it is destined for the corporate doghouse.

As I said, I’m obviously na├»ve, because I believe that the majority of people working in human services do so because they enjoy it and believe they can make a difference.

Perhaps more to the point, the notion is most appropriately applied to the market, and not every form of human endeavour can be designed or described as a market, despite the best efforts of those exercising financial power and influence.

We need only to look at the market as a metaphor for effectiveness and efficiency as it has developed in the last six months. The new name for the stock market is Armageddon.

Let's not apply its dodgy principles to this most important intergenerational undertaking.

* OPs in Queensland determine university places. Other states have equivalent schemes. We need our best high school matriculants in teaching.

Gymnorhina Tibicen

We're privileged to live in an area which has been well and truly colonised by a tribe of Magpies (Gymnorhina Tibicen). I'm not entirly sure that "tribe" is the correct collective term, but their behaviour is certainly tribal, especially when it comes to guarding their nests during the breeding season.

My family has never been attacked by members of the local group, despite the fact that between us we do a fair bit of walking. I've certainly been attacked by others, not in our neighbourhood.

Maybe someone out there who knows more about birds than I do can tell me if this indeed the case (that Magpies become familiar with the people who live near them, and attack only strangers).

They're an entertaining lot, and seem to behave in ways that could only be described as eccentric. The immature birds can be seen engaged in the Magpie version of play-fighting. Usually one will stand over another - the one on the ground lying on its back making loud squarking noises, whilst there will always be a mature bird looking on as if supervising to make sure nothing gets out of hand.

On other occasions, I've seen groups of a dozen or more hanging around together, much in the same ways as younger members of the species homo sapiens. They don't seem to be doing much else than (using the jargon of the Millenials) chillin.

The photo (taken at the zoom limit of my mobile - hence the pixellation) shows a pair seeking refuge from the sun under a car. What was bizarre about this their ritual fluffing out of feathers and strutting around in circles under the car. I have no idea what this was about, but it looked pretty strange. They kept it up for about twenty minutes.

I'm glad they live here. Waking up to their morning song is a great way to start the day.

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