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What does the public know about what teachers do?

When I read Underappreciation and heavy workloads driving teachers away from the job​ , I was alarmed and disheartened. The findings of  Monash University’s report “Perceptions of Teachers and Teaching In Australia” comes as part of what seems nowadays a wave of negative stories around schools and education in general.

My personal experience of the last three years, listening to teachers’ stories about the work they love in teaching at Wooranna Park Primary School, couldn’t be more different. Admittedly, the school has an international reputation for striving towards educational innovation. However, looking behind the accolades, I was strongly reminded of the depth of dedication which I’ve experienced throughout my forty-year career in education. 

Closer to home, it’s also what I’ve observed as my seven-year-old granddaughter began in her new school at Footscray City Primary School.  Over December 2019 and in the week before school began, I observed Principal Jessie Hand and her staff deal with our precious child, fully cognisant of her learning difficulties but also calling on her considerable abilities and varied interests. Their voices and behaviour were full of the delight of welcoming and exciting her to meet the challenges before her.

Nonetheless, both these encounters still confirm for me the seemingly ‘unrealistic’ challenge facing teachers which the Monash University report reveals to be true throughout all schools that

The expectation to meet all learners where they are and move them academically is unrealistic in classrooms with high numbers and such diverse needs, including a high percentage of EALD students, speech and language delays, dyslexia, working memory disorder, traumatic home lives and low attendance rates, just to name a few.

The challenge before teachers

Teachers need to tell their own stories.

I’d like readers to consider whether or not the underappreciation of teachers may be also due to the digital disruption of how our schools have traditionally communicated.  In other words, the days of marketing schools with the occasional slogan on car bumpers like ‘If you can read this, thank a teacher!’ is no longer enough.  

The creativity and hard work currently taking place in our schools deserve more detailed forms of sharing narratively, visually and aurally.  Therefore, as it is true for all professionals in the new digital age, educators must tell their own stories in order that their key audiences come to see their deep commitment and expertise. What’s more, for them to do so mustn’t be approached as ‘another thing’ but embedded into the core of their professional status.

This is what is inferred, I believe, in Digital Leadership (2017) when Eric Sheninger advises fellow principals to start channelling school digital communication systems towards creating positive school communities:

If we don’t tell our story, someone else will, and more often than not, another’s version will not be the one we want told. Leaders need to become storyteller-in-chief… By doing so, we create the means by which we share all of the positives associated with our schools and create a much-needed level of transparency in an age of negative rhetoric toward education.

The talk around education

Ironically, a school’s ability to take control of communicating its stories may be thwarted, to begin with, at least,  as English teacher-educator, Kay Wood (2011)  suggests,  because

We may not know much about nuclear physics, but are all experts on education.

…people tend to think they know what education is. It is a familiar topic: a word in daily use. It’s all around us… Politicians of all persuasions continually tell us how important education is for the economy. We are bombarded with messages from the media… Schools are failing, budgets have been slashed, children are not learning… On the bus, in the pub and at the hairdresser’s people are expressing opinions. We may not know much about nuclear physics, but we are all experts on education.

To counter this, there has been important academic research regarding the new challenges that the digital age poses in school.  For instance, the Australian Council of Education Research advocated more than a decade ago through publications such as Mal Lee’s and Glenn Finger’s Developing A Networked School  that

In the Industrial Age, the concept of the school community was fairly straightforward. It was defined simply in terms of local demography (who are our students? who are their parents?) and local geography (where do they live? what are our school’s enrolment boundaries?). Schools were basically ‘stand-alone’ neighbourhood or regional entities that operated between 8.30 am and 3.30 pm, five days per week for up to 44 weeks per year. They were there to provide an educational service, which relied on assumptions that young people were ready to learn and that they developed this readiness from the home, from their parents..

But now, they argue, we have to develop the means to respond to the urgency of engaging young people in their learning.  Simultaneously, we need to acknowledge how young people themselves are accessing and using technologies “to learn things at home that they cannot learn (or are not allowed to learn) at school.”

Consequently, the research suggests, the model for how schools exist in the world today looks more like the image I’ve sourced from Lee’s and Finger’s seminal text.

So, we might keep this in mind as we consider the gap between the great things going on in schools and the lack of appreciation by parents and the wider public, don’t you think? 

Don’t market to but educate the public

A major reason for the gap that comes to mind is that ‘big picture’ policies and academic research of what’s needed in schools lives alongside the more practical measures of school-based reform.  From my experience of working in central and regional education offices, the implementation phases of reform are never sufficiently sustained. 

This is, I believe, clearly what schools now need in terms of practical, hands-on services focused on living through the complex 24/7/365 nature of digital communications.  In short, the advice in packages such as The School Communications Toolkit needs a coordinated approach with measurable improvement targets for the well-being of teachers in our school communities. 

Furthermore, school digital communications need to include an understanding of content strategy, content marketing and the design of dynamic user experiences. These have been explored, written about and used in business and in retail and software industries for the last decade. 

However, this is not to imply that schools need marketing departments.  Rather, school leaders must hold fast to their ‘point of difference’, their expertise as curriculum leaders and not be diverted by costly and time-consuming spin and in-your-face sales campaigns. 

Schools are not businesses. On the other hand, as Larry Cuban points out in The Blackboard & Bottom Line (2004), there is nothing wrong with learning from business contexts for the good of education, so long as school leaders keep in mind the key differences between public and private interests.

Cultivating civic engagement, heightening cultural awareness, enhancing individual well-being, and reducing economic and social inequalities are seldom mentioned as purposes of private-sector companies. And the reason is simple enough: these are public purposes that are meant to enhance the collective good, not private interests.  These multiple public purposes place decidedly different demands on the elected and appointed public officials responsible for schools than the demands faced by CEOs or their non-elected board of trustees who lead private-sector firms.  

From discerning such differences, I believe, school leaders are in the position to look across all sectors of commerce and non-profit to see how different organisations are optimising their digital communications strategies to share their policies and practices with their communities and stakeholders.

On the verge

Ironically, after my three years of visiting Wooranna Park and enjoying the many insights of its school leaders and teachers on teaching and learning, I believe that they have reinforced my belief in the old adage of ‘less is more’. That is, it begins by not doing more but stopping and listening. Then, knowing that digital communication processes contain elements of marketing, public relations and artistic wizardry, educators should be encouraged to work with feedback and audience responses in motivational, interactive ways.

Ultimately, school communications strategies should be about going deeper into teaching and learning for parents and the wider community.  In that way, we can be sure that it’s not just any stories that educators tell, but pedagogically focussed one that reveal the unique ways that classrooms are learning environments.   

Yes, Monash University’s report “Perceptions of Teachers and Teaching In Australia” is alarming and disheartening but it speaks of a situation which is now time to change.