In the first few years of teaching information technology at university I met a number of mature age students who were returning to study to get degrees. These were amongst the most enjoyable students to teach, not to mention simply being the best students. One of those students struggled with aspects of the technology, but stuck at it and did well. So well, she ended up completing her PhD years and years before I even looked like completing mine. She even ended up being the head of the school teaching IT.
Not long after that she did a funny thing. At least it seemed a funny thing to me. She gave it up and got into doing volunteer work overseas. At that stage I couldn’t understand why she’d leave the safety and challenge of an academic job to do such a thing. These days I have a much better idea of why that might be attractive. But increasingly, the main reason I didn’t get it is captured by the phrase “charity begins at home”. Sure there are a lot of people in some really horrible situations overseas and they need all the help they can get. But the same can be said of situations closer to home.
Closer to home
This has been reinforced to me over the last 5 or so years. The small town closest to our home has a reputation for being rough. As far back as 30+ years ago when I was in primary school my friends in the rugby league team spoke with just a touch of fear of having to play the team from this small town. They were tougher and rougher than most and even at, or perhaps because of, that age it was assumed because they did it harder than us. And that was from kids who were in one of the other less well off areas. Observations of this small town over the last 5 years or so has reinforced this impression.
I was wondering if this impression is an ill-informed prejudice. So I went looking for some statistics. The Australian Bureau of Statistics maintains a socio-economic index for areas. From that list it is possible to identify 158 local government areas in the list. Ranked from most disadvantage to least, the small town I’m talking about comes in at 35. Perhaps not so bad. But then from my quick look, the majority of areas worse off are indigenous communities. What is happening in those communities is perhaps Australia’s greatest shame. That the local small town is ranked close to these communities suggests (within the limits of such statistics) that my impression has some foundation.
This then brings up the link between poverty and performance. As here and in related resources, “the strongest predictor of academic underperformance is poverty.” A finding that doesn’t bode well for the children of the local small town. The school’s 2009 annual report provides some support for this. On the year 9 NAPLAN tests the school’s average in all areas is less than the Australian average. Only 58.3% of Year 10 students at the school complete Year 10. In 2004, ABS figures suggest that between 1994 and 2004 average completion rates ranges from 60%-64% for males and 71%-75% for females. In the six years since 2004 the state government has been pushing for increased completion rates, so not great.
Where to teach?
As part of my studies next year I have to teach for periods of time in two local schools. We get to nominate our top 3 selections. For some student teachers, the schools they teach at during their training end up offering them positions. So, what sort of schools do I want to gain experience in? What sort of schools do I want to teach in? If charity begins at home, then surely I should be aiming to teach at the high school in the local small town? I think I will be a reasonable, if not good, high school teacher and there is a lot of research supporting claims that good teachers can make a difference.
Or, should I go with the local private school. A school that is currently turning students away and subsequently has a student cohort drawn from a much higher socio-economic group? I’ve been told I’d be attractive to such a school as I’ll have a PhD but still be on the salary of a first year teacher. i.e. I’m cheap and help tick some prestige boxes.
Isn’t it time to give something back?
The constraints of the systems
George Siemens has recently suggested that in his experience innovation within the systems of formal education such as k12 “is not producing the impact it should”. This resonates with my experience of the university sector and much of the experiences I’ve been hearing about within k12 recently. The nature of the formal education systems is getting in the way of change.
I spent much of my 20 years in universities fighting the system. Do I really want to spend the next phase of my working life fighting another system? I’m thinking I could probably make some difference working within the constraints of the system, but would it be enough? Could I be happy with that? Isn’t making do with the constraints of the system one of the contributing factors to the stability of the system?
All these and more will be answered for me personally over the coming years as I get into the process. Wondering what others who are going or have been through this process think?