‘My School’ isn’t really about my school

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at a local preschool information night. I had been invited to talk about school readiness from a school perspective, to try and allay some of the concerns parents have in terms of what their children need to know before starting school (nothing, in case you’re wondering) and to show that early years centres and schools work together for the best interests of their students. I was excited about this, supporting parents in ensuring their child makes a smooth and positive transition to school is something I’m passionate about. I love visiting other settings and seeing the great things other educators are doing and it’s exciting to start building meaningful relationships with our local centres.

The first part of the evening went well, there were jokes about shoes and lunch boxes, wry smiles when talking about who is more anxious starting school; the parent or the child, and a generally relaxed atmosphere. I had made a conscious effort not to talk explicitly about what happens at my school, this wasn’t a promotional activity, but had talked generally about what schools do to support transition. Sadly, the very first question at the end of the session changed the tone markedly. It was “Why are your NAPLAN scores so much lower than everyone else’s?”.

Talk about getting straight to the point. Except it’s not the point, not by a long shot. After taking a very deep breath, I proceeded to explain the contextual issues: ICSEA value, statistically invalid sample size due to small cohort etc and attempted to explain that this information probably doesn’t provide parents with much useful data on which to make a judgement about their child’s school. I was then met with: “But I’m a numbers person, numbers make sense to me.” At which point I wanted to curl up on the floor and weep. Weep for the system that sees parents of 3 year olds sitting on websites comparing schools based on a test that two classes in a school sat, on one day out of almost 200 in the school year, looking at numbers but unable to place them in context because the way in which those numbers are presented makes it seem cut and dried and weep because at no point did anyone ask a question about the emotional and social wellbeing of students.

Until this happened I’d been fairly ambivalent about My School. As part of my Masters I’d studied the development of it, I’d used the information on it when applying for jobs and I use it when preparing reports at work. What I hadn’t realised is that I approach this data with a fair amount of caution, I look at all the contextual information, I look for patterns not isolated scores. What is now apparent to me is that this is not what happens when non-educators look at this website. They see raw scores with angry red backgrounds to highlight just how very poorly a school is doing. They compare local schools not realising that even within a relatively small geographic area there can be vast differences in the demographic of school communities. They look at the angry red backgrounds and judge. They judge the students, the teachers and the community.

This saddens me. It saddens me because it means that the government and media and parents themselves have conditioned themselves to the point where a school is seen solely in terms of a number. For me education isn’t about numbers, it’s so much more than that. What about developing resilient and independent learners who respond flexibly to the changing world around them? What about tolerance and awareness of social issues and differences, developing citizens who are respectful, engaged and active members of their community? What about happiness and joy of learning? I’m proud to teach at a school that serves an incredibly diverse community. I’m proud every time I watch students interact with their peers who have specific needs or challenges. I’m proud when I see students excited about learning, making connections, solving problems and engaging in community action. I’m proud of my school’s NAPLAN results because I know the hard work and commitment they represent to an education that’s about more than a test on a single day, but an education that’s life long and empowering. What a shame that ‘My School’ isn’t really about my school at all.

Education: Who are we hearing from?

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading, watching and listening about current educational discussions, policies and issues. I’ve read papers written by university lecturers, by economists, by journalists and by organisations responsible for large scale testing. I’ve watched lectures, both online and in the flesh, by university academics and by economists and statisticians. I’ve listened to politicians, journalists, parents and friends share their ideas about education and how it can be ‘fixed’. Here’s the thing though, rarely, if at all have I heard the voices of actual educators in all this noise. Those people blamed for the ‘problem’ and tasked with fixing it.

Here, on social media, on blogs, twitter and Facebook I hear from educators who work every day with students and who spend a great deal of their outside of work time thinking, planning, discussing and sharing about education. I hear from these educators, I hear the talk of exciting new plans and projects, of what books they are reading in order to improve their practice and outcomes for students in their care. I hear them ask questions and support each other. I hear how much they love what they do and how deeply they care about it. I hear because I am one of them. I have access to this wealth of knowledge and amazing online community.

I know I’ve got a lot to learn, this is why I engage in reading, watching and listening. What I would love is to hear more from educators out there in the mainstream media. More of these stories, of educators reflecting and sharing, with educators celebrating the amazing things they are doing, with educators participating in reasoned discussions about our education system rather than being told that they are to blame and that everyone else has the answers. Why isn’t this happening? Why isn’t this part of our culture?

I know that there are a range of education unions who take up this cause, however often these arguments are lost in the political point scoring that occurs in any discussion of education policy. This is also not presenting the full picture of the role of educators and the depth of the profession. Imagine if there were regular stories in the news, in magazines, papers and online, sharing what education looks like in our long daycare centres, our preschools, schools, universities, TAFEs and other centres of education. Imagine if people saw the range of programs taught, the experiences offered and the passion of educators. I wonder what impact this would have on people’s perception of educators? What I wonder is: how can we make this happen? How do we balance this sharing of work without being accused of being defensive or trying to sell an argument about teachers’ pay or conditions. Should that even be a concern?

There is so much more to a discussion of education than arguing about class sizes or the latest round of testing. This is not what educators spend their time doing each day, these are not the questions that occupy us. Let’s move the debate beyond these issues. Let’s talk about our reality. Let’s celebrate our passion, our learning and the learning of our students. Let’s be heard.