Oops, I did it again! I'm not sure why I continue to do it, after doing it for so many years now. Setting myself up for an all too predictable frustration. "Bloody hell! Why am I even bothering?" I implode with anger. This feeling is probably all too familiar for too many of us in the workplace. "That data is rubbish!"
Like many, I grew up loving numbers and statistics; I worked with percentages and my head riddled itself with problems over the happenings of AFL events upon the previous weekend or the cricket at the local park. I can still remember faking a sickie from school when Australia would play a One Day International Cricket Match, I'd soon be glued to the screen, taking graphs and working out run rates by hand. There are so many upsides of data, but never did I think I'd be writing a blog about the downside and, at times, the ineffectiveness of it.
So, with this love for data, it probably doesn't come as a surprise my findings and observations bring about great frustration, bringing me to the point where I feel we (teachers and schools at least) have gone too far using it incorrectly.
From one perspective, I love the analytical science data brings, and to its definition, it is simply supposed to do this: Find patterns, trends, deficiencies and areas of concern so that an individual/cluster can access feedback on progression and then move forward towards greater competency. On the other hand, data lends itself to what I suggest is the typifying reason employees behave with dishonesty and, to an extent, corruption. Today, I'm going to explore both.
Colleagues, without even trying, simply by not caring enough to do their job properly, send you to the edge of your tether. Contributing most to this and the worst thing ever brought into my workplaces, across several different schools, is the data platform. Amongst other things, it brings about a Debbie Stroud coined feeling, 'demoralisation'. As a negative, we'll start with the exposure of this data. My aforementioned point (about being a platform) demands all key stakeholders have access to data. No one seems to care where from and how the data came about but we just need so much of it! As if this data is the potion to ease all the tension within. Parents and students alike wait for it like Christmas. Many then grapple with it like the Grinch has stolen our happiness when things don't go to plan, further bringing about stress for everyone. Ahh, data. Data offers many in a workplace a first-hand look at what others are doing, how they are tracking and, most importantly, where the deficits are. This isn't a bad thing either. We need time to reflect and collate information on the practice in which we operate. We need to ask, 'is my practice working?' and 'where can I improve?' The problem lays dormant in many a workplace though as data seems to be more commonly fabricated than Donald Trump's media coverage. To put it simply, the data we are exerting is complete and utter, "FAKE NEWS". Wow! Didn't think I'd be quoting Donald Trump in a blog! Put simply, if we pretend all is well and provide some falsehood data to say so, people may just believe us - this is not a good thing by the way!
Either way, the problem with having a platform in your workplace may not seem evident at first, for there are many positives which are grandstanded and paraded around in the early days, hence the 'great' decision to purchase it; but slowly and surely, issues leak, then ooze and eventually pour profusely. Now, this is 'demoralising!' There are those employees with the smoke and mirrors approach, parading about when it suits (or when authorities are watching), showcasing, you know, employee brilliance, but what is really going on? Here's where, if we look closely enough at the data, we will find perhaps some very confusing, if not baffling, results. Requirements and allocation of workloads are not undertaken correctly, the practice is poor and the people receiving the produce (in my case, students and parents), are very happy, despite being a little suspicious, for the outcomes are reaching new heights. Whilst the comings and goings within the domain reeks of very rare and weak competency, the results suggest otherwise.
This is where data fails to reveal what it was designed for, the truth!
One of the great benefits of data is that it keeps a company, entity or system accountable. There are standards in which we all need to adhere to, and bloody high ones at that! Data keeps track of performance over time. In a car dealership, a commission is offered for greater sales, bringing about strong outcomes for the business; in an entrepreneurial institute, data shows growth and decline and allows stakeholders to monitor networking, company goals and gives insight into what lies ahead. This, for the number lover, sounds appetising, but on the flip-side, this type of data can also bring about competition within the ranks and can interfere with the whole purpose of the data collation in the first place, improvement. Data can bring about ill-feelings, squabbling and stress. In my profession, teachers start looking into how to best accommodate the needs of data, not students. The honest educators work harder, walking the tightrope of burnout and the bad ones only exacerbate this by spinning webs of deceitful and false data. What's worse, the teachers' practice declines, for fear of disconformity and start teaching to tests. The vicious cycle begins and there's no turning back.
Data can be toxic, in any environment. To make my point, I need to delve into the piece of data my profession does really well… (cough…cough) withholding: from all the data and testing that occurs, teachers are getting worse! We are nearly at the point of epidemic! With more teachers than ever before leaving the profession (data exhibited in a previous blog) and no sign of halting, we must look at the formula for acknowledging how we use data and how it improves teaching practice. Let's not forget the kids! They are the real ones missing out here. While we bicker in the background, the students are losing good teachers, quality nourishment of knowledge and a bestowed critical, investigative thinker for the future. Let me use the naughty, often forbidden word to explain. Wait for it… NAPLAN! Ummah!
NAPLAN is loathed throughout the industry and beyond, what I think is actually really irrelevant, but what is not irrelevant is the data this testing brings. Data shows it brings stress to kids, parents and teachers alike. Data shows it spotlights a steady decline in the acquisition of facts; basic skills in literacy and mathematics are through the floor and one more thing; teachers are getting away with not properly teaching what students need to know. My goal here isn't to bag teachers but something this NAPLAN data shows me is, yes, teachers need to be more accountable for their classroom. The students and their deficiencies, the parents and their questions, the happiness and wellbeing of each within, and, of course, their own practice. For me, the data tells us all, teachers need to improve. NAPLAN tracks individual kids around the country but it doesn't reflect the teacher's impact. Yes, NAPLAN is a one-off test, but if students knew the content and were able to apply independently, the loathing of the test would dissipate. Let's not worry about teaching to the test, spoon feeding our students, let's just teach properly. Forget about collecting student data for a moment and collate teaching data. Stimulating the teachers will engage students, more testing helps no-one, in fact, it hinders the whole teaching sector from progression, the goal of data collection entirely.
With a greater focus on why we collect data, more privacy on who can access the data and more emphasis on direct and explicit employee professional care and development, high outcomes can, and will, be achieved. Collect data via surveying the people whom matter most, prioritise culture and outcomes will look after themselves. The purpose of data is to improve, let's get our heads out from behind the shadows of self-saving mode and promote quality professionals, working towards greater proficiency. Let's support the teacher who need help, challenge them to question and desire change, then maybe their students will. Resilient teachers, willing to make mistakes and take on feedback will go a long way to helping the rot. Put more emphasis on teaching teachers and the students' standards in academia will rise!
For the record, I do not like NAPLAN but here's some insight into some of "pro" arguments. The kids I had taught for a two-year period at a previous workplace from Year 5 to 6, broke all the school's records for Year 7 NAPLAN results the following year. A nice affirmation using externally sourced data. What's more exciting is, this would then be broken by the next group of kids I taught, who went into Year 7 the next year. How's that for data?
Bankers are filthy rich, investors are intelligent or lucky and nurses dedicate their lives to save others'. Receptionists please their clients like no other and police officers serve and protect. But there's one job that plays a massive role in the survival of the entire human race and planet earth as we know it. That's right people, I speak of those standing before us for more than forty percent of our childhood lives, teachers.
After travelling to Tasmania recently, it dawned on me, we teachers are a very special breed; heroic, kind and often whacky. So, what makes these senseless, kooky and sometimes authoritative beings so important?
Let's find out.
Because it is so much easier to change teaching policy, education practice and well, the teachers themselves, than that of changing the personal lives of students; families, individual characteristics and of course the behaviours and social norms in the community, teaching ranks very highly on what contributes most to a child's academia, career prospects, socio-emotional development and potential into adulthood. But before we go blaming the teaching for that incident that occurred and classifying it ‘poor teaching', let us fact-check some analysis of just why good teachers have such a positive influence on our children.
The best ‘test and reveal' sample of evidence for this is a change in a child's environment compared to that of the teacher. Although schools are vast in their range of difference from the next, a competent teacher will impact student achievement and well-being seamlessly. This will happen regardless of a school's status, community demographic or systemic set-up. Comparatively, students will have a more difficult time adapting to poor teaching practice and the environment they create, detrimentally impacting well-being and strangle clutching academic progression. The perfect example of this is the passage from Primary School to High School. A poor Year 6 teacher will offer an open mind and fresh start for students, ready to embark on a new journey with new teachers in Year 7. Quality teachers in a high school will lap up the students who need that extra attention, whereas the poor teachers will filter any positivity the students' mindset has left and squeeze the first of the anxiety-laden trail that begins when children enter adolescence. Alternatively, the opposite can occur too. Good teachers may pave such a strong path into adolescence, the sky seems the limit for each individual. Then the unthinkable; all this is quelled as the students enter a world of High School, often riddled with poor teachers. This seems dramatic but is the harsh reality of classroom and school transition, hence shining the clear spotlight on the message that, contrary to many leaders and their warped beliefs, good teachers are quite clearly irreplaceable.
Unlike in society, teachers are best identified by their care, nurturance and performance within the classroom, not for their colour, creed or experience. Also unlike in society, schools can operate by a different hierarchy; where those who care most get acknowledged most and those who create belonging, not belittling, get ahead. Think about it, a school based on community, where students are genuinely cared for are far more sought after than those which are purely based upon rigour and regurgitation to achieve nothing more than data. In a recent investigation by the Department of Education in Western Australia, surveying and analysing the pastoral care of over 140 teachers and their school's community stakeholders (principals, parents, administrators and, of course, students), the best schools and thus most effective teachers, regardless of the school's demographic and social climate, prioritised relationships and strong vision in treating the student as person, taking interest in the child and their interests. This played a major role in the overall academic and social development. The results also reflected the efficiency of the whole school experience for students and their families. The report concluded, "if they were cared for effectively, the results of those in question; academically and the general appreciation and view of the school would trend upward. If there was no real consistency with a priority on care, the view and results fell dramatically."
Good teachers are like melodies you can't get out of your head. Many of us, even as adults can recall that ‘one incredible' teacher; the one who made our time in that one year, inspiring! Like the whole school experience was so worthwhile, just for that twelve months. But how many people can say that one teacher made all the difference because "she planned diligently", or, "he controlled well and worked with great management", or, "that teacher knows everything about everything"? Sure, this all helps somewhat, but universities are not places you learn the real teaching, these skills are assets in all professions. Teaching needs that little point of difference. Clearly, the best teachers are passionate and enthusiastic and approachable and do things slightly different. When the time with this teacher is over, you go home and talk to your parents about the amazing fun you had or the learning activity that felt nothing like ‘normal learning'. They didn't know everything but they didn't seem to mind. And when you outsmarted them in inquiry, it was celebrated and shared across all the class. It was special, an experience like no other. It was different. A perfect segue into the next point, great teachers are different.
When tooting the horn of individuality, it is somewhat deflating when the person preaching is just another bland version of someone else. What a position to be in as teacher; bringing your personality out so that others can see you as human, not just the brick in the wall the system often confines us to be. Without a doubt, in a world of incessant conformity, those who possess even the smallest of difference, make the biggest of differences. We want a world of independent, responsible and critical creators, with a sense of service, generosity and pride in being, right? So, only being great in role modelling will bring about the most positive outcomes, conducive to success in the aforementioned. Able and inspiring individuals come from able and inspiring guidance.
As teachers, we have such a wonderful opportunity to spread the goodness of being kind, learned and humble; selfless, inquisitive and just being present. To all teachers out there, who think that you've had enough; I empathise but urge to persevere. Never again will you be in the same space as those you share today's classroom with. Think about it; you could be standing before, sharing incredible experiences with the next Prime Minister, future Hollywood heroes, tradies and politicians; the next Master Chef and your very next nurse. Heck, you may even have yourself an able age carer for when you're too frail to treat yourself the way you deserve. Where in the world will you ever have the pleasure, the honour to be present with amazing individuals like these ever again? They care about your presence. Your smile can make all the difference in one being's day. Smile more, love your students, love your job, love the good and the bad, and then smile some more, for you are a teacher.
By gosh we have an important job. Do it well!