If you are sensitive to expletives, please stop reading now.
It’s Friday and I need a stiff drink. I have just spent first week as Advisory Teacher at our Big Picture school.
This is about as remote as it gets from the quiet of a desk at Moodle HQ. It is also remote from many a schools I have seen, worked in or read about.
For all the prep on Big Picture (an educational philosophy our school follows), I started the week with a teacher hat on. I had plans. Plans not for some stellar didactic performance but just some simple, ‘engaging’ (or so I thought…) activities, basic get to know you and perhaps a beginning of what I have always been about – valuing (good) questions over answers. Plans for (short) periods of time, where I would be listened to by students in my class, uninterrupted, with some important things to say. Plans for students to express, share a few non-threatening details and ideas…
Well, most I and the whole class got of that at one time was a few minutes. I have seriously re-thought full group (and I ‘only’ have seven kids at most in my class) activities. Cut them down to absolute bare bones.
We are a Big Picture school, an approach that, put broadly, is all about students pursuing their passions and interests. It’s about letting go of teacher over the head telling students what to do about something that the teacher, not necessarily the student, is passionate about. It’s about letting go, judiciously but deliberately, to build resilient, independent learners.
So I asked the students to create above their ‘station’ in our class a wall of images about their passions and interests. Well, serves me right for asking that – I got a wall of images of alcohol, weed, a few bikes and singers thrown in and a bit of soft porn which I requested to be taken down.
This was my first week in a new school with new kids who are so acutely sensitive to criticism, lack of trust because they have had little of it elsewhere. At the same time, these aren’t some poor angels but red and raw teenagers who’d love to get one over you just for the fun of it sometimes. With the lack of ‘history’ at the school, I found myself often relying on gut-feel on what is OK and what I should sometimes let go. One wrong presumption and bridges could be burned or damaged at least, one wrong presumption and I will be a soft target for sometimes cruel teenage jokes.
Sprinkle of a few memorable quotes:
- Asking for students’ perception of this school, Day 1: “Do you know what this school is? We are retards and dumb c***s.”
- Creating a login for Moodle that requires 8 characters, 1 capital, 1 number: “This is f***ed. It’s too hard I am giving up.”
- Student: “Just don’t tell s**t to my mum because that ‘expletive 1, expletive 2, expletive 3, expletive 4′ of her boyfriend will find out and kick the s**t out of me.”
- Student: “F**k off.”
Me: “Listen. Nobody tells me to f**k off in my face. If you were 18 and we met out on the street you’d be lucky if I didn’t slap you.”
Student: “OK, sorry about that.”
Me: “Apology accepted.”
After that, the student was genuinely very kind to me. An icebreaker of a kind . I ended up giving her a Gotcha! Award [recognition of good things] for being reasonable, courteous and quite polite.
- Catching a repeat smoker: “This country is going down the c***hole. It’s cheaper to have and smoke weed and supply it than cigarettes. For weed you get ……. and for smokes you get ….. (the student ranted on but quoted exact and correct penalties for both as per current legislation – I only knew a part of it myself).”
and many, many more like that.
Yes, we have managed to offend just about all nice, middle-class sensibilities. To thousands of teaching colleagues, this would be horror, Hades personified!
Ours is not your ‘regular’ school. It is for kids who(m) mainstream schools in this ‘tough’ and largely ‘low socio-economic area’ (because ‘poverty’ is a dirty word and only happens in places like Africa, right?) just couldn’t or wouldn’t cater for. We have a group of about 90 kids who have come to this place as ‘terrors’, ‘freaks’, ‘no hopers’, ‘lost cases’, ‘druggies, ‘losers’ … sure you get the picture. It’s a mix of acutely shy ones, (ex)bullies, homeless, kids from broken, dysfunctional families, chronic taggers, spoiled teen brats, kids with degrees of mental illness (well, don’t we all…) and more (and not just with negative baggage here either!).
The name of the game here is confidence. Confidence to have a go. Confidence to imagine, express yourself, and preferably in ways that don’t include abusing oneself or others. Start small, think big.
And to work here, you need to have the longest fuse in the world.
But this is a magical place. No, truly.
This is a place where when an often truant, disruptive (yada, yada, yada, you know how a typical stereotype goes…) Aboriginal kid comes to school and the staff go: “Oh great, ‘Benny’ (not his real name) is here today!” (he is in my class, too )
This is a place where you hear a kid who got kicked out of a couple of schools for bullying quietly saying: “I want to leave that behind. I want to do better than that.”
This is a place where you see a kid who would not interact with anyone only a few months ago now plays a ball game with a few others.
This is a place where a staff member replies to a student, screaming: “I’m f*****g going home you expletive 1, expletive 2, expletive 3…” with “You know you can go but we are here for you.” The student in question is homeless.
This is a place where staff within 10 minutes board up ideas for an excursion and volunteer for tasks in great spirit, no fuss or excuses.
This is a place where the most reserved of students momentarily overcame the fear of standing in front of others and share an honest line or two about a much loved educational assistant who recently passed away.
This is a place where a shy, quiet student comes up with his first own Independent Learning Plan that includes interviewing adults in the workplace. Huge!
This is a place where students go to the library to pick up a book or check out an audio book for possibly the first time.
This is a place where the principal addresses the conversation about merit of giving ‘Gotcha! Awards’ to either every student or only those ‘outstanding ones’ with the words: “For many years I have heard this argument about ‘diminishing the value of the award by giving it to everyone.Well, I’d rather diminish the value of the award than the value of the child. If we can’t find something good, no matter how little, in each kid in front us, we are not doing our job.”
We have just returned from a barbecue on the beach with the students. Yes, we chased a few through the dunes, told them off for this and that. But we also played 3 on 3 basket, kicked a football, cooked sausages, teased and photographed each other and shared many of those little, precious, golden moments with the kids that build the bridges of relationships and confidence to have a go.
Make no mistake – this is not an easy teaching/education gig! But thanks to the amazing staff with the right ‘chemistry’ even after a few days together we are on track to ‘let go’ judiciously and have the kids experience something few of them have in the past – confidence to get out bed for something that deep down they want to be remembered for.
And that sort of thing grows on your heart, no matter how hard it may be sometimes.
Thanks team, see you on Monday!
This post was removed after a few days by request of a person whom I respect way too much to make petty issue with.
Today, a few days from the initial posting, this message arrived to my principal from the head of the umbrella organisation our school belongs to and who was one of the main drivers to set up our school:
“… has read the blog [post] and, like me, was quite moved.
When I read it I felt proud of why we set up this school and what we are achieving with these kids.
Our view is we need to have the courage to let Tomaz say this stuff. We understand your concerns about others taking a sentence here or there, but the best defence we can offer is to say “read the blog, read the whole blog, and then tell me what you’re problem is”.
The whole blog is utterly defensible and should be available for all to read.”
Even after such a short time, I am proud to be a part of this organisation, truly.
And if you ever get people whining about ‘why one shouldn’t blog’, feel free to knock them on the head with this.
But wait … Letting go – again (part 2)