This blog is both dedicated and directed to the graduating students from the Grad Dip Secondary at the University of Canberra. This is, in a sense, a Ceremonial Graduation Blog: including some advice to young graduates. The University of Canberra’s Graduate Diploma in Education is an outstanding course built around nine practical ‘provocations’ that have required the students to think deeply about our profession and its purposes. Our profession, and students in schools, are fortunate to have such well-prepared and professionally-engaged new teachers.
To these new teachers, we can collectively say, you carry the expectations of generations of teachers and educators as you enter this practical stage of your teaching life. The first few years are the hardest, but perhaps, also the most enjoyable, and you will establish relationships in that time that will last your lifetime. You will also find your education persona and particular purpose, your teaching ‘stance’, as you draw on the theories and practices you have absorbed into your own educational philosophy. Teaching is a social, communal activity: you will not be alone. There is enormous goodwill for you to succeed and to establish yourself in the education lineage as a unique contributor to the DNA of the education profession.
In an earlier blog I canvassed notions of educational DNA – the inheritance of educational genes through the profession from educational thinkers, scholars and practitioners throughout history – these scholars, teachers who have taught us, and their teachers have shaped our professional outlook – have defined what we think is ethical, possible and productive in relation to teachers’ practice.
As graduates entering this practical stage of the profession – you entered the profession as a theorist some time ago – it is time for some self-reflection and interrogation, a time to avoid the shackles of past ways of doing things, a time to define yourself, a time to bring new energies and ideas and understandings for your current teaching contemporaries to observe and learn from.
In undertaking this self reflection and interrogation I would like you to consider the following aspects of your attitude to your work.
The first aspect is your personal professional ‘stance’. Your stance incorporates what you stand for and what actions will shape the ways you are perceived. Think of Martin Luther and ‘Here I stand!’ or Martin Luther King and ‘I have a dream’. For academics Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle, ‘stance’ includes the personal, social and political as well as the educational:
In our work, we offer the term… ‘stance’ to describe the positions teachers and others who work together… take toward knowledge and its relationships to practice. We use the metaphor of stance to suggest both orientational and positional ideas, to carry allusions to the physical placing of the body as well as the intellectual activities and perspectives over time. In this sense, the metaphor is intended to capture the ways we stand, the ways we see, and the lenses we see through. Teaching is a complex activity that occurs within webs of social, historical, cultural and political significance… stance provides a kind of grounding – a place to put your feet – within the changing cultures of school reform and competing political agendas. (Cochran-Smith, M., & Little, S. (1999). Relationships of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in communities. Review of Research in Education, 24)
You come to the acts of teaching and learning with your own dynamic framework of knowledge and understanding and your own personal, social, cultural and linguistic character. Your own experiences, beliefs, ethical values, motivations, aspirations and commitments contribute to your stance and your identity as a teacher. Having a stance provides a framework for you to interact with your students and their experiences, beliefs, ethical values, motivations, aspirations and commitments. Your stance provides a frame of reference, albeit a dynamic one, that shapes your day-to-day professional work, including appraisal of your achievements.
Don’t define your stance by theories or methodologies. You will rarely meet a self-described constructivist teacher who is a pure constructivist. Many confuse laissez-faire with constructivism. Many self-described ‘traditional’ teachers are just lazy teachers, who can’t be bothered to change. Most successful teachers, and research has shown this, draw from a complex mixture of theories, using bits of behaviourism/constructivism, modernism/postmodernism, etc/etc, mixed with common-sense as suited to their purpose, the nature of the learning task and the dispositions of their students.
Your stance will, however, be shaped by the teachers and theorists that are evident in your professional DNA. Think of them as being in a cloud, of the cyber kind, hovering above your head as you go about your teaching, able to be down-loaded into your hard-drive consciousness when you need them. Vico, Dewey, Vygotsky and their mates are there when you need them. Having this support in your framework will be more significant than a few methodological prescriptions or management tricks. Having a thought-through, but evolving stance provides a continuing rationale for all your teaching interactions. It grounds you and enables you to maintain your ideals.
And there will be pressures on you to conform to the dominant teaching paradigms and cultures. Our profession is into cloning in a big way; a sort of negative denial of change. It is a highly conservative profession and whilst you have much to gain by respectfully observing and learning from your experienced colleagues, adapt what you learn into your own framework, don’t adopt someone else’s. The current teaching paradigm in Australian schools remains fundamentally a mid-20th Century one, denying the impact of technologies, regarding ‘the class’ (as distinct from the digitally-connected individual) as the unit of instruction, and maintaining a micro- rather than a macro- socio/political focus. One of the nine provocations that you have been considering was ‘Will I be allowed to be the teacher I want to be?’. Keep your responses to this provocation in mind when facing the pressures to conform.
The actions of the collective profession may remain rooted in the past but the rhetoric is often very contemporary. Some teachers prefer to avoid the term ‘teacher’ altogether and use willy-wet-leg terms like ‘facilitator’ or ‘mediator’ as if they had no knowledge, experience or skills themselves. How will you define yourself? In Provocation 1 you were asked to consider ‘What kind of teacher do I want to be?’. Well, now is the hour…
The second preparatory and continuing professional aspect worthy of your consideration is your own ethics. How will you promote the interests of the child? What professional moral principles will you espouse? Think about all that you have learned about teaching and your professional responsibilities and accountabilities. You could think about your ethical responsibilities and educative principles in relation to:
- The role of an educated citizenry in a prosperous, socially-just and diverse democracy
- Knowing the content of your teaching and keeping up-to-date with developments in your area of expertise
- Appraising new educational developments, making judgements about their educational soundness and applicability in school contexts and for your students
- Establishing a culture of individual growth that celebrates human endeavour
- Assessing and reporting student achievement
- Student dignity and confidentiality issues
- Being in loco parentis and duty of care and responsibilities to parents and care givers
I suggest you develop a short set of core ethical educative principles for yourself and write them down. Tell your students what principles guide you. You will find that they will respond and apply them to the learning interactions. Don’t get hung up with the ethics/principles-of-practice semantics. The Florida Department of Education has a list you might want to, reject or adapt for yourself.
Make learning the rationale for everything you do, and your students will too. The Knowledge Is Power Project schools in the USA have a simple ethical slogan for both teachers and students: “Work Hard: Be Nice”. http://www.kipp.org/
You will need to work hard, and be nice, and to be seen to be doing so without complaint, if this is what you want from your students. Demand a lot from yourself, and importantly, also from your students. Expect great works from your students. Generally someone in the room will be more intelligent than you. Don’t provide your students with reasons to underachieve: called ‘marshmallowing’. Don’t over-praise ordinary achievement, celebrate real intellectual activity. Don’t dumb-down expectation, (‘Oh, don’t worry, I wasn’t good at Maths either when I was at school’); expect and demand great works.
We have unnecessarily extended adolescence in contemporary society. Once, great intellectual achievements were expected from individuals before their 21st birthday. The first great Romantic poet, Thomas Chatterton died when he was 17 yet left a body of work worthy of study. Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook, was 23 when he made his first voyage as a naturalist and 21 when he became a magistrate. Ada Lovelace, the ‘world’s first computer programmer’, was 17 when her mathematical genius was recognized. Bob Dylan commenced professional writing/performing when he was 20 and had been through the whole folk-protest-Joan-Baez experience and had turned to electric rock music before he was 23. Mark Zuckerberg was 20 when he set up the Facebook company. Expect early achievement from your students: don’t marshmallow them.
The third and last area I think you need to consider is relationships. I surprised an early Saturday meeting of publishers and local principals by declaring that the principals were there because they loved their students. Consider the nature of the love you will have for your students – a self-effacing love, one that is a collective love, which suppresses and transcends sexuality. Successful teachers recognise and celebrate the value of young people in our society, both for what they contribute now and what they will contribute. This collective regard for children and young people encompasses perhaps more of a Buddhist notion of compassion. Thinking about this will help you avoid becoming a teacher whose ego is the dominant classroom force. The Keating of Dead Poets Society is not a useful model: the cult of the personality should have died with Chairman Mao. Your students may enjoy someone else doing all the work and providing entertainment but it is not the purpose of schooling. Do not think you can become your students’ friend: that is not your role. A visiting student teacher once told very working class kids in my school “My name is Tom and I’m your friend.” A kid replied “I choose my own friends…, Sir”.
Such regard for children does not mean that they will always return the love and do as you wish. There will be resistance, slothfulness, misbehaviour and frustration. Don’t get too hung up with classroom management and discipline. Always keep your focus on the bigger picture: learning. An ordered environment can facilitate learning but the real learning doesn’t necessarily follow, and order can become an end in itself. Your expertise is in structuring learning: opt for a structured learning environment, which may or may not be a quiet, orderly one.
So, much lies ahead. I am quite excited for you. Let us be your fellow-travellers. I know that you are well prepared; your professor speaks most enthusiastically about your academic achievements and ardency. Above all, remember that teaching is fundamentally an intellectual activity. Cognition rules! Maintain yourself as an intellectual, able to think through issues, able to draw on a great educational intellectual tradition and able to create intellectual growth in others.