Thinking about education.

Verity Firth – current CEO of the Australian Public Education Foundation – is certainly an engaging, convincing speaker. This is a brief clip of her at the 2013 Public Education Foundation awards:

I went to a public pre-school, primary school, and secondary school in the early 2000s. In secondary school, I experienced none of the wonderful boons of ‘community’ and quality Verity describes in the video above. A large part of that was due to personal, specific circumstances: acute physical and mental health issues (without adequate support or treatment) – causing prolonged absences, extreme anxiety and depression, poor concentration, and a general feeling of being unsafe at school. All this had a detrimental effect on the education I received in those crucial secondary years. I am keenly aware of how important mental health, and familial, cultural and professional support is, for a student – and how the absence of such things can be a profound handicap in life.

Layering and exacerbating those “unique” circumstances, there were also environmental factors that impacted the public education I received, and set it quite apart from the wonderful utopia Verity describes: the schools I attended weren’t terribly ethnically diverse. The (too) high population secondary school I attended was comprised of mostly Anglo and Asian kids, with a good deal of visible self-segregation going on. I had a few truly great teachers, who fostered within me a belief in my own ability to learn, and inspired me to do so. But I also had quite a few stooges. So many examples of poor role-modelling… but I’ll just give you a taste. It is no revelation that some teachers, like people in general, aren’t so great.

There was the legal studies teacher seemingly obsessed with talking about race, and his much younger foreign wife. Another teacher who liked to hold the class back and release kids in groups according to eye or hair colour, for her own pleasure. Another teacher who repeatedly turned a blind eye to bad behaviour – who even said and did nothing whilst an Asian student trying to give a presentation was verbally abused by a group of Anglo-Australian boys (they hurled racist and sexist comments at her the entire time she was speaking, in a tiny classroom. Man heard, did nothing). Another teacher who showed up extremely late to most of the classes – just in time to give us a condensed lecture on the Australian political system. Really nice guy, but… distracted much? He had two important full-time jobs at the school, and perhaps that wasn’t a good idea.

Leaving school was thus a relief, but also a terrible let down. I started off in life a curious, conscientious child and eager student, hungry to learn. I left school a cynical, dejected, maladjusted teenager, with a phobia of institutionalised educational settings, and actual classrooms. Rather than saying goodbye to a “community”, leaving my compulsory years behind felt like fleeing Alcatraz, or the end of some horrible ordeal. I do think I am an unusually sensitive person. But I also think a lot of the support that I needed, and did not receive, during those years, are forms of support most – if not all – students need in order to really thrive in their studies* [see note below].

BASIC support such as:

  • A personally, physically and culturally safe and respectful learning environment – certainly one in which a student is not subjected to abuse or humiliation by other students or, perhaps more importantly, the teachers. How best to foster this environment is the great question.
  • Support for health and wellbeing, of mind and body: advice towards and the provision of healthy food; forms of exercise able to be undertaken by the student (i.e. disabilities being taken into consideration – would have been nice to have had that, rather than having to constantly explain that my inability to run in P.E was not caused by laziness); mental health education and support services, the promotion of a school culture in which stigma is combated.
  • Smaller classes, so students can have more one-to-one time with a teacher. Holy jeebus. I know for certain I would have fared better with that.
  • Early detection and support for learning disabilities – matching kids with the modes of learning that work for them best, with an approach focusing on strengths, not deficits.

Some other forms of support are not and cannot be the responsibility of the school to provide, but they certainly make a big difference (and I list these here not as a criticism of my upbringing, merely as an informed observation of things that are helpful):

  • Coming from a family or cultural background with an academic and/or reading culture.
  • Parent(s) or Guardian(s) who are truly engaged with their child’s development and education – not just when things go wrong. Perhaps even involved in that “school community” Verity alludes to. I cannot remember exactly how many parent-teacher interviews were attended, but I believe that number is close to three. And school functions? In high school, none – but to be fair, I avoided them too 😉
  • Parent(s) or Guardian(s) who understand the realities, the real contemporary challenges, their children are facing, and who are able to provide guidance. Or, in lieu of that capacity, have an understanding of where to go to in order to get that help/support. School? Social Worker? GP? Community Centre? Community Group? Church/Religious Group? Sexual Health or Family Planning Centre? Etc.
  • Parent(s) or Guardian(s) who themselves have support to be safe and well. Who have support emotionally, socially, physically and financially.
  • A healthy, open and communicative home environment.
  • A healthy lifestyle outside of school… a balanced life. Other self-esteem building interests, and time to pursue them.

Verity Firth evidently was lucky enough to receive a start in life, and a public school education, that gave her a fantastic foundation for lifelong learning and success – one that allowed her to develop her innate talents, talents that she is now putting to tremendous use in the world. From her descriptions, her child is now lucky enough to be receiving a public school education of equal quality, and that is inspiring and encouraging to hear. Wouldn’t it be great to know that, no matter where the public school is they are attending, a child is going to receive the basic support they need to be the best student – and human being – they can be?

There will always be differences and “inequalities”, because we are all individuals, we all have different circumstances, and different backgrounds. What I would like to see (what I think most supporters of public education would like to see) would be a public system comprised of schools equipped with all the resources and high quality staff they need, in order to foster the kind of learning environment their particular kids need, in order to thrive.

A good time to re-visit where elected representatives, the major parties, minor parties and independents stand in regards to public education, I think. What with an election happening and all……

*Note: many of these things are addressed by some public schools today, and were probably addressed by some other public schools at the time – I am merely stating they were absent from my experience. Take my epic failure as a cautionary tale.

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I haven’t forgotten about instalments 3 & 4 of ‘Fashion Victims”: clothing industry outsourcing & ethical consumption. Just working on some articles and other work at the moment. Aforementioned posts, and more, to come. I hope you are well 🙂

I also just discovered I may be eligible to acquire assistive technology software. Super excited – would make me that much more productive and I am elated at the prospect! Has made my year! I don’t know why it never occurred to me before to investigate this. Long way to go still before driving is possible but I do fine without that. Being able to “type” faster, however? For someone who writes, absolutely essential. Tech empowered Disability for the win.

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