Baa, Baa, School Sheep

 In Educational Leadership

A royal baby has just arrived. We have the freedom to celebrate as we choose. Our elected Prime Minister will soon be announced. We have the freedom to vote as we choose. If the expression of our thoughts, and the thoughts of others, were to be silenced, there would be nothing to celebrate and few, if any, choices to make.

Leadership in Schools

Last week I presented a workshop for teachers in a regional Victorian school. The topic was Assessment and its impact on the teaching of English.

My responsibility, beyond presenting, was to initiate and encourage robust discussion; this is key to the process of change in schools. When school leaders value staff for their input and differing views, they are searching for a logical balance between mandates and autonomy. Robust dialogue achieves this. Being the catalyst for that process brings me enormous satisfaction, particularly when my input is received with enthusiasm and a genuine commitment to professional learning.

At last week’s workshop the principal, school leaders, and the English leader sat enthusiastically among their staff – about 50 participants in all. Seated at the back of the room was a team from the Department of Education. Their directive was to raise the standard of assessment and teaching of English at the school. They also appeared enthusiastic and positive. As a presenter, I couldn’t ask for more – that is, until, a particular observation was made.

The Observation

I set the teachers the task of assessing one another’s reading behaviours. This required the recording of reading errors and self-corrections, and the recording of accurate decoding and comprehension. The exercise is a lot of fun and is always well received.

As they worked through it, I roved, observed and listened. When I shared my observations, I asked the group whether the need to record a tick for every word correctly decoded (Process B) was necessary. Wouldn’t there be a greater benefit to assessment, teaching and learning by not doing so?  The answer was a resounding ‘Yes.’ Discussions continued, and the principal and teachers enthusiastically agreed that removing Process B, in this particular context, made perfect sense.

 ‘Stop. You can’t suggest that’, stated a Departmental representative ‘The Department’s directive is that the procedure, including Process B, must be followed.’

Surprised, I reiterated that the removal of Process B would reduce teacher workload, accelerate the assessment process, and support more thorough planning and explicit teaching. I added that unnecessary and time-consuming data collection destroys the enthusiasm needed in the teaching process.

‘That’s irrelevant. Process B is a directive from the Department of Education. We cannot change it’.

The Challenge

I suggested the entire school and the Department staff raise the possibility of change with the Department of Education. I suggested they request removing Process B. This would benefit them, and potentially every other public school in the State and, indeed, right across the country.

‘Departmental Policy will be followed, regardless of its value’.

The principal and school staff were mortified by this response, as was I. Clearly, the departmental directive was no robust debate and no school autonomy, and dare it be said, no enthusiasm for learning and teaching.

The Sorrow

Victorians might be free to celebrate a royal birth, and they might be free to vote; if they work in a Victorian State public school, though, they will be silenced. The Department of Education, it would seem, places no value on teachers who think. On the other hand, Departmental leaders who breed flocks of sheep are prized.

The Victorian State Education system was one of the first, and finest in the world. It operated without cost to students and their families. There was great enthusiasm in, and for, the learning process. There was great admiration for those who chose teaching as a vocation.

Today, it would seem that the value and love of learning have been stolen from our children, as our once enthusiastic mentors, whom we call teachers, have become mere servants to bureaucracy, where logical changes cannot be considered, let alone made.

It will not matter one cent who is chosen to govern our country, if the grass roots of education are dead, and enthusiasm is smothered by top-down regulation. When our school leaders and teachers are stifled, how can Australia be a country of leadership, innovation, optimism, and enthusiasm?

If this isn’t a wake-up call for Victorian families, and indeed Australian families, I don’t know what is!

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