Australia’s dismal results on international tests of pupil – mostly they don’t study, so calling them students is a misnomer – performance will come as no surprise to anyone acquainted with education in the “lucky country”.
Improved teacher quality and increased spending on education are typically offered as solutions to the problem. These solutions do not address the single most important factor affecting individual achievement: the quality of the pupils themselves.
Pupil quality derives from the qualities of the pupils. In my experience – 30 years teaching in Western Australia’s public high schools – far too many mainstream pupils, that is, the vast majority of “average” pupils, possess qualities that are not conducive to learning.
High school pupils are typically: skilled at shirking responsibility; semi-literate; unable to do arithmetic without a calculator; self-assured; argumentative; assertive; uncooperative; unable to cope with constructive criticism; and totally unaccustomed to failure. Put 32 pupils – each with his own unique mix of these qualities – in a classroom and little learning will happen. The one thing pupils have learned at school it’s that they will suffer no adverse consequences unless they do something outlandish.
They all religiously carry mobile phones but cannot be bothered bringing pens, pencils and paper, relying on the teacher to provide them. Those who do have the necessary gear will often ask that they be provided because they’re simply too lazy to retrieve them from their schoolbags.
Textbooks designed for specific year levels are too difficult. Ask pupils to locate designated words in the text and define them using a dictionary invariably produces, “It’s not in here” rather than “I can’t find it”.
Pressuring them to work will likely evoke excuses – my pen won’t work – or spark an argument. Even polite requests for them to get on with the task at hand often evoke ostentatious displays of temper, pupils showily storming out of class.
Pupils frequently question the value of learning, asking, “Why do we need to know this?” Explaining that learning is like doing a jigsaw puzzle in that the more pieces you have in place the easier it is to add new pieces does not convince them.
Many simply refuse to work. Teachers are responsible for addressing the problem presented by pupils at risk of not achieving to their potential. Parental contact is expected although there is little even supportive parents will or can do.
Teachers are required to cater to the needs of individual pupils so the construction of a detailed, written Individualised Education Plan (IEP) is the next step. With close to 100% of any class of 32 “at risk”, a teacher could spend many hours implementing corrective measures that will likely prove unproductive.
A sensible teacher will probably keep quiet about non-workers; to refer the matter to a line manager is not only time consuming it proves to both peers and management that a teacher cannot effectively manage pupils. Thus the problem will remain unsolved. In any event, a student’s slack work ethic will have developed over a period of years and will be very difficult to shift.
Many of the non-workers are, unfortunately, attention-seekers whose goal is to impress their peers and amuse themselves by hassling both the vulnerable and teachers.
They come to school without the necessary gear, have multiple cans of energy drinks, lollies and chips in their schoolbags, argue the most simple requests, swear nonstop, won’t remain seated, incessantly call out, tease anyone deemed different or vulnerable, scrawl on desks, books and walls (they invariably have a permanent marker but no pens, pencils or paper), make sexual comments and swear at teachers at the slightest provocation – one particular pupil, inclined to fits of temper and chair-throwing, screamed at me while enraged, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck.”
Getting on top of pupils with behaviour problems is even more convoluted than with simple non-workers – the process is so complicated and time consuming it’s almost as if it was designed to be unworkable.
Here are the steps:
- Correct the pupil.
- Contact the parents.
- Develop an IEP and, if necessary, a BMP (Behaviour Management Plan) after reflecting on the situation.
- Implement the IEP and BMP.
- Enter behavioural details into the Schools Information System (SIS). The details must be dated and written so that management can, if necessary, copy and paste them into appropriate documents. The school network is often down, however, and unless a teacher provides his own computer – either through purchase, or rental from the Education Department – there is no way to access the network.
- Consult with the line manager and year coordinator. DO NOT do this unless all previous steps have been taken and proved ineffective.
- Meet with the pupil and the line manager to draw up a behaviour contract. The contract will likely require modified behaviour by both pupil and teacher, the pupil having complained at length about teacher shortcomings.
- Monitor compliance with the contract.
- Continue updating pupil behaviour data in SIS.
- Brief line manager.
- Meet to draw up a new contract.
- Continue SIS updates.
- Monitor compliance with the new contract.
- Brief the line manager.
- The line manager refers the matter to Student Services for further action.
- Brief Student Services – be prepared to defend your handling of the matter.
- Meet with the pupil at Student Services to draw up a new contract.
- Continue entering data into SIS.
- Monitor contract compliance.
- Meet with the pupil and parents at Student Services – be prepared to defend your handling of the matter.
- It’s the end of semester so the student changes classes.
- The problem isn’t solved, it now belongs to another teacher.
Should the miscreant be an indigenous Australian, the school’s AIEO (Aboriginal and Islander Education Officer) must be involved in the process. In all honesty, I’ve had no more problems with Aboriginal pupils than with any others. That said, one particular Aboriginal student was a huge problem.
The lad had red hair and freckles and was therefore not readily identifiable as indigenous but sought advantage through recognition as Aboriginal. Prone to massive outbursts of temper at the slightest provocation he one day lost his cool and threw an atlas at me while my back was turned, hitting me in the back of the legs.
I referred this straight to my line manager who consulted with Student Services. As the school had no AIEO at the time, a period of institutional paralysis occurred, at the end of which I was told the boy would return to class. I prevented this by threatening to call in the police.
It turned out this this nasty pupil was a problem for teachers and other pupils throughout the school. This was not obvious to the powers that be because no one has a handle on discipline. It became glaringly obvious the following year when the little darling seriously assaulted a younger pupil.
Teachers often don’t enter behaviour data into SIS because they simply lack the time, even if they do have a computer and the network is working. Also, the data goes into SIS directly from individual teachers, which means pupils can create havoc around the school without it being obvious to anyone in a position of authority. Upon pointing this out to Student Services I was informed that should I note any trends while entering behaviour data for particular pupils I should advise my line manager. Thus teachers are expected to manage pupils, enter behaviour data, monitor pupil behaviour in other classes and keep managers informed of any emerging trends.
Management must know that teachers do not have the time to enter behaviour data in all instances of significant misbehaviour – to do so would require thousands of man-hours in large schools. The school’s behaviour management scheme was almost certainly intentionally designed so as to downplay problem behaviour through underreporting and thereby take behaviour management pressure off managers.
The schools I’ve worked at were pretty rough – the bulk of the pupils from middle class blue collar families – with none of them noted for producing academic high-flyers, yet many former pupils have gone on to university, one lovely young lady achieving high school results good enough to qualify for medical school, another going on to complete a PhD in geology. Motivated, able students manage to succeed because they’re persistent, adaptable and clever. Bear that in mind the next time you hear pleas for better teachers and increased school funding.
At the end of the 2014 school year I went into semi-retirement, intending to do the odd day of relief work for which I’d gross $450. That lasted for about three months before I decided it’s simply not worth the mental wear and tear.
Update: Public school staffing.