Sunday, March 12, 2017

Long Promised Post: Teaching in Australia pt. 3: I found work!

So, after I interviewed with a couple of agencies and got onto their databases, I spent a couple of weeks subbing at schools around the city (they don't call it subbing here, though, they call it CRT work. Casual Relief Teaching). One agency was not very encouraging at first because they said that not owning a car was going to make it difficult for them to find me work. Sorry, agency, I'm willing to spend money to make money, but I ain't got that much money!! Thankfully, though, it turned out they were just trying to lower my expectations and I ended up getting pretty steady work through them for a couple weeks before the winter break in June.

I learned from my two weeks of CRTing around the city that I just couldn't know what to expect from schools, but there were a few features that popped up more frequently than others.

1. No. Freaking. WALLS! So, apparently the open classroom design (also called a "next generation learning area") was all the rage in Victoria about 7 years ago, or someone in the state Parliament owed someone a construction contract because 90% of the schools I worked in had expanded recently and the new construction was all open concept. That means that the "classrooms" I was working in were essentially glorified corners. I was working with two full walls and two half walls or one half wall and and opening into a communal space. In one case I was teaching in a second grade classroom that was basically a hallway and the teacher had improvised walls using bookshelves or fabric curtains. 

Open classrooms can work, but it requires a concerted effort on the part of every teacher and a LOT of training on classroom management and modified instruction. None of that appeared to be a priority in the professional development in most of the schools where I worked. 

I HATED it! I need walls! 

2. Arrival time in the morning is fluid. The agencies recommended that I got to the schools at least 30 minutes before the beginning of the school day. Since I was working with public transit, I would budget a lot of extra time to make room for late trains and delays, so I usually showed up like 40 minutes before the first bell. In many cases there were kids on campus, but not an office staff member or teacher to be found. It varied from school to school, but most of the staff showed up about 15 minutes before the day began, which resulted in a very rushed and stressful morning for me. 

In one case I was covering for a second grade teacher and a prep (essentially kindergarten) teacher, both of whom were out unexpectedly with the flu, so they hadn't left lesson plans. Completely understandable and I've been there, too. However, I would have hoped to find out there were no lesson plans at least a half an hour before the kids came in. The team leader quickly showed me the classroom and said, "They're working on reading comprehension. There are some books over there. You can come up with a lesson plan, right?"

I mean...yeah...but I don't teach elementary school, so I would need more than FIVE MINUTES to wrap my head around second grade reading levels and brainstorm some age appropriate activities. Don't even get me STARTED on the prep class! God bless early childhood teachers! I only covered that class for maybe two hours between their art and PE class times, but I was EXHAUSTED! 

3. Australian school structure is weird! I used to wonder why TV and movie teachers were always coming into the classroom just as the bell was ringing, opening up a briefcase and asking the kids to, "Settle down! Settle down!" That was not my experience at any level of my education as a student and was not at all what I did in my classroom as a teacher. Well that's how they do it here.

I'm inferring that Australia is holding over a lot of British tradition in its education design. In the secondary schools (what we would call high schools. Grades 7-12 usually), teachers float, principals are not disciplinarians, and there is a large hierarchy of power among the faculty and staff. Teachers are schlepping through the hallways between classes with the kids, often arriving to the classroom after the kids and then having to spend 4 or 5 minutes setting up their personal laptops, connecting them to the projector and pulling up the attendance and whatever programs are needed for the class period. It results in a lot of wasted time at the beginning of class and a LOT of me stepping out of my teaching comfort zone.

The nice part is that I have been forced to grow as a teacher, let go of some of my control-freak tendencies and become more flexible in my instructional strategies. I have appreciated that. What has been frustrating is that the lack of structure often results in an abundance of behavior interruptions, and in most of the schools where I worked that resulted in a lack of discipline. Principals serve a different purpose in Australian schools than they do in America, so there are lead teachers called coordinators that carry out the discipline at most schools. The coordinators, however, still have a teaching load, so on top of lesson planning, grading, and reporting, they are expected to communicate with parents, dole out discipline like suspensions or detentions, and communicate expectations with the other teachers. There is a LOT of responsibility put on coordinators, and in most of the schools where I worked the coordinators just felt abused and run down, so the kids felt no consequence when sent to the coordinators.

As a sub, I felt like a warm body, not even like a babysitter because at least a babysitter is given some authority over the children. I felt completely unsupported as a CRT, so I hated not knowing what I was walking into every morning. At one school, I had a student, without prompting, call out an offensive and racist comment to a classmate, words that left me shaking with anger that he was able to so casually let such speech roll off his tongue. I sent him out of the "classroom" (quotation marks because it was open design, so he was essentially sent across the room in full view of everyone). He was seated at the coordinator's desk (because teachers don't have a classroom, so at this particular school they were assigned desks in the hallway) and given a ball to play with for the rest of the class period. He was later sent to apologize to ME as his consequence. He was not instructed to do anything to repair things with his classmate.

When I spoke with the coordinator about the incident at the end of the day, I was told that this particular student had autism and oppositional defiant disorder and....then she just sighed and rolled her eyes. I'm well aware of both conditions and have worked with many kids with both conditions throughout my career, but the complete lack of respect for the classmate who was a victim of this child and the fact that this kind of behavior was tolerated with no effort to correct it was unacceptable. It might take a lot more patience to work with an autistic ODD student, but a kid with both conditions can learn eventually, and letting one single incident slip deters progress, no matter how small.

Luckily I got a call over the semester break in June that a school in one of the western suburbs had had a teacher resign and they wanted to give me a try for a couple weeks as a possible replacement. At minimum I would have two solid weeks of CRT work, best case scenario I would snag a semester long contract. How could I turn down a chance like that?!

Vicariously yours,

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