Dear Mr Pyne

I am sure anyone who knows me or reads this blog has a pretty fair idea of where my political and ideological affiliations sit. I won’t go on in length here about the recent budget or the horrors of the past 8 months under this LNP government… that’s what Facebook and Twitter are for, after all.

But I did want to share the letter I just sent, via the Australian Greens Senator Penny Wright’s petition regarding the government’s reneging on their repeated promises that they would honour the Gonski report recommendations, and match the level of funding promised by the previous Labor government. So here it is.

Dear Mr Pyne,

I was deeply concerned to hear your  public statement that you and your party are ‘emotionally committed’ to private schools.

As Federal Minister for Education, you should be emotionally committed to the best outcome for every student in every school in this country, and as the person responsible for the allocation of tax-payer funds, that should primarily mean students in public schools supported by the Australian public through our taxes. Australia has a justifiably proud heritage of free universal education for every student, a heritage based on the philosophy of pioneers such as Sir Henry Parkes, who had  a vision for public education where every Australian child would sit ‘side by side’ and have full educational access and equity regardless of their social or cultural background.

Australians have overwhelmingly demonstrated their approval of the reforms proposed by the Gonski report. You stated repeatedly before the election that schools would receive the same amount of money under your government as promised by Labor. Please honour your word and honour the children of Australia by reversing your decision to abandon the reforms and funding you promised.

I have spent nearly my entire working life working with and for children in some of the most disadvantaged areas of western Sydney—the very region most pandered to by unfulfilled promises from your government. I have seen first hand the difference a properly resourced, well-maintained school can make in the lives of these children. The much-maligned program of new school facilities built by the previous Labor government has provided these schools with dedicated library spaces (not leaky demountables) where children may read, research and study; school halls that have freed up spaces in the school to allow creative arts, sports and other rich engagement programs that most benefit the most disadvantaged. Money may not solve every problem in our schools, but the lack of it creates many, many more.

You may be emotionally committed to your old school tie, and the benefits that have flowed your way from that privileged community. I am emotionally committed to ensuring that children who did not start out in life with the advantages you did have at least some chance to make the most of their potential, and that’s where I want my taxes to go.

Fund the Gonski recommendations in full. Anything else is truly a false economy.

Yours sincerely,

Judith Ridge

We can’t all be Miss Honey and maybe we shouldn’t even try.

I got a little bit cranky on Twitter tonight.

Oh, that’s nothing unusual. Twitter is kind of designed to make you cranky—indeed, that’s why many people, it seems to me, seek it out. Me, I usually retreat when I start to feel my blood pressure rise. Emotional equilibrium is pretty precious to me, and I’m not a great fan of conflict at the best of times.

But sometimes those cranky-making conversations are good for you. They get the old blood flowing to the head, and start to make you think about things, and why they get you cranky, and what you actually think about the topic beyond the initial instinctive reaction. And that’s brought me here.

The discussion was started by a tweeted report of a comment made at a conference where the speaker apparently said something about how schools kill off a love of reading, or make kids hate books, or something like that. It was a conference about YA literature, so presumably they were talking about teenagers, which means they were talking about high schools, which means, let’s face it, they were talking about English teachers.

So I hit the sarcasm hashtag and made a reply tweet about idiot English teachers whose ambition in life is to turn kids off reading, which in turn brought out all the (entirely anecdotal, of course, and so entirely unprovable of anything except themselves) comments about English Teachers Tweeps Have Known who don’t read. Apparently there’s a plague of them. Which of course proves the point that the main purpose of the English classroom is to make kids hate reading too.

What really stuck in my craw was that these tweets were mostly coming from teacher-librarians.* I made my own observation that I knew teacher librarians who didn’t like fiction OR students in equal measure. I was unlucky enough to teach in a school that had two such nightmares in rapid succession—well, one liked fiction OK but my GOD she hated the kids. Terrified of them, actually, which amounted to the same thing. Which anecdote is only useful insofar as it proves that there are probably, by extrapolation, at least some other TLs out there who similarly don’t see it as their job to even loan books to kids, much less turn them all into card-carrying members of the Puffin Club, but that doesn’t make them representative of the profession as a whole. Of course.

I mean, maybe it was just a bit of territorial pissing, but the fact is, I really find these kind of comments about fellow teachers, whoever they come from, and whatever the actual content of the criticism (work in a school long enough, ie five minutes, and you’ll hear every kind of cross-faculty bitching you can imagine) the educational equivalent of the Elaine Awards. You know—the award named for the late Elaine Nile for Comments Least Helpful to the Sisterhood.

I mean, really, teachers don’t have enough shit to put up with that we have to go on line and publically bag one another’s professionalism?

And I say ‘we’ even thought it’s well over 20 years since I taught full time, and ten since I spent any time ducking spitballs and fake names in roll call as a casual teacher, but the old adage is true—once a teacher, always a teacher. I am as passionate today about the profession as I ever was, perhaps in some ways even more so because I know how hard it is and how hard it is—especially when half of that is because of the criticism that is so freely and so frequently thrown at teachers—is why I left.

And another reason I left, although I don’t think I ever actually articulated it this way when I hung up my dust jacket (kidding—I never wore a dust jacket, although it is so long ago that I taught that I still used chalk)… One of the main reasons I left being an English teacher was because I realised that it was not my job to make kids love reading.

Let me say that again.

It is not an English teacher’s job to make kids love reading.

To think it is, is at best naïve innocence (the kind all first year out teachers should probably have to some degree); hubris at worst.

Ask yourself this: What other subject do we expect teachers to make kids love? Do we expect maths teachers to make kids want to race home and do a few algebraic equations for the fun of it? Do we expect geography teachers to inspire kids to go on walks on the weekend in order to map the topography of the local neighbourhood? Do we think history teachers have failed at their jobs if kids aren’t conducting archaeological digs in their back yard or dragging their parents off to a Historic Houses walking tour in their spare time?

And those of us who hated sport with a passionate hate—we bookish types who resent being shifted from our cosy position under a rug and a cat—how much did we loathe and despise the evangelist PE teacher who ran 1st double period on Friday like a compulsory exercise yard in a Beijing factory? Did they fail at their job because however many years or decades later, we’d rather poke ourselves in the eye (OK, not that—we need those eyes for reading) than go for a jog?

But English teachers, it seems, carry a particular burden. Despite the fact that’s the only compulsory subject right through to Year 12, so every single child who goes through school, be it in a bricks and mortar jobby, a home school or via correspondence or School of the Air, has to study English. Every child, regardless of intellect or inclination. And yet somehow it’s the English teacher’s job to make them all avid under-the-cover, couldn’t-think-of-anything-else-I’d-rather-be-doing, readers for pleasure.

Well, it’s not. For a start, it’s a ridiculous, unrealistic and again, arrogant goal to think that every single child could or should love to read for pleasure (by which, I should add, we almost always mean fiction). I’m not talking about being able to read, and at more than a simple able-to-decode standard; the necessary literacy skills to more-than-survive in a modern, complex world. I’m talking about reading for pleasure. It’s just not the English teacher’s job to make people love reading. And I can tell you that for those of us who think it is, that way frustration and disappointment lies.

I wanted it to be my job as an English teacher—to make kids love reading— although I didn’t consciously realise it at the time. I wanted it to be my job because that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to make kids love reading the same way I loved reading. More than that, I wanted them to love literature in the way that I do. And sometimes I was successful—I was great at book talking, and I always had kids keen to take home the books I recommended to them, just as if you speak enthusiastically to a friend about a movie you’ve seen or a place you’ve been to, they’re likely to think they want to see it, or got there too. Doesn’t mean they will, of course, although they might wish they had in a kind of half-hearted, if-only-I-didn’t-have-something-better-to-do fashion.

Sometimes those kids did read the books I book-talked, and the memories of some of those kids and books remain my most vivid from my teaching years. But probably most of them, in the end, didn’t. Or maybe they did, and enjoyed them well enough, but not enough to come back to me after the weekend and demand ‘another one just like that’ (one of those treasured memories). In other words, I may have encourage them to read and enjoy the odd book, or at the very least think that reading for pleasure wasn’t just a completely oddball thing to do, but for most of them I daresay, if they weren’t already interested in reading as a leisure activity, I doubt my enthusiasm converted them. And that’s OK.

Because not everyone has to love reading. Everyone should be exposed to good books, so as to have the option, just as everyone should be exposed to science and maths and sport and cooking and woodwork and music, but not everyone can possibly ever hope, or be hoped, to love maths or music or making muffins.

But don’t I think people’s lives are better if they like to read? Well, no. I can’t in all honesty say I do. I think people’s lives are immeasurably worse off if they CAN’T read, of course, but it would be a huge disservice to the millions of people world wide who either by choice or by circumstance don’t read for pleasure, and live perfectly well-adjusted, fulfilling and meaningful lives. Who am I to say, oh, but you’d be so much better off if you just read this novel! Who am I? Some self-important English teacher, that’s who I’d be. And that’s why I’m not an English teacher any more—because I wanted to say that and It Wasn’t My Job.

And I’m always wary of the smugness that can sometimes go along with the “Hey! Reading is Great!” message. I invariably hate those books that have pro-reading messages in the title. (I hate books with messages anywhere, really, but the Reading Evangelism ones really annoy me.) They just all seem so clubby, so self-satisfied, so finger-pointery at those kids for whom reading was a bore, or worse, difficult. Way to make sure they never choose the option of reading for pleasure, in my view.

All of which brings me back to the non-reading English teacher. Or to be more accurate—because I believe the actual non-reading English teacher, despite all the many anecdotes we can all trot out with our hands clasped in horror, is in fact a rarity and where it does exist, doesn’t survive long in the wild—the English teacher whose entire personal library consisted of Jackie Collins (hey, it was the 80s!) or trashy-looking SF. Sure. I’ve met them. I’ve worked with them. Hell, I’ve scorned them and mocked them and derided their professionalism (not to their faces, mind you).

And I was wrong. Because some of them were among the best teachers I’ve ever known.

These weren’t the teachers who were ever going to—because they weren’t interested—teach 3 Unit English (as it was then). They left that to the girly-swat bookish types like me, with our weird interest in literary theory and Sydney Theatre Company subscriptions. They could more than competently take on the standard set texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, the Usual Shakespeare Subjects, The Silver Freaking Sword—I told you it was the 80s) and sometimes they indeed grumbled as loudly as the kids did about them, but they did their job and they did it with enormous integrity, skill, passion and compassion. They met basic curriculum requirements, of course, but more than that, they focused on the skills necessary for the kids to live fully engaged, safe and competent lives: literacy skills, critical thinking and writing, grammar and spelling, whatever the naysayers would have you believe—it was in my experience the non- or non-‘serious’ readers who were actually more assiduous about the building blocks of English than we literary types. (Now who’s generalising? OK, ME. I was slack at the stuff, because it bored me because I knew it without knowing how I knew it or how to name it and I just didn’t know how to teach it.)

These were the teachers who knew that for the vast majority of their students, the biggest achievement they could get out of school was to be properly skilled and even critical users of the language as they would need it in their lives; that they needed to pass standard exams to make it into those adult lives with jobs, or in some cases, further study prospects, and that the best service they as teachers could do was to focus on those pragmatic life and educational skills.

Not to convert them to what is, when all is said and done, for most people, a hobby.

And yes, I know that ‘pleasure’ is included in the desirable outcomes for students in the NSW 7-10 English syllabus—although it comes last on the list nearly every time, which if nothing else tells you where it stands in the Board of Studies’ list of priorities. (And how do you measure it anyway?)

Because, in reality, making your students love your subject**, particularly for those of us who love our subject, is at best a bonus. It’s just simply not core business.

I’m not for an instant suggesting that teaching shouldn’t at its best practice have at heart a delight in the subject matter. Teachers can and should strive to pass on an enthusiasm and enjoyment for their subject, even if that pleasure is transitory or occasional. I’m just saying that it’s a nonsense to say that it is the English teacher’s responsibility to make Matildas of us all.

And I should add here that I am excluding teachers of elective subjects, where the subject truly is an elective for the student and not just whatever was left with a free space in the class on a particular timetable line. A drama teacher who doesn’t care about enthusing their elective students about the theatre/acting/etc will fail, and will be miserable.**

And I know they will be miserable, because I was that thing. I was that English teacher who wanted her kids to all LOVE reading. And I was doomed to misery and failure, because

That Wasn’t My Job.

And so I left. And I found work where it still kind of isn’t my job, but at least it’s work that has been a closer approximation of that desire to work with kids who love to read, or just might come to love to read, given the opportunity, in a context free from the constraints of curriculum and NAPLAN and Objectives and Outcomes and bell curves and ATARs and so on. It’s not that I wasn’t a good teacher; certainly, I was a probably close to being a great teacher for kids who already loved books and were as fascinated by literature as an academic study as I was. But in the end, there weren’t enough of those where I wanted to teach (one of my personal eternal ironies) and that wasn’t enough for me to be satisfied—and therefore, ultimately, to do my real, actual job, and to do it well, and properly.

So lay off English teachers. They don’t ruin books, any more than Baz Luhrmann ruined The Great Gatsby*** and they are no more responsible for your or anyone else’s kid being an avid reader-for-pleasure than a home ec teacher is responsible for them playing Project Runway in Grandma’s sewing room.

And it’s hard enough without the carping coming from within.

Night, tweeps.

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*Those tweeting teacher librarians are almost certain to read this post, so I expect a pile-on in the comments. That’s OK. Have at me. You have as many characters as you need :-)

**Unless they just don’t give a crap about teaching and kids AT ALL and we’ve all met them too and sometimes they hang around in the profession for decades and crap know why, because not even the holidays are worth that job if you hate it. Some things will always remain a mystery. Like decaffeinated coffee. I mean, really. Why bother? Why do it to yourself? There’s got to be better ways to earn a living. I hear packing shelves in Coles can be very peaceful on the midnight to dawn shift.

***No, I haven’t seen it, and I have no idea whether or not I’ll like it as a movie. What I do know is it won’t ruin my pleasure of the book because it is not the book. The whole ‘English classes (by which people really mean English teachers) ruin books’ thing also makes my blood boil. But that’s another subject for another rant, another day. You Have Been Warned.

Matilda. Illustration by Quentin Blake.

Censor or suck it up? Racism and children’s books.

There’s a story on the Huffington Post today about a young girl, Ishema Kane, in Germany who wrote to the newspaper, outraged at their defence of racist language in children’s books—specifically, Pippi Longstocking. As letters of outrage go, it’s pretty fabulous. I especially love this bit: “I find it totally shit that this word would remain in children’s books if it were up to you.” You go girl! (She’s only 9.)

(I also note that the N word under scrutiny is apparently ‘Negro’, not the other N word, and am interested that this word appears in this instance to have caused as much distress and impulse to censor as the other, more commonly offensive N word. However, that’s a slightly tangential point to what I want to address here, but if anyone has any thoughts on that, please share.)

Now, this is not the first time this topic has raised its head in children’s literature circles, not by a long shot, but I posted the story on Facebook and it engendered  very interesting discussion that I thought I’d bring over here to the blog.

But before that, let’s have a bit of an overview, at least from my point of view, of how I’ve experienced this debate. I think it first raised its head for me back in the 90s when the Billabong books were reissued with the more, by contemporary standards, offensive language and attitudes towards Australian Aboriginal people removed. Sanitised. Censored. Depending on your point of view. (And look! I wrote about this back in 2006!)

The child_lit community has debated this topic many, many times over the years, particularly as it relates to portrayals of Native Americans (the list being US-based and mostly made up of US children’s lit professionals and enthusiasts). The discussion has often been spear-headed by the women behind the Oyate site, which provides reviews and resources on books by and about Native Americans—and doesn’t pull any punches when it finds books and authors it finds objectionable. (See also Debbie Reese’s blog American Indians in Children’s Literature.)

These discussions on child_lit sometimes became very heated, especially when  heart-held favourites, and strongholds of the canon—such as The Little House on the Prairie—were cited as books that could, had and continued to cause great hurt to Native American children who come across, or worse, are forced to read the book in school (because if you come across it yourself, you can chuck it across the room. If you have to read it for school, not only do you have to read it, but its very place on the reading list gives its attitudes and language an imprimatur).

I don’t know that Debbie Reese and her colleagues were arguing that bonfires of the Little House and Little Tree books should be lit across the land, much as maybe they privately wished that to be the case, but they were (are) determined to continue talking about this issues, difficult as it is for all of those of us who held Laura and Pa and the Billabong gang so close to our hearts as we grew up, then and now.*

My idealised view has long been that if the books hold values that are so anathema to contemporary values, then the books should be allowed to quietly disappear into the archives. I’m not a fan of tampering with a writers’ work/words/intentions, especially when they are not around to contribute to the discussion/editing process, no matter what the Estate might have to say about it.

But of course, it’s not as simply as that. Books don’t just quietly go away. First of all, what’s to stop people, even children, coming across them in secondhand bookshops, or in libraries with a conservative culling policy, or on the shelves at Grandma’s house. Perhaps more potently, though, there’s the nostalgia value: parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and teachers who want to share beloved books from our own childhood with the kids in our lives and classrooms. Sometimes we’re shocked to find what lurks in those beloved pages, and maybe we think twice about passing them on, or maybe we excuse those transgressions away with the argument that those attitudes are from another time when people didn’t know better. (Except that they did.)

There’s also the cultural argument: many of these books have stood the test of time, and still are popular and have much to offer readers now. Do we throw the baby out with the bathwater—you can read 6 of the Narnia books, but not The Horse and His Boy. (Or, arguably, The Last Battle, especially if you want to add sexism into the mix, but I think it’s fair to say that people get more upset about racist attitudes in children’s books than archaic sexist attitudes. I’m not sure why that is and don’t have time to think about it right now, but I’m keen to come back to it at some point.)

So if we operate on the assumption that most of us are pretty much bottom-line against censorship, as in outright banning these books, and we accept that these books aren’t likely to just magically disappear on their own account, what are we left with?

We reissue them with changes to language and attitudes—mid-range censorship. Or we let them stand as they are, reader beware. Treat them as a learning opportunity. Do Not Whitewash the Past. But at what cost?

As I said, I posted the German story on Facebook, and the first response I got was from my friend Gayle Kennedy, a wonderful writer for adults and children, who is a a member of the Wongaiibon Clan of the Ngiyaampaa speaking Nation of South West NSW. Gayle’s not backward in coming forward in expressing her opinions on, well, anything, so when she just posted a quizzical ‘Hhmmmmm…’ in response to the post, I was curious to find out what she REALLY thought.

And it’s not what you might expect. With permission, I reprint Gayle’s expansion on that Hhmmm…

I don’t like people fucking with other people’s writing. Simple as that for me. I can’t bare what’s being done to the texts of yesteryear. How are you going to learn from the past (mistakes and all) if you keep sanitising it? Sanitising these book means that kids these days do not have the benefit of seeing how far society has come in terms of how we see other people and society in general. Why not point out to the kids that these words and terms were used all the time in that day and age and how society has grown and realises now the harm and hurt it caused and still causes. There are lessons to be learnt from confronting these texts head on and none of from running away from or excising them.

My friend Jan then raised the point that books give authority to these attitudes, and how that authority can reinforce racism a given child may already be being raised with.
And then Penelope noted this:
I think it is important to recall that a real child identified real harm. That is not a what if and should be considered. Language does harm, it is not just a relic of past bad practices if it is still defended and supported by teachers and others with influence over children. It must sometimes look to a child as if everyone else’s opinion is more important than her wellbeing or suffering.
And this, for me, is the crux of the problem. We adults can bang on all we like about teaching moments and historical context, but what use is that to the Native American child who reads, in her classroom, the words “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”. How do we expect that 9 year old child of a German mother and Sengalese father to contextualise a word that she knows only too well we can not imagine how it makes her feel. The Aboriginal child who either doesn’t see himself at all, or sees himself compared to a dog.
What are we saying to those kids? Suck it up? That’s just not good enough. But nor is censorship a solution. I simply don’t have one—it’s an unsolvable dilemma. But while we’re talking about the rights of authors and cultural integrity, we must also acknowledge and honour the real harm experienced by real children. And so it is even more incumbent upon us—we, the gatekeepers—to find ways to make sure the balance is more than redressed by making sure that they are surrounded by books and words and images and stories and language that affirms their dignity and their right to be at the heart of cultural, social and artistic expression and experience, along with their white classmates.
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*I’ve personally never actually read a Billabong book, and while I read the Little House books as a child, it was the TV show that won my heart. As the name of this blog attests, my best-beloved childhood book of this kind was Seven Little Australian Australians, which actually had a passage sympathetic to Aboriginal people removed after the first edition, not to be restored for 100 years.

 

 

Death by 1.7 billion cuts

There’s a scene in an early episode of Sex and the City that’s always been a favourite of mine. The girls are talking over a meal about—what else—men, and Charlotte says, in utter exasperation…

I’ve been dating since I was 15 years old, I’m exhausted, where is he?

I know how she feels. Only it’s not dating that exhausts me (chance’d be a fine thing!)—it’s education. It’s schools and teachers and kids and politicians and what seems like a lifetime of fighting one way or another for public education and the rights of kids and teachers to the very best that they are entitled to.

And after more than a quarter of a century, like Charlotte, I’m exhausted.

I didn’t intend to become a teacher. All I wanted to do was go to university and study literature. I’d spent my last 2 years of high school in a senior college in Canberra where I was able to study as many English units as I wanted to. A double major, they called it. I did subjects like Women in Shakespeare and The Short Story, Irish Literature and many more now that I can’t name even though I remember the teachers and the books and the fact that I was essentially, a pig in mud. And I wanted to keep studying literature at university, but I didn’t know—I honestly didn’t know—what else to do with an English degree except to become an English teacher.

I’d been accepted into ANU, USyd and Macquarie, and I wasn’t sure where I should go. I knew I didn’t want to stay in Canberra for the rest of my life, and I figured if I was going to be a teacher—because what else did you so with an English Lit degree—then I should train in NSW so I was qualified for the NSW school system. So I went to my careers advisor for advice, and instead of guiding me through the range of career options open to a kid who loved English, she simply said, well, if you’re going to be a teacher, then I suggest you go to Macquarie Uni, because Macquarie has the best teacher training program.

And she was right, and I don’t blame her for not giving me advice I didn’t ask for, and I duly went off to Macquarie and had what may have been the best 4 years of my life and came out the other end utterly committed to being the best public school high teacher I could be. And I’ve never regretted it.

But before I’d even graduated, I started to get a taste of life as a teacher. In my final year of university, I attended the wedding of a school friend, and because I was single and a nice girl, I was sat on the table with the extended family of the groom instead of my school and church friends. And I got stuck next to the annoying, overly-opinionated brother-in-law who took it upon himself, when he found out I was soon to finish my teaching degree, to inform me of everything that was wrong with the state of the teaching of English in Australia and what a cushy life teachers had.

This was essentially a precursor for the public discourse that dominated my short teaching career.

I graduated in 1986, and was appointed that year to a selective high school in Sydney’s south-west. It turns out it wasn’t a happy appointment, for a variety of reasons that are not the subject of this post, and I have often said over the years that if I’d had a happier first year out, then maybe I’d still be a teacher. Or have stayed in teaching for longer.

But really, it wasn’t the fault of that difficult first year, because subsequent to that I had wonderful experiences in fabulous schools with incredibly supportive fellow teachers and head teachers and principals (one in particular) who went out of their way to mentor and support me and give me opportunities well beyond my tender years. I taught 3 Unit English in my 5th, and final, year of teaching, thanks to a head teacher who was unfailingly encouraging and who saw in me a real need to challenge myself intellectually as well as creatively and professionally.

And I loved the kids. I loved the funny farm boys I taught in that first year at that selective high school, when I was only 22 years old—at 16 or so, they towered over me like gum trees. (I’m Facebook friends with a lot of those lads, and one of them moved me to tears a few years ago when he told me he became an English teacher because of me. Remember, I was 22 and what did I know? Except I loved teaching and I loved those boys and I loved my subject and I guess somehow that all came together.)

I loved the rough as guts working class kids I taught at my next school. The young woman who tried to teach me to break dance by saying ‘Go on, Miss, it’s just like yer making love!’; and the strapping Islander girl who with just a few well-chosen words pricked the inflated ego of her male classmate who liked to talk about his “morning glories” at the top of his voice, trying to make the now (if I might say so) cute 23 year old teacher blush.

I loved the Italian Catholic boys at yet another school who argued that Rita (from Educating Rita) was in the wrong for hiding her contraceptive pills from her husband, even as they asked me questions like, It was the Catholics who killed Jesus, right? (I kid you not—we were ‘doing’ Bruce Dawe’s poem ‘And A Good Friday was Had by All’.) I loved the Year 9 boy who carefully placed a framed photo of his girlfriend on his desk at the start of every lesson, and the Year 10 girls whose gelled fringes shot half a foot into the air. (Come on, it was the 80s. They were gorgeous.) I loved the kids I worked with on Rock Eisteddfod and the refugee kids who didn’t know how old they were and the Laotian kids with their warm gentleness and the Slavic kids who said they didn’t care whether their friends were Serbs or Croats because the cost of caring about that was why their parents left eastern Europe on the first place.

I loved the boy who made Year 7 English merry hell during that Friday afternoon double period, but whose poetry showed me what hell he was enduring at home. I loved another Year 7 boy who gleefully chopped me to pieces in a ceiling fan in one of his stories. I just loved them, even the ones I didn’t like (OK, maybe I didn’t love them), and I loved being their teacher.

I didn’t love everything about teaching, though. I didn’t like the fact that I ALWAYS had work that needed to be done—marking or programming or something, there was always something hanging over your head that needed to be done. I didn’t like that you never felt as if you finished the job—the kids would move on and you never really knew how they went after they’d left your class. And I was a bit frustrated, like many teachers who chose to work in less privileged schools are, that I didn’t often get the chance to engage with my subject area at the intellectual level I’d have preferred.

But what I really didn’t like was a growing societal and political atmosphere of outright antagonism towards my profession.

That conversation as the wedding was very much a portent of what I experienced as a teacher in the 1980s, and a lot of it was driven by a conservative state government hell bent on imposing their ideological position on teachers in schools that they fundamentally didn’t care about, have any personal or political investment in, and frankly, it seemed to me then (and now) they resented having to support.

This was a time when slandering teachers was a blood sport indulged in across the board. Letters to the newspapers were full of complaints about slack teachers who only worked for 6 hours a day and got 12 weeks of holidays a year. We were lazy, stupid, and responsible for (rather than victims of) everything from poor behaviour and discipline in young people to falling educational standards.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it was relentless. At least, it felt that way.

And it made it all too easy for the then government to come in and slash and burn not just teacher’s rights and conditions, but funding and resources to public schools.

If you were around then, you may remember the notorious education minister, Terry Metherill. So hated was he that banners at industrial meetings proclaimed “Come back Rodney, all is forgiven”, referring to the previous Labor education minister, Rodney Cavalier, who until then was the most reviled name in public education in NSW.

And there were lots of those industrial meetings. We were on strike a lot, and at that time it went right against the public mood. These days, things have changed a lot, and it’s comforting to hear Jo Public frequently comment that s/he supports teachers in industrial action even if strikes and stop work meetings are inconvenient.

It wasn’t like that in the Metherill era. People openly loathed teachers and were deeply critical of strikes. They seemed to think it was only about money and conditions—which it was, in part, but what was not appreciated then in a way that I think is better understood now, is that when teachers conditions are attacked, so are the learning conditions of students.

It’s all a long time ago now, and I don’t pretend to remember all the detail of Metherill’s notorious white paper, apart from the huge staff cuts in public schools (2500 teaching positions were cut), but I do remember the atmosphere of anger and hostility on both sides of the school gate. I remember so clearly saying to my then partner, I’m tired of being angry all the time. I’m not an angry person by nature, but I’m angry all the time.

I had friends in the staff room who never told people they met at parties or the like what they did for a living. Back in those days, calling yourself a ‘public servant’ was less reviled than being a teacher, and it wasn’t exactly a lie, either. But tell people you were a teacher, and you’d cop a barrage of opinion on your professional standards and how everything that was wrong with the world and with kids today was your fault.

I was sick and tired, every day, of defending my profession.

I was sick and tired of working in a system that in so many ways was geared to make so many of the kids I was teaching fail, and through no fault of their own.

I was sick of being angry.

And so I left.

Curiously, though, it wasn’t long before I was back working for the department, but this time in the curriculum directorate, where over the next decade and a bit I would spend around 8 years in different stints, and then another 15 months in at Head Office. And in those jobs—as an editor at The School Magazine and as a journalist on the staff newspaper (Side by Side), I got to see the other side of the bureaucracy.

Times and public opinion changed over the years, and somehow Jo Public came to a better understanding of the challenges and responsibilities facing teachers, and a much-welcomed greater level of general public support for the profession grew. At the same time, though, the term ‘public servant‘ started to be a dirty word. Phrase. You know what I mean.

My boss at The School Magazine, Jonathan Shaw, one of the best men I’ve known, and a terrific boss, used to talk about this a lot. I always remember how he would sadly note that where once upon a time, it was a good and noble thing to be a servant of the public, now it was a term of derision and contempt. And he was right.

I don’t know if it’s chicken or egg, but as the term ‘public servant’ became so vilified, it became that much easier for politicians to slash into departments and services—clearly for as much ideological reasons as economic ones—by emphasising that it was only public service positions that were going. That it was back room services, not frontline positions. As if all of those public servants, those back room workers were doing nothing all day long but drinking coffee and playing Tetris or, these days, fooling around on Facebook. When in fact, they were, are, providing administrative support for professional units whose staff—public servants too—in turn provided support for teachers by way of developing resources and programs and professional development that meant better teaching and therefore better learning.

I’m not stupid or naive or mendacious enough to say there’s never been a lazy public servant, just as I’d never say that every teacher I worked with was a sainted genius (in fact, I could tell you stories make your hair stand on end, as any teacher could. As any worker in any field could). I’m not going to deny that there’s never been good reasons to reorganise and restructure, to streamline services or to assess need and the best use of resources, and that sometimes that means people lose jobs and that’s the way things go in the adult working world.

But I can’t help but think of my old teaching colleague and sparring partner, Cheryl, who would regularly sail into the staff room waving her hands and crying “New rules! New rules!”, and her (and our) frustration at some stupid and unnecessary new procedure or rule that one of the exec staff had dreamed up when the rest of us were still marking illegible essays at 2 am.

And having lived through a few of them, I can tell you that many of those departmental restructures felt exactly like that—new ways of doing things just for the sake of it.

Sections would be restructured and positions would disappear, only to find that somewhere not too far down the track, the powers that be would realise that that person actually had a job to do, and now they weren’t there any more, that job wasn’t being done. And so a new position would be created, with all the costs and inefficiencies that go with firing and hiring people

Sometimes those restructures were little more than deckchair shifting—a new Minister would come in and, like my cats when they’re let out into the garden in the morning, he or she would feel the need to sniff around and leave her own mark where the last guy had been.

Things, though, have been pretty good, comparatively, in public schools in NSW for a long time. I haven’t been as intimately involved as many other people have since I last left DET in 2008, but certainly things have been much quieter on the industrial front, compared to the late 80s and early 90s when there was a real danger that teachers would stage an indefinite walk out. (Threatened, but they never do, because fundamentally teachers are about the kids and shutting down schools for the duration is bad for kids and so teachers, who are essentially conservative creatures, no matter what politicians or the Daily Tabloid would have you believe, will actually never take that kind of extreme action.

I know, for example, a cousin something removed of mine, who is a now retired primary school principal, disagrees with me on that last point (the one about things having been pretty good in public education for a while—arguably, under the last Labor state government). From Ed’s point of view, there have been plenty of cuts and attacks on conditions, but it’s been done by stealth, death by a thousand cuts. But I think even Ed would agree that what has happened this week is about as bad, if not worse, as it’s ever been.

So, you probably know, if you care about this issue long enough to have got this far in this post, that the NSW State coalition government has just announced 1.7 billion dollars worth of cuts to the education budget. Some of these ‘savings’ will come from freezing funding to Catholic and so-called ‘independent’ schools—not the actual real cuts that were mooted last week, before the back benchers revolted and the minister and premier backed down. (Apparently those back benchers don’t have any public school teachers or parents in their constituencies. Curious.)

I’m not getting into the public versus private funding debate here, though—this isn’t about that, and anyway, my views on this are well known to my friends and colleagues and the rest of you can probably guess.

What I want to talk about is what this is going to mean for public schools

1800 jobs are going, around 800 of them from TAFE. (And that’s a whole other issue, the relentless downgrading of TAFE over many years. It’s just as well this country doesn’t have a skills shortage problem. Oh wait.) 600 of those job losses will be from state and regional offices. But that’s OK, because they’re not teachers. They’re not ‘front line’.

They’re only public servants.

So let me tell you a little bit about job cuts to the public service of the NSW Department of Education and Communities.

The curriculum directorate has already, before this latest round of cuts were announced, lost around 200 staff. Most of these were, technically, public servants. However, they were also highly skilled and experienced classroom teachers who had moved into the directorate in order to develop and deliver resources and programs and professional development for—you guessed it. Teachers. Front-line staff.

And kids.

So, for example, the English/Literacy unit has been slashed down to just one or two staff members to serve the entire state of teachers and students, K-12. Two people, tops, to support the teaching of English and the support of literacy programs. For the entire state. Kindergarten to HSC.

It’s not just English, although obviously that’s the subject I care and know most about—it’s across all curriculum areas. Just as well there’s not a new national curriculum looming on the horizon that teachers will need support in delivering.

And just as well we haven’t all been talking about the best way to implement a review into school funding that would bring genuine reform to education on this country by creating a more equitable funding and resourcing model to ensure that every child has access to the very best education available.

Oh wait.

And beyond the basics of compulsory curriculum, there’s all those extra programs that enrich the educational experiences and opportunities for kids across the state.

Teams that created fantastically innovative programs such as Murder under the Microscope, which engage kids hands on with science, will be gone.

The Arts Unit will be dismantled.

The Priority Schools funding program is already gone, and I heard on the radio yesterday that the Best Start kindergarten early literacy and numeracy assessment program is also gone.

And this new round of staff cuts will come from regional offices.

So let me tell you about the staff in regional offices.

Many of them are subject/curriculum specialist consultants. They are teachers with recent classroom experience who work within a given region (eg South Western Sydney, the Riverina) to directly support teachers in their region with their particular professional needs. They work one-on-one with schools to develop programs to address specific needs. So if there’s a school with, for example, low reading engagement with Year 9 and 10 students, the regional consultant will work directly with staff to develop strategies to engage those students (who may/will have particular demographic profiles, so a strategy that will work well with refugee kids may not work with Aboriginal kids, just for instance).

We’ve lost 200 curriculum specialists and now we’re going to lose regional consultants.

But all of that’s OK, because the people who delivered these programs and resources are only public servants. And no-one cares about public servants.

Fat cats.

Bureaucrats.

Stationery orderers.

It won’t have any impact on teachers. Or kids.

And money doesn’t fix everything, apparently.

And we’ve all got to tighten our belts, so why should education be exempt?

And if you keep saying this stuff—like you keep saying ‘public servant’ with that flared nostril as if you’ve smelt something nasty—then it becomes truth and people stop caring and start getting irritated with those of us who keep trying to cut through the linguistic dissonance to talk about the actual detail of what this all means.

And you can bet your life that soon enough, it will turn around and be directed back at teachers. And for the same reasons I only lasted 5 years as a fulltime classroom teacher, I predict a mass exodus from the profession in the next, say, 5 years. Because being a teacher under these conditions is just. too. hard.

I’m not a teacher any more, and I’m not an education department bureaucrat any more either. But I spend a lot of time in schools and with teachers and I know what this is going to mean for them, and for kids, especially kids in the already under-resourced and desperately underprivileged public schools in regional Sydney and NSW.

And you never really stop being a teacher. And you never stop caring about education and those kids, those kids, who deserve every chance they can get to be bright and safe and happy and educated and to look forward to not just the best start, but the best life we can offer them.

For all our sakes.

I’ve been caring about this, angry about this, exasperated and frustrated and, like Charlotte, exhausted, for longer than I can bear.

Please, won’t someone make it stop?

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