Monday, May 02, 2016

The Blackboard Jungle

I’m writing to try to make sense of things.

I’ve been doing casual work in a low socio economic school. I’m shocked that there are schools like this in Australia. I’m confronted by how sheltered I am. I know nothing.

Some top classes and small electives seem to be functional. Most students are wildly disruptive or quietly on their phones and listening to music. There is little learning going on. They trash everything. Worksheets and pencils are missiles to fire at each other. There are food wrappers everywhere. Students come and go from classroom to classroom, roaming around the school. They have no manners or sense of respect. The teacher is ignored or invisible.

There are things that can be done to turn this school around but it isn’t likely to happen (ban phones, halve class sizes, repeat students who don’t work, expel the most disruptive). The school needs a lot of welfare support it isn’t going to get. Some students are obviously depressed or worse. No-one would be there if they had the option to be somewhere else. I want politicians to come to the school to see how terrible it is and that the teachers are doing their best and still support the public system. Any of these teachers might be an example of storybook inspiration but it isn't likely to happen. My friends and I support public education but none of us would enrol our children in this school. And we've let this happen during years of economic prosperity.

I can’t imagine the students being seated and quiet in class for a test.

But this is what has shocked me the most. The way they talk to each other. The talk is not just full of swearing but sexual insults. They talk dirtier than pornography. They talk about sex graphically. The girls dance in class and offer themselves to the boys. There is no respect in any way I’ve been taught to recognise respect.  But there is a lot of laughing. Nothing is taken seriously until suddenly, it is, and then there is a fight.  

Yesterday there was a small group of girls in my class who were calling each other whores. I told them that a lot of women over a long time had been working for women’s rights and that by talking to each other like that they were setting us back, because they were making it OK for men to talk to women like that. Then in another class there were about a dozen students talking to each other so awfully I couldn’t say anything without feeling threatened.

There is very little I can do to help them.

I wonder how these students will be able to function when they leave school, having done years of schooling but no school work. How will they earn a living, fill in a form, rent a house, be able to live and work with other people if they believe their behaviour at school is acceptable?

I’ve become a teacher because I want to teach, but really, I only want to teach people who want to learn. I want to teach students about big issues and logic and power structures and how stories work.

I support public schools and funding for public schools. I support women’s rights. I’m asking myself if I expect these students to be grateful for the work adults have done and are currently doing to help them. We work to make things better for the next generation. What if the next generation doesn’t care? I know that there are lots of students who do care and do take advantage of their opportunities. I understand that free education is part of why people want to come to Australia. The people in my circle talk about opportunities for their children that are so far beyond what these students can see - overseas trips for the band, drama workshops, tutoring, elite sport coaching. The gap is widening, when some students come to school yet do no school work. I want to be able to talk to these students, away from their peers who they are constantly performing for, and encourage them to take their own lives seriously. But that isn’t my place. The deputy principal would have spoken to them repeatedly, and I don’t know about what is happening at home that is serious. It is possible that they are fine within their culture and I just don't understand, and, worse, I'm imposing my white middle-class values onto them. I don't know.

And now John Kaye has died. I’ve been involved with his Greens Education group and know how he worked to gain funding for public schools and TAFE. We need many more people to get involved to work for the basic rights of the students who have nothing. We need many people to fill the gap he has left, and many more to help the next generation. We can’t just cut them loose.

I’m at the point where I want to help them, but I’m not sure that I want to be with them. Which, I know, says I'm not a very nice person. I'm not sure I'm equipped to help. I'm not sure who is.