Sunday, July 30, 2006

Remarkable Jackie

In my first two years of teaching, I taught a remarkable girl, whom I will refer to as Jackie. She was the type of student who had to know why everything was the way it was. She always asked me to show her the veracity of theorems and the reason that any particular algorithm actually worked.

I must say that I always welcome this kind of inquisitiveness, and get frustrated by the fact that many of my students have been irreparably convinced that Mathematics was a subject where thinking had little to do with success! I often allowed myself to be manipulated into teaching the traditional way: the teacher gives lots of notes and then sets work from the textbook.

Jackie was different in this respect. Her questions were a breath of fresh air, especially when she was in year 8. That particular group was a difficult one to work with. They were very nice girls, but not the type for whom thinking or a high level of self discipline came naturally.

My biggest frustration was when I could not answer all her questions. This was sometimes due to lack of time, the fact that concepts required a higher level of Maths to demonstrate, and even my lack of experience in teaching.

One remarkable occurrence was when she asked me, after returning from the mid-year break, to teach her a practical way to work out percentages. She had no trouble applying the formula we had learned in class, but she found it difficult to use it when shopping! So, we spent recess working on a good mental strategy for shopping.

In my third year of teaching, Jackie was on my year 9 class list. I would have loved to teach her again. Instead, I suggested to her that it would be best if she had a different teacher for a change. I asked for her to be placed in another class, and a place was vacant with a teacher who is very different from me. Mrs Jones is a very traditional, and very experienced, teacher. I think it is good for students to experience teachers with different styles throughout their years of schooling.

To the teachers reading this, may you be blessed with a few Jackies in every class.



Saturday, July 29, 2006

Grateful for every day?

Yesterday, a colleague asked me whether growing up in a time of war had changed me. Did I savour each day of my life?

Given his apparent expectations, My answer must have been disappointing. The fact is that, like most people I know, I live a life disproportionately dominated by mundane concerns. I plan for and worry about the future as though I were sure to live a long life.

One thing that I have learned from the war was the importance of a good education. When you hope to make a future for yourself outside your country of birth, education is your only passport. It is a sacred thing.

I remember many people using the war as a pretext for the way they lived. Those who stole or fought with militias said that the circumstances of life necessitated their behaviour. Those who turned to God, pointed to the absurdity of the things of this world. Everything was truly ephemeral and almost everything was pointless.

I was surrounded mainly by people in the latter category. I think their love for God can be matched by some whom I have met in the West, but not their complete dependence on the Divine. Those people live truly holy lives. They endangered their lives to help others and gave of their necessity to care for those worse off. They lived in the world but were not part of it.

When my students ask me "why will I ever need to know this?", I sometimes answer "I had no need to learn English when I was at school". How can I not be grateful for the level of language instruction in my birth country, when my passport to a future came with an Australian visa pasted in?

Here am I, with a healthy family and a job of my choosing. How lucky I am! Yes, I am grateful for every day.



Sunday, July 23, 2006

C'est la politique qui prime

I remember a time in my youth when a the leader of a militia was doing the rounds of universities. In one of his speeches, he emphasised the French proverb, "c'est la politique qui prime". Loosely translated, this means "Politics before all else". He argued that the students' education could not take precedence, sincec an unstable country would not provide them with a future. All considerations had to make way for politics.

I believe that people who love freedom and who have strong convictions always defy reality. A committed Christian forgoes some income to keep Sunday mornings free. A practising Jew limits his social engagements to keep the Sabbath. A determined student studies despite the bombs that take away both the peace and lights of his study area.

Obviously, my upbringing in a war torn country provided me with many opportunities to defy reality. I was blessed with parents who did not wrap me in cotton wool, and instead allowed me to grow and explore myself in what were very difficult circustances.

Yesterday, I had an experience where politics did come before all else. La politique a gagné. I had a loud disagreement with a person about whom I care regarding the current situation in the Middle East. I will not detail the argument here, except to say that I suspended my good relationship with that person and all that meant to me to take up a political point. All this, in the comfort of a lounge room in Melbourne.

What does that have to do with education? I remember a lecturer at teacher's college telling us that education was highly political. A tug of war has been taking place of late between the federal and state governments over who controls schools and universities. The funding of educational institutions is often a hotly debated topic, especially close to elections.

External testing seems to be the current catch cry. Politicians use it to peer inside the four walls of classrooms. They label children, and satisfy the community's need for accountability. As a teacher, I am too well aware of the drawbacks. The body of research on teaching and learning is being burnt at the altar of political control. The child is in danger of becomming a dot on a continuum. The joy of learning is at times replaced by the stress of performing.

Teachers cannot always go against the system. But we must refuse to entertain the system to the extent that it asks us to teach badly. All children are not the same. Let us defy reality as much as we can, and replace politics with joy on top of our considerations.

C'est la joie qui prime!


Thursday, July 06, 2006

How I became a teacher?

Here's opening one's soul:

I remember one day discussing with my dad the fact that I wanted to study Education at university. He encouraged me to read about education and keep it as a hobby, but counselled me to do something which would earn me a more decent wage. I suppose this is not unusual, especially where I was born, where pursuit of a living wage often meant emigrating to the West or taking a post in the Gulf states.

The idea kept simmering in my mind, even though I completed an engineering degree and worked for a major telecommunications company. In the year 2000, I requested permission to apply for a training position in Europe. It turned out to be an inopportune time for my department to let go of any of its members. A few months later, we were closed down by the parent company and I found work as a trainer, contracting to a large US company.

The IT slump hit hard towards the end of 2001 and, despite signing with another leading software training provider, the contracts were few and far between. I decided to turn the crisis into an opportunity and took some time to read "finding your mission in life", a section in Dick Bolles' classic "What Color is Your Parachute?". Everything I read and all the profiling tools in the book pointed me to teaching. I decided to apply to local universities for the 2003 intake, but was dissuaded from this by some members of my family.

In November 2002, I was offered two jobs which I rejected, having realised that I needed to go ahead with my decision to undertake teacher training. It was too late to go through the regular chanels but the Australian Catholic University had a process for late applications. It was a great surprise when they called me with an offer. I later learned that my chosen methods, Maths and IT, helped me as both were -and remain- in great shortage.

Since then, many things happened that confirmed my decision. I was called by a technical college to teach evenings while I completed my teaching diploma in the day. A school that had hosted me for a teaching round offered me a full-time position beginning January of 2004. Everytime a decision had to be made, something would open up and appear to be the natural option. Most importantly, I had my wife's full support throughout the journey.

I was raised to believe that when the circumstances of life all point in one direction and things turn out for the better, Divine Providence is at work.