Professional Teaching Relationship with the Community

by SC

“My classroom is my castle, and the sovereigns of other fiefdoms are not welcome.”
– Palmer, 1998.

Teaching is one of the most privatised public professions and this isolation has a lot of negatives effects on this occupation and how teaching relates to the wider public at hand. In Australia, one of the pillars of teaching culture is individualism, the ability for the teacher to make choices in their classroom without the collective scrutiny of the staffroom or their peers. Not only are many teachers disconnected from the wider community such as parents and carers, often many teachers teach without the support of their colleagues though this isolation has been interpreted as ‘academic freedom’. Yet many teachers recognise the importance of interacting with the wider community to support their students. The teaching profession must better integrate itself into the wider community, not only because it results in better academic benefits, but because teachers also stand to benefit from this transparency.

Whilst the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” does hold merit, teaching is a profession where often the teacher is the only adult in the room. Unlike many other professions where teamwork is an essential part of success, it is possible for a teacher to shun cooperation and yet be an ‘effective’ teacher in the classroom. However, this creates many issues, by not embracing the wider community; consisting of other staff members and parents/care takers, teachers are isolating and further ‘mystifying’ the occupation.

In my first practicum, I experienced firsthand the consequences of teachers allowing their pride to stand in the way of collaboration. The teachers of the English staffroom had to hold a lunch meeting to decide whether or not they should share notes and handouts with each other. Not only did this disadvantage the students, resulting in classes being given an uneven amount of help, it also meant that teachers could not improve their craft due to a lack of constructive criticism. The lack of teamwork added another variable which contributed to whether or not students were successful. Socio-economic status is already such a big factor in academic success and by not providing an equal opportunity for all students at learn at the same quality, this further entrenches the possibility of success. When teachers are not willing to question the teaching practices of their colleagues due to an unspoken rule to just absentmindedly respect their peers, this leads to the privatisation of the craft. Without the ‘supervision’ of other teachers, this leads to a profession which is very divided since ‘universal’ academic standards cannot be established.

By isolating the teaching profession from the wider communities, teachers are harming themselves by unconsciously hurting the development of the occupation. When the profession is removed from the wider community, what rises to take its place is stereotypes and uneducated guesses. The privatisation of teaching has resulted in many unrealistic and unfavourable depictions of teachers in western popular culture and also a lack of influence within the political spheres.

Whilst a lot of teachers lament the fetishisation of statistics and the focus upon data as an over simplistic measurement of quality teaching. How else will the general public be able to evaluate the profession when teachers have not been the most vocal about what they do in the classroom? A big reason for the shift towards statistics is because the public has an outdated perception of education, that creativity isn’t as important as regurgitation or that written texts are still the ONLY important text in the English curriculum. Whilst, part of this blame falls upon the general populace for not keeping up to date with such an important public institution. Teachers must also shoulder the burden, for creating an ‘us versus them mentality’ and failing to educate the wider community about the shifting demands of 21st century education. John Holt summarised his concerns with the shift towards neo-liberal, economically driven education in the quote “The more we concentrate in trying to teach all the content, the less our students tend to learn.”

In the 2015 PISA tests, which are used to measure a national standard level of education, 9.1% of 15-year-olds Australians failed to achieve the basic levels of reading, maths and science literacy. The more Australia begins to slide down the international education hierarchy, the more the public begins to latch onto an ‘easy fix’ solution. This has generated the wave behind the shift towards neo-liberal education and the focus upon standardised testing and statistics by the wider community. And these changes to the general mindset has had negative impacts upon Australian education but it also has further cemented the negative perceptions of teachers in this nation. One of the most common criticisms of modern day university courses is that it is too focused upon the theoretical and academic aspects and thus when new teachers are finally placed in the workplace, they are insufficiently prepared to deal with the emotional burdens.

Thus the isolation of the teaching profession creates a vicious cycle; the public reacts by insisting that teaching returns back to something which can be easily measurable. Instead of embracing more ‘intangible’ skills which are necessary for a modern economy built on human capital, thus teachers are cornered to teach an outdated syllabus. For most teachers, this change is demoralising, as statistics dehumanises the complex and emotionally charged task that we’re required to perform. For many students, teachers are the most stable adults in their lives and their professionalism and attention may inspire or motivate; intangibles which cannot be measured. Yet these relationships become undervalued and instead classrooms have become more competitive as standardised testing ingrains regurgitation but at the price of creativity or passion. And when education becomes standardised to only reflect and emphasise white middle class values, then questions have to be asked whether education is fighting or creating inequality.

However, on the bright side, this rift between teachers and the wider community can be reversed, and I was fortunately enough to see the teaching staff, at my second placement, actively go out of their way to bond with the parents. Whether or not the teachers were aware they were following the Proficient Professional Teaching Standards (PPTS), a lot of the positive forms of communication between the two parties fell in line with these guidelines. Dot point 7.4 of the PPTS states that a ‘lead’ teacher will “take an active role in establishing community networks and provide external learning opportunities.”

Due to the high levels of refugee and English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) families at my second placement, the school provided weekly English lessons which were headed by a learning support teacher and a teacher who was bilingual in English and Arabic. Many parents were thankful for these opportunities to learn and this further allowed them to become more connected and active in the schooling life. These English classes would also provide opportunities for parents to get a translation on permission notes that get sent home and also a chance for parents who are not that familiar with the Australian education system to get some firsthand experience. Dot point 7.3 of the PPTS summarises the positive actions and attitudes displayed by this school in its goal of engaging with the wider community: “Build opportunities that engage parents in their child’s learning and the priorities of the school.” A lot of the miscommunication and uncomfortableness in parent-teacher relationships are marked by the factor that the welfare of a student is a very emotionally charged topic and because both parties involuntarily enter this relationship. Yet by providing these chances for parents to become more involved, the school is transforming from a simple educational institution to a trusted pillar of the Middle Eastern/ Islamic community.

In general, studies have drawn a link between increased parental involvement in schools and increased academic success; however questions must be asked whether this is ‘correlation and not causation’. Increased involvement may be because the parents are fluent in English or that one parent stays at home because they are middle class, all signs of social-economic and cultural capital. Those who argue that parent, teacher relationships are important state so based on two premises. The first premise is called the Pygmalion effect, where positive views of a student’s background and family members directly translates to better and more enthusiastic interactions with said student. Hughes, Gleeson and Zhang found that teacher’s perceptions of students accounted for 6.9% of variance in the academic rating of students. Likewise this is supported by Domagala-Zysk’s study  which found that 73% of students who are experiencing academic success, believed their teachers trusted them outside the classroom environment. Likewise, teachers were significantly more likely to rate a student’s social skills as positive or engaging if they perceived their own relationship to the student’s family in an optimistic light. Thus if it is a teacher’s job to help student’s succeed academically, the profession needs to shed the idea that it can ONLY help students within the classroom, instead more focus must be placed upon networking with the community.

Secondly, by unifying the school and the home environments, the student will be more exposed to positive views about schooling and learning. The reinforcing of these positive attitudes to school will not only give the student more incentive to succeed but also make it a lot easier to tackle issues which might transcend both the home and school environment. For an example, on issues of drug abuse, bullying and sexual health, the involvement of the parents and the wider community shows the importance of these topics but also relays to the students that this is an issue which occurs outside the safety of a school. My high school was very active in trying to establish a channel of communication between the parents and the teachers with many situations and opportunities for for meetings. On Saturdays mornings, my peers and I would complete in school sport together against other schools, allowing parents a chance to interact with teachers outside a ‘tense’ academic environment; like parent-teacher nights. This is a good way to build chemistry between the two parties since many parents feel that teachers only contact them with negative information about their child and rarely to compliment or to motivate. Dot point 7.1 of the PPTS states that ‘lead teachers’ will “model exemplary ethical behaviour when dealing with students, colleagues and the community” It is this desire to engage the parents and caretakers, to go beyond the ‘call of duty’, which separates a good teacher in the classroom from one whose influences will ripple across the community.

Because teaching is a very emotionally charged profession, it is important to collect evidence to become reveal the weaknesses in one’s abilities, but also as an insurance blanket to protect rookie teachers. Dot point 5.5 of the PPTS details the importance of amassing information not only to relay to the parents but so teachers can better understand how to improve their craft: “Monitor, evaluate and revise reporting accountability in the school to meet the needs of students/ parents.” In order to rationally explain why you assigned a student a certain mark, it is important that teachers, particularly rookie teachers, assemble model responses which demonstrate the difference between an A, B, C and D mark. These scaffolded examples will make parent-teacher nights a lot smoother as teachers will be readily able to highlight their thinking behind a certain mark with a physical reference at hand. This preparation shows that you’re merely following a rationale structure when marking, and that any poor or low marks you’ve assigned are not because of bias. And this sense of professionalism is something which rookie teachers need to embody in order to protect themselves against questions of ability from parents and students alike.

Furthering emphasising this point of protecting one self, I also think it would be helpful if teachers collected assessments off students, this is getting easier and easier in an increasingly technological world, since a lot of the assessments are now submitted electronically. However, even for writing in-class examinations, I think it would be wise to maintain either a physical or electronic copy. If a school wide system is implemented, the documenting of student work can become a routine. For an example, when it is time to hand back assessments, write the feedback on a separate card and then go through the questions about the assessments with the class. When the class is done reflecting on their efforts and they understand how or why they scored well or poorly, collect back the assessments but let them keep the feedback card. This a written example of what the strengths and weaknesses of the class are, but also allows teachers a chance to reflect on how they need to improve their teaching: For an example, what were the specific topics most students tended to forget and why? Did they understand the literacy requirements of the discipline? As the education system becomes more and more academic and there is greater focus upon students excelling at their studies, teachers must collect this data in order to open the channels of communication with parents about their child’s grades. Dot point 6.3 of the PPTS requires teachers to do more than just teach in the classroom, they must be constantly trying to improve their craft and devising new methods to further engage the students and their parents. Yet this is a tall task if the teacher does not have any data to reflect back upon, and without such information, the teacher’s opinions of how to improve usually don’t move past the stage of speculation.

It is time for the teaching profession to drop the belief that teachers ONLY work within classroom. In an increasingly digital world, technology has opened many new doors of communication which do not require a lot of time or energy. It is up to the teachers to reach out to the wider community in order to educate them about what and how exactly the teaching profession has changed within the 21st century. Not only does interacting with the parents and carers have been shown to have a positive academic and social effect upon the students (the primary concern of any teacher), it can also dispel the misconceptions which plague the teaching profession. By being more vocal, perhaps teachers can accumulate more social and political capital needed to shift education away from standardised testing and towards ‘intangible’ values like creativity and technological literacy. Teaching has always been a ‘public service’ and it is time that the occupation truly embraces this title.

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
– John Dewey