Teachers just faced the most stressful conditions they have experienced, with the very swift transition from school based to on-line learning only to return to an environment that at any time could prove life threatening for them, their colleagues and students. In this Newsletter I will examine the real mechanics of stress, the abdication of the employer’s responsibility and the need to completely modify the current industrialised approach to providing public education.
Throughout these essays the underpinning message has been for the struggling students to succeed and we need to achieve two things:
Develop a sense of self that allows them to approach their learning with confidence
Provide an environment that does not attack the child’s sense of security and provides them the opportunity to succeed to their ability.
Although both conditions are required for teachers the responsibility to achieve them is not shared. In fact, it is the quality of the environment that determines the level of stress teachers have to deal with.
I just looked up workplace stress on Goggle I got 217,000,000 results (0.63 seconds), that is 217 million bits of advice. I have had a look a few of these and as I already understood they all had advice for you on how to deal with that stress. They were about looking after:
Your Health – diet, smoking, exercise, etc
Support Structures – reaching out to others, finding someone you can share your problems, etc.
Self-Management – take control, say ‘no’, manage your time, etc.
I read one list that advised you ‘become lord of your destiny’!
I remember a few years ago when the Department provided a substantial sum of money to ‘cure’ principals from their stress. All that happened was a consultant made a lot of money and we principals were really left with the understanding that, if we couldn’t cope it was our fault! But, that’s like telling someone who is about to be assaulted that if that was about to stress you it was your fault – no one would do that so why do they blame the teachers for their stress?
No one would argue that teaching is not a difficult job and no one gets through many days without being put into situations that generate stress. That stress comes from dealing with developing children. We soon learn that in most cases these are problems to deal with. Occasionally you would get a few kids that were really difficult and had to be dealt with. In recent years the numbers and the extreme expression of the dysfunctional behaviour has become more significant. For some schools the Government’s support for private schools has allowed concerned parents to take their students away from the public sector and their attempts to stem this drift has developed selective schools. The result has been the residualisation of the comprehensive school. On top of the kid’s behaviour you have to deal with their other kids’ diverse talents and disabilities not to mention their parents! Remember the presence these stressors are out of your control!
You can add to this increasing external environmental difficulty is the demands on you from the Department. In my almost fifty years in schools I witnessed the exponential growth in a teacher’s administrative responsibilities. Today there is a recognition of the excessive burden placed on the teacher and the increasing onus on teachers to provide evidence that they comply with these demands.
The diagram below is an attempt to illustrate the problem:
The amount of stress a teacher accumulates is a balance between the external demands placed on them by their employer and their ability to handle these demands! When the teacher’s resilience is equal to or greater than the external stressors the teacher will be able to function effectively. However, when these external stressors are greater than the teacher’s resilience then the teacher is suffering a type of abuse and will be required to use their cognitive energy to survive thus rendering them less effective!
Where does the responsibility lie to solve this problem? As I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, look for any advice and almost exclusively it will place the obligation on the individual. Even the small support the Department provides is directed at helping teachers increase their resilience. A popular phrase used was to increase your capacity. This implies that if the teacher can not provide enough resilience to deal with the external demands then they are the problem, they failed because they were just not good enough!
This is faulty logic that suits the status quo, the same argument that is applied to meritocracy. It delivers equal demands to all workers and when some succeed, then not to do so means you are a failure; ‘if you have a go you will get a go’!
A significant result is that because few of us want to fail and even more admit to that failure we go back to school day after day using most of our cognitive energy just surviving, this is what I’m calling toxic resilience we appear to be coping when in reality we are not only suffering continual intellectual abuse we are not being able to teach to the best of our ability!
The Department consistently praises the teachers for their efforts but never ever take any responsibility for their side of the equation! In their WHS Policy they assert:
The department is committed to:
1.11 – providing everyone in its workplaces with a safe and healthy working and learning environment.
They are not complying to their own legislation.
For the first time since retirement I am pleased not to be at a school, I am sure I suffered from toxic resilience through many phases of my career and at my farewell I made the comment the job is now undoable. Today with the continued growth in demands and now being ordered to teach in a pandemic without the physical ability to provide the recommended conditions even the most resilient teacher would be lying if they claimed to have it all under control!
I have no advice that’s better than you can get readily on the internet but I think my approach to boundaries (see Newsletter Teaching Practical Boundaries - 31st July 2017) is as good as any. What needs to happen is the external demands are reduced to a level where all teachers can meet their directives and have the energy to then teach their students. Maybe its time to become ‘lord of our destiny’ and demand change. I can’t see how the Department is not breaking its own law and perhaps that’s where this problem will be solved!
During this stage of the COVIT-19 pandemic we have been forced out of the natural pattern of our normal life. The need to socially isolate is important and we all have to play our part if we are to get back to the things we love especially teaching the kids at your school. We are at the relative beginning of the lockdown and during the ‘holidays’ you may be feeling just a bit inconvenienced however, the experts are telling us this will go on for at least two weeks and may continue for months.
In anticipation of the worst scenario and given that, at this time we are still reasonably resilient it is time to get prepared so we get out at the other end intact.
If you don’t already you may start to experience restlessness and irritability. Little things become major issues especially in relationships. Things your spouse or the kids have always done that just annoy you can become appalling. The increase in your stress levels and the probability of considerable conflict are serious concerns for your mental health. Research has shown that having negative emotions increases the likelihood of getting a respiratory illness by 2.9 times. The evidence from China shows a three-times increase in domestic violence. This is not likely to happen but lessons from other times of crisis and the current over-seas experience should make us be prepared for the dangers. Don’t forget the video of the people fighting over toilet paper!
You may experience some of the common effects of isolation which are:
Sadness or depression
Lack of patience
Changes in weight
Inability to cope with stress
There are some actions we can take to get through this very difficult time. These are:
1.Have a Routine
Plan your day, what time you get up, meal times, work times and some time for fun. Structure gives us predictability and a sense of safety that makes us calm.
2. Don’t surf Television, social media or the net
Don’t just grab the remote and channel surf – it’s a sure way to compound your feeling of isolation and hopelessness. Use your Television and social media in a positive and constructive way. For example, plan an event such as watching a movie or a series, tell the other people in your house and invite them to join you. Maybe an introduction to the movie, like - why you chose it, who directed it what else have they done etc. A little research and some background to your shows will add value to the activity and enhance the viewing experience for yourself and others.
Plan your entertainment (reading, listening, viewing, streaming, etc.). Investing more in the process gives us more back by adding meaning to the things we do. Sometimes we need more than cotton wool for the brain.
Remember - the Television doesn’t have to be on. When the show is over, turn the Television off, turn it back on when there is something you know you want to watch.
3. Set Goals
Set out to achieve something each day. If you just lie about binging on TV shows the feeling of powerlessness is reinforced but when you achieve your goal, and it doesn’t have to be too challenging you get a feeling of achievement, you feel worthwhile.
4. Create ‘Zones’ in the House
Some will be working from home so have a designated place for work to be done. It could be the place the whole family uses, the kids for their school work if appropriate. Have other places for hobbies, socialising. The thing is when you move from one place to the other the change of location gives a small sense of being able to ‘move about’ something that has been taken from us.
The least you should do is get outside and if possible, go for a walk maintaining social distancing - if you have stairs even walking up and down those for a few minutes will help. If you have a sport or hobby take this time to work on your ‘skills’. Make this part of your routine. There are plenty of sites on the internet for appropriate exercises I found 522,000,000 results in 0.69 seconds when I typed in ‘exercise for golfers’ – the same numbers are there for most activities!
6.Use your Brain
It is easy to become passive consumers and pass the time on mindless past times. I am not suggesting that you don’t watch TV or participate in some video games but you do need to use your brain. Paradoxically you will become more mentally tired from not using your brain and invigorated when you do. Finish a cross word, read a book, write to friends, organise your photos, start-up a new hobby - there are plenty of things that will keep you occupied.
7. Look After Your Diet
With so much time on your hands and with the temptation of a quick snack it is easy to over indulge. Increased food consumption is a danger but with the extra time it is an opportunity to think about planning a better diet. Good health is linked to good eating habits and now might be a time to make that change.
Take control of your alcohol consumption, most of us enjoy a beer, a good wine or the occasional spirit but like food, with the increase in anxiety caused by the current situation and the amount of time you could have a drink it is too easy to take refuge in the bottle.
8. Maintain Your Relationships
Just as loved ones can annoy you the can make you feel special. Part of your daily plan should be to talk with the others in the house, your spouse and your kids. Talk about things you did in the past, holidays, any moments that were special to you (turn the TV off and put the phones away).
Have a ‘Formal Friday’ when you get dressed up and have a good meal, a favourite beverage with music in the back ground, it’s your night out for the week.
Don’t forget to stay in touch with friends and family while isolated. Make this part of your daily structure and plan to ring at least two people a day. It’s not a bad idea to ring someone you have not called for a while. It will give you a chance to catch-up and them a nice surprise.
9. Limit your exposure to news
Limit your daily news to two reliable, accurate sources only, access them twice a day and don’t google your day away going down various rabbit holes that will take you nowhere that you will gain personal growth understanding satisfaction or inner peace.
For some this period of time with the uncertainty and financial hardship may require special help. Never be afraid to reach out to professionals, your GP or go to any of the on-line services like Beyond Blue, Mental Health Australia Mental health Support Services, Lifeline or the many others available on line.
This Newsletter is a break from the recent theme that we have been following. This is because in the current climate with the development of COVID-19, schools have become a very difficult place to be. It is important to remember sustained elevated stress is a problem to our physical and psychological health.
We are very much at risk of being overcome by hysteria. Bad news travels fast and too many people are very willing to circulate false or sensational messages through social media. Children are particularly susceptible to this problem.
This is not to suggest COVID-19 is psychological, it is most definitely not and there is real need to be anxious. The thing is not to let your anxiety morph into fear and impair your ability to make good decisions.
The very definition of mass hysteria is a condition affecting a group of persons, characterized by excitement or anxiety, irrational behaviour or beliefs, or inexplicable symptoms of illness; that is, they are unable to make logical conclusions. With the confused information distributed by the government, some states closing schools, others not but telling parents to keep their kids home. This along with the saturated news coverage and the access to unreliable social media posts, the potential for hysteria to emerge is real.
So, what to do? Stress is a reaction to internal or external threats (see Newsletters ‘The Intricacy of Stress’ – 19th June 2017 and ‘Anxiety’ – 24th July 2017 for a detailed description) and this is what drives behaviour. It is a critical factor that is often not understood and that is when you are stressed you will make behavioural decisions from the part of your brain that is connected to the threat. In this case it will be the emotional brain and in adults this part of the ‘thinking process’ is hardly cognitive. We cling to hope and in our emotional/social brain we go to the immediate community for help. This is a time when we need to go to the experts for assistance.
Dealing with stress is extremely difficult when you are under attack and today you’re being threatened by a disease, a loss of so much social support and really being told to work in what others are calling a dangerous environment. The advice to ‘just stay calm’ underrates the immense pressure you are being asked to work in.
Throughout our work we have talked about stress and the need for our difficult kids to control this. Now it’s time for us all to apply those techniques to this situation. This is by applying boundaries between yourself and the presenting problem (see Newsletter ‘Boundary Considerations’ – 31st July 2017). The steps are:
1. Stay Calm
I know this is difficult but it is very important. Take a few deep breaths, count to ten or even repeat this deep breathing for a minute. You can take the edge off your anxiety if you do this.
2. Ask the Questions
What is Really Happening?
In this instance we are being threatened by an epidemic that has real potential to alter our lives; realistically it already has. But, we must keep this in perspective. The Corona Virus-19 is one of a series of Corona Viruses. So far most will have slight symptoms and those who get ill will survive. The most at risk are the elderly and those who are immunocompromised; that is are having treatment for aides, cancer or other medical condition.
Who is Responsible?
Really at this stage it is pointless to blame anyone however, when we get through this it is prudent we assess the performance of those who have been in charge of the community response.
What Do I Want to Happen in the Long-Term?
This is the critical question and I’m sure we would all like things to return to normal. Maybe that will never happen, maybe this will make us re-think our selfish attitudes and become a more compassionate society. However, the immediate task is to follow the advice from the experts. This is available from reliable sources and remember whenever you start to feel overwhelmed apply these boundary questions to remain calm and logical – it’s our best chance.
Marcia and I wish you all the best in these uncertain times. Look after yourself and as always be the person you want your kids to become.
The focus of our work is to help teachers and schools deal with students who disrupt lessons. For as long as I can remember this has always been the number one issue identified in surveys about teacher concerns. However, recently the unreasonable non-educational work load placed on teachers has become equally stressful. This doesn’t mean the problem of students with dysfunctional behaviour is no longer a problem, it is just that the increased work load has added to the pressure felt by teachers.
It would be fair to say that there is little acknowledgement of the problem created by these students despite the overwhelming evidence that their presence has a significant effect on the teacher’s ability to deliver quality lessons and the classmates of these children ability to learn.
Addressing this problem is at the heart of all our work and to date we have provided over 100 Newsletters that point out the causes of these poor behaviours and describe techniques to help, not only the teacher’s ability to manage the classroom but also assist these students develop new ways to get their needs met.
Recently, the latest PISA results were released and like clock-work the politicians and shock jocks were on the band wagon criticising teachers and pontificating their solution to this ‘failing’ – predictably BACK TO BASICS! I have always been critical of this test and our local NAPLAN equivalent. There are lots of reasons these tests are flawed. NAPLAN, for instance is supposed to be a ‘snap shot’ look at the student’s progress without any special preparation. Anyone who thinks those conditions hold today is naïve. Some schools spend much of their time preparing for the test and concerned parents send their children to ‘special’ tutoring to ensure they ‘pass’. There are many other ways to manipulate these figures.
However, Trevor Cobbold, the National Convenor of Save our Schools has examined the latest findings by the OECD about the results and I will quote extensively from his analysis of the apparent failing of our kids. It is evident our students do not try in the test because they have become disenchanted with our school system! Trevor highlights three main causes.
“First, the high and differing proportions of students not fully trying across countries has explosive implications for the reliability of international comparisons based on PISA and that country rankings cannot be trusted. A research study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research last year shows that even with modest but differing proportions of students between countries not fully trying can cause large changes in PISA rankings.
Second, other new data released by the OECD shows a large increase between 2003 and 2018 in the proportion of students in Australia who are dissatisfied with school. This may have led to increasing proportions not fully trying and therefore may be a factor behind Australia’s declining results.
Third, high proportions of students not trying on PISA may also explain, at least in part, the contradiction between Australia’s declining PISA results (for mostly Year 10 students) and improving Year 12 results. PISA has no consequences for students – they don’t even get their own results – so many might not be bothered to fully try. In contrast, Year 12 results matter for future careers and life changes so there is a greater incentive to try hard. The significant improvements in Year 12 results are an indication of an improving education system, not a deteriorating one”.
This increase in Year 12 is encouraging but for our students it is meaningless because by the time they reach 17 years old, if not before poorly behaving students are out of the system. However, it does recognise that teachers are doing their job and instead of being criticised they should be supported to deal with the problems in the lower Years where these behaviour problems exist.
As I pointed out above, dealing with students with severe behaviours is at the heart of our work. It would be encouraging if Universities really dealt with this issue and prepared their trainee teachers in techniques to deal with dysfunctional behaviour. Looking through the courses offered by Universities and talking with new graduates it is evident that they are ill-prepared to take on a tough class.
As 2019 comes to an end it’s time to reflect on the year that was. From our position the year had mixed results. The amount of work we have done in schools and elsewhere has slowly increased and we have plans to build-up that support in 2020. As mentioned the number of Newsletters has passed the 100 mark and I have completed my next book, ‘Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ and it has been picked up by an international publishing company based in London and New York thus providing us with another way to provide support.
Since ‘retirement’ we are one step more displaced from the work place and so not as aware of emerging issues. We would encourage you to let us know what you think of our efforts and provide us with specific problems we can address. You can contact us through the web page, send a text or ring.
Finally, this is the last of the Newsletters for 2019, another year over. Marcia and I would like to thank you for not only hanging in with those difficult students who really deserved to be helped and for supporting us. It is the hardest of work sometimes but I know and you should know you can make a life altering transformation for some kids. You may never know but I assure you that if you approach these kids with respect and a clear purpose you will be the difference.
Take time to relax, recharge your batteries and get ready for another challenging year.
The Star Wars franchise continues with the release of the latest edition. Star Wars is a modern version of old myths, and because of this, it is an easy trap to fall for some of the glib statements that have become truisms. The famous ‘Do. or do not. There is no try". Comes from the wisest of characters when he chastises the young Luke Skywalker for giving up.
There are three similar truisms that persist in modern education circles. Teachers, bureaucrats and for that matter politicians are drawn to the proverbial wisdom of their concepts, and they are promoted as the secrets of success. These are:
1. Meritocracy – This is the idea that success in life depends on an individual’s talent, ability and the effort they are prepared to make to achieve your goals. Modern democracies promote this idea that anyone can reach the top of any enterprise as long as they have the raw ability and put in the effort. This concept is in direct contrast to aristocracy where success in life was closely linked to the status and titles of your family and relationships.
2. Grit – Grit is a lot like meritocracy in that it has effort at its core but unlike the former Grit discounts the value of innate ability. Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth who pointed out that success was more reliant then intelligence first defined grit when it came to predicting success. She showed that if an individual perseverance, hardiness, resilience, and self-control they would succeed.
3. Delayed Gratification – This is the third member of the trilogy of the lessons of successful. This concept exploded onto the world through the work of Walter Mischel in 1972. His famous experiment demonstrated that children with the ability to pass up eating a marsh mellow immediately for the promise of an additional one would be successful later in life. In follow-up studies, he showed that those children who could resist the temptation of immediately eating the marsh mellow had better long-term success in their academic achievement, social competence and a feeling of assurance and self-worth.
There is no doubt there is a lot of truth and wisdom in all of these concepts, but there is just as much deception especially for those children that experience failure at school. The three principles outlined have at their core the principle that success depends on the individual and in this lies the attraction and the expectation. But for so many kids that have only experienced failure, adherence to these principles draws the inevitable conclusion that any failure they experience will be their fault.
A closer examination of these three maxims reveals their limitations. For example:
1. Meritocracy – this concept relies on the structural equality of our population. It assumes we all have the same quality of parenting; same socioeconomic life-style attend the same schools, etc. Of course, this is not a reflection of the real world. Communities are structurally inequitable; this is reflected in the quality of the resources in their schools; children in very disadvantaged socioeconomic areas have limited opportunities. There are other structural disadvantages that are based on gender, sexuality and race not to mention those children who have been subjected to abuse and neglect.
2. Grit – I have a nagging feeling that I could have won an Olympic Gold Medal if I had just tried harder. Those who know me and my sporting prowess understand that this is such an idiotic concept. I just don't have the talent to become the best in the world at any sport nor am I likely to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Even if I did have the talent does that mean I have to spend all my time pursuing just one goal? And finally there is nothing wrong changing your goals, in fact, it is probably quite healthy to diversify your interests.
3. Delayed Gratification – Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester challenged this concept. High in her findings was the amount of trust the children had in the adult making the deal. For many children who lived in chaotic homes would find the guaranteed consumption of a marsh mellow now at least give some pay-off. In their lives, the offer of a double serving in the future was too much of a risk. They are in fact making a rational decision. Their decisions confirm the significant connection between the ability to delay the intake and the family's socioeconomic status. Finally the ability to delay gratification lies in the child's Prefrontal lobes to over rule the drive of the hedonistic limbic system, particularly the amygdala. Children with a history of abuse and/or neglect have a considerable disadvantage in this as for these kids the prefrontal lobes ate reduced, and the amygdala is enlarged, so they are not even on the same playing field.
So what are we to do? There is an obvious benefit for children to show determination, believe in their ability to succeed and put off spending time on Face Book instead of trying to understand some mathematical concept. We all want our kids to have these qualities. But we must be careful to differentiate these qualities from the worth of each child. When they fail, they fail at something – for now. When kids with a history of disappointment do fail, we must ensure that this does not reinforce their distorted sense of self. They got their answer wrong this time but they are not wrong!
Yoda was not right, there is trying and sometimes as much as we try we will not succeed. But there is nobility in the exercise and humility in the acceptance we are not at all perfect.
How often have we all sat through those frustrating meetings where someone from head office or a university articulates with such commitment the first lie – if you can’t measure it then it’s not worth doing. This quantification of education based on an economically rational approach started in the sixties. This was the dawn of outcomes-based learning.
As a young teacher I remember how excited we were expected to be. So much easier, set the curriculum in such a way that we could ‘measure’ just how successful our students were and it soon followed that our quality as a teacher or a school could also be determined.
The culmination of this approach is our current addiction to standardized tests such as PISA or more locally NAPLAN. Now we have those clever statisticians comparing different nations, different schools and even different teachers. Of course, they consider a whole range of checks and balances, these are not stupid people they know how to read data.
Now there has always been a group that rejects the importance of such tests but for the academics and bureaucrats, ‘it just makes sense’, we can make judgements and more importantly politicians can understand its simplicity.
There is a problem, it seems that our children are falling behind, not reaching their ‘milestones’ so we must try harder, re-design curriculum, get better teachers, set stronger goals – we never question the value of the outcome and that is the first lie – we know what is best for the children, after all we are the adults!
The second lie is to place the blame for failure on the kids – ‘all kids can succeed they just have to try hard enough, have ‘true grit’! This belief that you can think yourself to success has been around for years. Those of you who are of my vintage remember Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling book ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’. This book informed a whole generation that, on the words of the little tug boat, ‘I think I can – I know I can’.
Now I understand that professional educators don’t buy into these mantras, we’re too clever. However, we have evidence that tells us that with a ‘growth mind-set’ we can succeed. This approach was first formalized by Carol Dweek from the University of California who demonstrated that children who make more of an effort were more successful than those who thought they had a set amount of intelligence. More success with more effort, sounds familiar!
Since the original publication of this work questions have emerged, there has been little success in confirmation studies. In the UK a study of 36 schools who professed to promote a growth mindset could find no correlation, a US meta-analysis conducted in 2018 showed no validation of this approach. To her credit Dweek has never claimed this to be ‘the answer’ to student improvement but those who long for ‘the answer’ to student learning have been attracted to this approach; if only it was that easy – we can think ourselves to success!
The final lie is that of meritocracy – that in our society, those who have made the best effort will reach the top of their field. How often do we hear our politicians, the leaders in commerce and industry proclaim our society is a form of meritocracy! Of course, they state case after case where an individual has overcome amazing obstacles to reach the top of their field. The thing is these individuals who do excel are the exception not the norm. Have a look at the board rooms of our top companies, how many come from disadvantage, how many attended a local public school – the numbers are miniscule, and I’ll wager in some companies no board members came from a public school! Everywhere there are positions of power and/or wealth meritocratic membership is the exception not the norm.
The purveyors of this lie are quite quick to point out examples of success. Blaise Joseph from the right wing think tank The Centre for Independent Studies recently published an independent study where they investigated 18 schools from low socio-economic areas that were highly achieving in the NAPLAN tests. A few points:
Naplan is a discredited test that can be manipulated by teaching to the test or ensuring poor performing students absent themselves from the test. This is easy and unfortunately not uncommon
The sample of 18 schools I assume is from 6,616 public schools. This means the sample size is about 0.003% of the population. Hardly a significant sample!
The message is that if all schools followed the specific criteria outlined they would succeed and not require the extra funding these schools are demanding. I could find no statement from Blaise about the massive savings for the government if they reduced the funding to the top private schools to the same levels of their public cousins.
However, the lie of meritocracy continues, everyone at the top ‘level’ claims they are there because of their ‘merit’! If they really believed in meritocracy there would be no private schools, no tutoring businesses everyone would go their local public school that was equally funded and staffed! If they believed in meritocracy there would be no inheritance, every child would have to make their way in the world based on their ‘merit’.
And now for what psychiatrist Scott Alexander calls ‘the noble lie’ – if the above conditions are true, that is if a growth mindset works, if outcomes-based learning works and if meritocracy works then children from poor communities are not trying! Therefore, it’s their fault they fail, at school and later in life! The rich and powerful love this lie, it allows them to sleep well at night because they are successful because they earned that success and those poor people only have themselves to blame!
Frew Consultants Group is dedicated to helping teachers giving every child the best chance at life and of course our focus is on those who come with the greatest disadvantage. Because of this, we have spent our professional life trying to understand how we can best help students learn. So far - no definitive answer but a few things have become obvious.
The first is that success, students being the best they can be is directly linked to self-perception. A child’s sense of themselves is the best predictor of their achievements. Students who see themselves as failures will fail and those who see themselves as worthwhile will participate. At first look this mind set approach appears to be just another form of positive thinking. The subtle difference is the positive thinking is a top-down action, the students are told to be positive however, an approach to learning based on the child’s sense of self, a bottom-up approach is a true reflection of the child’s core sense of themselves. In their book ‘Effective Teaching’ Muijs and Reynolds point out that ‘at the end of the day, the research shows that achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept based on achievement’. In other words, if you build the child’s self-concept the achievements will follow.
Consequently, the best we can do for our students is to build a positive sense of self - but how? The answer is, as in all things about education is the relationship between the student and the teacher. This is why effective teaching defies rational analysis and quantification, good teachers know how to foster such relationships but struggle to explicitly explain what they do. As Michael Polanyi explained way back in 1958, we can know more than we can tell!
Children build their sense of self through the interactions with significant adults, generally their parents. We have seen the damage done to children when those significant others provide an abusive or neglectful environment. It is these children, as well as all children but I could say more than others, rely on their teacher to be that significant other. Your role is to provide the correct amount of support according to the child’s current ability to meet their needs independently. You must be able to assess each individual’s developmental status at the time remembering that each will be coming from a different background.
In simple terms you must provide them with a structured environment where you provide them with what they need, not what they want and what they need is to develop a strong sense of a positive self, the ability to think independently, to relate with others in a responsible way and to have a purpose in their life. This what good teachers do!
The recent imprisonment of George Pell has focused our attention on the evil abuse suffered at the hands of those whom children should trust. The atrocious revelations, uncovered by Julia Gillard’s Royal Commission and reported across the globe, confirms the magnitude of this appalling cruelty. Unfortunately, the numbers of children damaged by a range of secular and non-secular organisations is most likely to be exceeded by those children who are abused those who they are programed to trust - their families and friends of those families.
Any attempt to quantify the numbers is at best an estimation as so many of the victims never disclose their history. Although estimates of the numbers differ it seems to be between 15% to 43% of children will experience a traumatic event and up to 15% will develop PTSD. This is an increase on the general view that, from 1% to 9% of the population suffer from PTSD.
The accuracy of these records is not relevant to this paper, they are just presented to give a sense of the magnitude of the numbers of kids who carry the wounds of their abuse or neglect. These statistics indicate that in a school of 1000 students you could expect 10 – 90 students suffering PTSD. So, in a class of 30 students you could expect between three to nine students who suffer from the injuries inflicted on them through abuse or neglect.
Also, PTSD is not equally distributed across the landscape; in resource-poor suburbs up to 23% suffer PTSD (in the school mentioned above you would have 230 students with PTSD). These figures are reflected in behavioural indicators in school systems. The numbers of suspensions positively correlate with the socio-economic profile of a school as does the number of children referred to child protection agencies.
The high levels of stress suffered during these abusive episodes, if systematically repeated will damage the child’s brain leaving them with a permanent cognitive disability. This includes:
Amygdala is increased in size – resulting in a hyper sensitivity to real or perceived danger
Hippocampus reported to have a 12% reduction in size – this is the area where memories are first created.
Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface – this is our executive part of the brain where all the considered decisions are made.
Cerebellum is reduced in size – this is an area of the brain that is intimately involved in all the coordination of thoughts and imagined outcomes for given situations.
They have also learned to behave in ways that may well have saved them in their dysfunctional environment, things like exaggerated anger, bullying or unhealthy compliance.
However, the result of this cognitive damage and their dysfunctional behaviours have created a group of students who:
Have significant brain damage
Are vulnerable to elevated levels of threat
Have entrenched behaviours that repulse and threaten others
Have behaviours that push well-meaning people away
Have behaviours that damage the physical and psychological wellbeing of other members of their community
Having seen what abuse does to the child’s development it is no surprise that childhood PTSD is linked to almost every behavioural illness in the diagnostic manual (the DSM) used to diagnose psychiatric illnesses. These include disorders whose symptoms create the difficulties for teachers:
I can’t emphasise enough these children do not easily attract the compassion from society that those kids who become disabled through a developmental mishap or an accident attract, yet their ‘injuries’ have been inflicted on them through the malevolent assaults of adults. They are victims, not of ‘bad luck’ but a cruelty that has never been really identified or accepted by society.
The really difficult issue in dealing with these victims is to foster and maintain an empathetic relationship with these kids. Beneath their severely dysfunctional behaviour is a child who is precious, special and unique. When we accept this, we recognise them as victims of such cruelty. Understanding this sustains our dedication when we are subjected to the very repellent behaviours we might face, particularly when we first encounter them in our classrooms.
Right now, the media is addressing the issue of child sexual abuse and appropriately there is an outcry about the abhorrent nature of this abuse and sympathy for the victims. Unfortunately, the media will move on and this compassion for the victims will fade and we will return to the consistent position that these bad children should be punished. The connection between the bad behaviour and the abusive history is forgotten. But we are a professional teacher and we understand that these kids are victims and so we have a right to help them:
Achieve their sense of value
Exercise their right to take a place of equity in their communities
Access all opportunities that are available to others
It is tempting to make the case that these kids are more deserving of special support but that would be plain wrong; all our kids need all they need. But, I would argue that these children whose dysfunctional behaviour that has been inflicted on them by adults do not receive the same support as other children with a disability. This is a task that requires specialist training, resources to support teachers dealing with these children and a professional recognition of the special skills required. Despite the difficulty in providing the appropriate programs there is promise that, with the proper interventions these children can make significant progress on overcoming their failings, an outcome not always available to children with more acknowledged disabilities.
This is a challenge for all of society but a professional responsibility for us teachers; it’s hard, it’s not fair but addressing the needs of these ‘unpleasant’ children allows us to display those very qualities that make teaching the profession I am proud to be associated with.
A recent publication from the New York Academy of Science (2017) has examined the literature that reviews the connection between socioeconomic disadvantage and the development of attention, learning, and resilience. They considered the evidence of over a century particularly with tests that measured cognitive functions, language development, and attention and this has shown a difference between children of low and high socioeconomic status (SES). The children from families with high SES consistently scored better than those from underprivileged families.
Studies in neuroscience also identify the link between the stress related to poverty and the neurological development of these children's cognitive landscape particularly in the limbic system, that area that modulates reactions to threats, the formation of memories and access to the executive functions of the brain, the prefrontal, and frontal cortex.
The following characteristics of a low SES community that create these adverse conditions are:
Growing up in poverty has commonly been associated with conditions that trigger elevated even chronic levels of stress. Low SES families are more likely to live in chaotic households where living arrangements are haphazard; the home discipline is unpredictable, there is a lack of routine and access to healthy diets.
Research has shown increased levels of stress-related chemicals associated with the physiological adaption of the body in response to threat including surges in the erosive chemicals catecholamine and cortisol. Continued exposure of these conditions increases the size of the amygdala, which makes the child vulnerable to stress and reductions in other significant parts of the brain including the hippocampus, the frontal lobes, the corpus colossus and the cerebellum.
2. Social Isolation and Deprivation
Children from low SES have fewer or even lack social interactions. They are less likely to attend preschool and miss that important opportunity to develop the skills to relate to their peers. This social isolation has been strongly associated with long-term health issues such as cardiovascular problems and sleep deprivation.
Experiencing abuse in childhood can occur in all SES but research shows that abuse is much more likely to occur in the low SES areas. This variance indicates that the SES of the neighborhood can explain 10% of the child’s health and adolescent outcomes.
The Gonski Review revealed that schools in low SES areas reflect the conditions of neglect in these homes. These schools, despite herculean efforts of the teachers are often chaotic because of the characteristics of the children who attend. The accompanying lack of resources because of government neglect and the absence of wealthy P&C’s exacerbates efforts to improve conditions. There is a further concentration of these undesirable conditions through the exodus of children from higher SES households who send their children from the local school to either private schools or the ‘so-called' selective school, many of which are no more than a weak excuse from the government sector to combat the drift to the private sector.
However, this exposure to adversity does not condemn a child. Some do acquire a natural resilience that helps their development, but for others it is only through the experience of social cohesion and supportive relationships found at school that children can ameliorate the potential damage carried out in their home.
It is in the schools where the healing can take place, and it is up to society to provide the resources for schools that 'service' these areas. The real cost of continually ignoring the needs of these communities comes later when society is forced to deal with the unemployment, the mental health issues, the addictions and the continuation of the poverty spiral.
The rewards for effort in this area is not only for the children but also the long-term health and wealth of our society.
At a recent retired principal's luncheon, I listened to the guest presenter discuss the outlook of the economy and how schools need to prepare their students for that future. In particular, the impact computerised production and artificial intelligence will have on work practices will be at the heart of this new revolution. The claim was made that by 2050 only 10% of the population would be in employment.
The focus of the presentation was on how would we deliver the skills required for our students to participate in this new world of work? His view was that we would need a range of skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and the usual assembly of abilities that signify the position that we just don't know.
Nonetheless, education systems have not been slow to consider the future and with regular announcements we are informed about what we should be teaching! Recently this has included coding, and then we must continue to emphasize STEM, next week who knows maybe we need to concentrate on numeracy and literacy? Recently the CSIRO presented a paper in the Conversation estimated that 40% of current jobs would be taken over by robots. But they also announced that the most significant skill set needed in the future would be in communications and people skills.
There has always been a sense of doom when new technologies emerge, and in the past, the occupations lost to technology have been replaced by other jobs. The difference this time is the computers have moved from the ‘production line’ and they now dominate many of the service industries. Where a predictable environment exists AI will become the most efficient and cheapest choice for industry. Even professions such as accountancy and the law are under enormous threat. One frightening statistic that confirms this trend is that since 2000 only 0.5% of American workers are employed in industries that have emerged (The Economist June 2017).
While I was digesting the prediction that only 10% of the population would have work I could not help considering ‘what about the 90% unemployed’. And further, I wondered about the wisdom of providing this expected economic/production focused curriculum to the 100% so that we get the 10%?
I make the following points:
If the employment level is going to be 10%, the unemployment level will be 90%
It will be very likely that the ‘best and brightest’ will gain that employment and these will in a sense ‘self-select’ for those positions
That leaves the vast majority with ‘nothing to do.'
John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, pointed out in 1933; that the focus on the economy and solving that problem is not addressing the long-term permanent problem of the human race and that is to live a purposeful life. What he meant was the economy had become the purpose not the servant of society. I fear that modern education has also become the servant of the economy and those who are surplus to requirement are discarded. If you look at the unemployed of today, you see just how much we care about the surplus!
I have been working on my next book that focuses on the most damaged children, the ones who are most likely to be in this unemployed category, and in the process of doing this I have had to consider what kind of education I would like to develop. At the heart of my deliberations is the aim of developing a sense that they can take their proper place in society.
I have come to the following four characteristics I believe underpin a fulfilling life and would be the underpinning tenets of the curriculum. These are:
A Sense of Self – We all need to have a sense of worth, value, and importance. This affirmation is not always 'a given' across the population, and in the event of massive unemployment, a positive sense of worth will be extremely hard to maintain especially if the only focus our curriculum is on preparing everyone for work!
The other component of a strong sense of self is how we relate to the community. It is important that we feel positive about ourselves, but it is critical that we have the sense that our companions also value us. These days I would contend the levels of unemployed youth and the social issues they face and create, are an indication of the future unless we prepare our children for their future reality.
Relatedness – As we are social beings we need to live in a society that we can contribute to and receive support. This requires the skills to cooperate, to share and to support each other. There will also be a challenge in regards to the sharing of resources, and so ethics will be required. We won't survive with a competitive approach.
Aspirations – A sense of purpose is also vital for a healthy lifestyle. We need something to get up for every morning. For the vast majority, our vocation has been that purpose, and when our work matches our aspirations, we have a fulfilling life. If we assume that there are no work prospects we need to develop a sense of purpose in our students.
Autonomy – Finally we need to have a sense of control over our lives. This sense of independence allows us to participate in society from a position of individuality so important for our ability to participate in the democratic process. I would contend that the current worldwide disenchantment with the political process is that individuals have no real sense of control or meaningful contribution.
I remember a past leader of the High-Performance Unit who claimed that if the solution is not simple, it is wrong. This statement is an overused platitude I find most disturbing. I have always thought that simple answers are appealing to simple minds.
The 'simple' answer our current education leaders make is to react to the latest ‘idea,'. This results our leaders lurching from one ‘new idea' to the next and always to prepare the students for work. I return to the point Keynes made; this complete focus on the economy blinds us to any alternate view. What if we just enjoyed and shared the wealth AI provided, what if we could pursue more humanistic endeavours, what if we became satisfied with what we have?
John Lennon ‘imagined a world’ that could be achievable with a change in focus.
Maybe we will have to let go of competition and growth and ‘live our lives in peace’!
A recent paper ‘National Corruption Breeds Personal Dishonesty’ by Simon Makin (March 2017) recognises that the nature of our society shapes the behaviour of our individuals. Over recent years our students have been exposed to what seems to be a never-ending stream of reports about the corrupt actions of sports men and women, businesses, religious leaders, entertainers and politicians. These are their role models and unless formal educators, parents and teachers counter the influence of these corrupt actions, our students are in danger of either adopting the model of corruption or losing faith in the wellness of society.
Further to this, in a report on the ‘soul’ of education by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts (RSA) one of the authors, Angie Kotler pointed out that “We (schools) are working in a system that mainly reflects and transmits the overt values of capitalism and individuality, with a nod to the niceties of being ‘good citizens’”.
Putting the ‘competitive’ market at the centre of our ethical practice has introduced direct competition between individuals and schools. The driving force is to be successful - I must beat my opponents. This approach has seen politicians and their bureaucrats encourage competition between neighbouring schools and this has led to the immoral fight around the funding of schools. The concept of ‘love thy neighbour’ has been replaced by exploit you neighbour, not only their funding but their ‘best and brightest’ students.
So what are the implications for the teacher and their approach to ethics and morality in their classroom and more importantly on their pedagogy? A true educator has at the heart of their practice the teaching of character. This involves the understanding of how their behaviour impacts on others and accepts the responsibility of the consequences of their actions. Of course there is an expectation that parents should be the primary moral educators but morals are very personalized and the ethics of one family may well clash with their neighbours. It is in the classroom that the children of these neighbours can resolve their differences. It is also abundantly clear in a small population of students that they have lacked any moral or ethical development in their homes.
The need for teachers to become directly involved in the teaching of ethics is supported by none other than international experts like Michael Fullan (2014) and Michael Barber (2012). These outstanding educators have always been advocates for the traditional approach to pedagogy and outcomes but now support the need to find ways for young people to learn in more challenging environments, which develop character, resilience and leadership as well as lead to academic results.
Of course in an era where the prescribed curriculum is overcrowded formal teaching of ethics and morals is not possible but frequently a lesson leads to a situation, or a dispute between two or more classmates which will provide the ‘teaching moment’ when it is the moral and ethical thing to have a such a lesson.
The following is a guideline for teachers while delivering ethically based lessons:
Do no harm to the students or the school
Teach and model the acceptance of the responsibility for personal actions and the consequences of those actions
Always care for your students
Teach the students they have the right for personal determination
Insist on the truth first
Be honest, trustworthy and reliable
Treat others as you want to be treated yourself
It is the last point that best sums-up teaching morals and ethics.
We have all had a student, or two, or more whose behaviour was so outrageous we questioned why were we teaching? These kids are the most difficult to connect with and they don’t seem to want to learn and they destroy the learning of their classmates! But we do carry on because once we get past the frustration we accept that they are that way because others made them that way. And so they are worth that extra effort but where do we focus that ‘effort’?
Having spent a good deal of my career teaching in schools specifically set up for these type of children a question that has occupied me is ‘what right do I have to modifying their behaviour’ and when I have resolved this question a second challenge is how do I want them to behave? I am happy to accept the need for change - for their sake and that of their classmates but the change is in their very sense of self and where does it say this is my job and where are the tools to teach for that change?
I’m a teacher not the child’s parent and I’m not a professional health care worker. I’m more than happy to step aside and let the parents deal with the behaviours and even more willing to defer to the child psychiatrist or psychologist. But in those classrooms and in those special settings there is no effective psychological or psychiatric support and the reality is that the parents are so often the creators of the disability and/or are no longer available or willing to help. So I am left in class to either wipe my hands of the problem or do something to help the student and protect the classroom.
We are ‘teachers’ and we have a calling that brings us to the classroom. If we thought it was just a job and we were contracted to do our work it would be easy more so now than at any time I can recall. All we would have to do is teach for the NAPLAN Test! Fortunately, we teach the whole child and teach them the full set of skills that allow them to successfully function in society.
To understand what skills I need to teach these children I have distilled the goals I have for all my students into being the best they can be and support others while they are doing the same.
The question is how do I define a person’s best? To answer this I turned to the philosophers who have long asked the same question.
In a western tradition any philosophical question will invariably lead us back to the big three, Socrates, Plato and the holy-ghost, Aristotle. When it came to the question what is it to be an optimal human, Aristotle integrated his colleagues’ work into the study of eudaimonia - a life of excellence, living with ethical wisdom and virtue. He made the case to achieve a happy life by studying philosophy and having an involvement in the community through political activity.
In more contemporary times the leaders in this field include Carl Rogers, who describes the characteristics of a fully functional person, Abraham Maslow whose famous pyramid of needs culminates in the self-actualized person and Erich Fromm’s work on personal growth through ‘being’ instead of doing; all these philosophers plus many others have addressed the question I ask of myself.
Positive Psychology rose from attempts to aggregate and rationalize the factors all these studies identified as leading to a life of satisfaction. Using empirical data Positive Psychology studied how our activities impacted on our lives at all levels, physical, psycho/social or intellectual. The common conclusion in the field is that to experience the ‘good life’ you must be engaged in meaningful activities. I saw this aggregation as an opportunity to get some clarification about what characteristics would be suitable to develop in these students.
The American Psychologist Ken Sheldon carried out further analysis on what makes the ‘optimal’ human by examining our evolutionary journey, our personalities and traits, the construction of our identity, social relations and cultural membership. His categorization, like all works in Positive Psychology has a heavy focus on the future and is particularly focused on goal setting. They are as follows:
Strive to Balance Basic Needs – This includes autonomy, competence, relatedness, security and self-esteem
Set and Make Efficient Progress Towards Self-Concordant Goals – These goals are those that have an intrinsic quality and support the person’s self-concept reflecting Winnicott’s idea of ‘true self’
Choose Your Goals and Social Roles Wisely - Goals that are driven by or rely on external factors such as fame, popularity or wealth do nothing to contribute to a person’s positive identity. The goals must advance personal growth and positive relationships at both the intimate and community level
Strive Towards Personal Integration – The goals must be compatible with each other and support our basic needs. They must also combine with our fundamental personality
Work Towards Modifying Problematic Aspects of Yourself and the World – Have the ability to identify your weaknesses and problems within the world and include these in your goals. Build on your character strengths and learn to self-evaluate your strategies for change.
Take Responsibility for Goals and Choices – Take an intentional attitude towards life. Align your desired sense of self with your goals and refer to this affiliation when making important decisions about your future.
Listen to Your Organismic Valuing Process (OVP) and be Prepared to Change if Necessary – The OVP comes from the work of Carl Rogers where the goals are selected based on our sense of self. We are to take an internalized attitude towards life. If we do this we increase our trust in our ability to know what is good for us and abandon those that work against our true self.
Transcend Yourself – The more we forget about our selves and give our energy to a valued cause or another person the more human, self actualized we become.
This examination probably hasn’t helped, it has been a hard journey but I have some conclusions I would share.
The purpose of your teaching is really to empower your students to value their worth in society, take control of their future and become a real part of their community. This is not in any curriculum or text and there is only one way to teach character and that is through the organization of your classroom and you model the traits you wish to see in your students. That’s why real teaching is hard and why teachers matter!
The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service. After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.