Learning how to teach can be a difficult journey. I have to thank a high school on the western Darling Downs, in rural Queensland, for assisting me on this journey.
The town where I was teaching was a border town, situated on the meandering Macintyre River, which rises far away on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range. NSW was on the other side of the river. The town held a population at that time of around 4000, and was located in the midst of grazing country, both cattle and sheep, although grain-growing, mainly wheat, was also significant. Cotton-growing at that time was still not a major industry. The town was also on the intersection of some major highways, and thus was a major regional service and administrative centre for the region.
It is not quite accurate to say that this school was my first teaching assignment. I had already been teaching in the Solomon Islands. The situations, however, were vastly different. The Solomon Islands constituted a social environment where education was highly valued. Schooling was and still is seen as an opportunity for individuals to escape from an insecure subsistence existence, and to have an opportunity to gain paid employment. The students knew this, and were eager to learn. There was also a sense of excitement in being part of a young nation.
By contrast, there was not the quite the same motivation for learning within the particular town on the Darling Downs where I was assigned as a secondary teacher. Some students were marking time before they took over family properties, although, as was common in rural Queensland, there was a tendency for those with money to send their children away to boarding school. Other sub-strata within the student population were disengaged from the education process, and saw no real prospect that they could progress within the educational system.
This is not to say there were not motivated students within the school population. However, students and to some extent the town itself generally perceived education to be part of an urban culture which did not directly relate to rural life. It took me years to begin to understand this, to understand the extent to which much of our educational culture does indeed centre on urban understandings. What exacerbated this urban/regional divide was that much of the nation's wealth is created in regional and rural Australia, and I think that students were aware of this.
If forced to nominate three principles that I learned from my time at that particular high school in the western Darling Downs, I would suggest: giving assessable commands, modeling desired conduct, and using institutional systems.
Giving assessable commands is a fundamental management technique. It forces the person who is receiving the command to make a specific and strategic decision as to whether he or she will comply with the command, as it will be readily clear whether he or she is following the command. With assessable commands, there is no room for debate. One effective assessable command is for students to copy down a key section of text. This is arguably of limited pedagogical value, although it is readily ascertainable whether the student has complied – the student can be asked to show where he or she has written down the prescribed information.
Modeling desired behaviour is equally a fundamental leadership technique. As well as telling students what you expect, demonstrate that behaviour. Over time, I learnt that this works in subtle ways in teaching. Use positive re-enforcement. If a teacher is confident and relaxed about the teaching process, about what he or she is doing, then students will tend to be similarly confident and relaxed that the educational process is on track. Conversely, if the teacher is anxious and irritable, this too will tend to result in anxious and irritable students. A calm teacher will generally encourage calm students.
Using existing institutional systems within an educational setting might seem to be an obvious approach to teaching, although it took me some time to grasp this. In other words, although it does enhance a teacher's own standing if he or she can deal with his or her own problems, it nevertheless makes sense to be prepared to use existing structures and systems. Refer a student to those higher up in the chain of command if necessary. I might add that this is an area where having assessable commands is particularly useful, as, if one is referring a non-compliant student to a school administration, then it is easier for the school administration to deal with the student, as the non-compliance is readily visible.
My own journey at that school was that of a fast learning curve, and since that time I have learned that this is often the case for beginning teachers. I benefitted from senior staff at that particular school who were willing to mentor and encourage. Yet it remains an issue of equity that schools in rural and regional Australia seem to have a disproportionately high number of beginning teachers. That is another dimension of the urban/rural divide, and perhaps here the answer, at least in part, may be more substantial incentives to attract more veteran teachers to rural and regional schools, and thus to redress this imbalance.
Just as so many teachers today have benefited from a nurturing process, so too we need to be vigilant that this opportunity needs also to be provided to another generation of beginning teachers. Those of us who have spent years in teaching need to reflect, perhaps, on what we were like when we started out in the profession.