Friday, April 29, 2022

The critical role teachers play in the formation of students

I've been working on my family history in the last six months. I set myself the task of compiling the story of the previous 3-4 generations of my family history in words (yes, a ‘small’ task!). As I began to write, I found myself revisiting images of people, places and events. I knew that any family history largely reflects memories and the perspectives of varied family members and significant others like friends, teachers, sporting coaches and so on. Even two or more siblings can have slightly different memories of the same events, person and relationships. I began to see that as well as the family stories handed down across the generations, photographic evidence and other historic documents also matter!


 Above: My sister Dianne & me (a 'few' years ago).

But while varied evidence is not always 'equal' in validity, it all helps to understand who we think we are, what we believe, and also give insights into how our character and values were formed. An image alone, can help us to situate and understand our memories within a specific place and time. They act as anchors for 'truth'. But an image requires interpretation, so in partnership with the memories of multiple people and sources, places and events, we will end up nearer to the 'truth'.

My Great Great Grandfather watched a son and daughter (and a nephew) leave Scotland in 1882 never to return to their homeland. As I began to dig out old family photos and records, and listen to the memories of those still living, a bigger and more complete story emerged of what had happened. The addition of unseen images from boxes, old newspaper clippings, ship records and so on, all contributed to a larger and more complete story; one richer than any single family member could recall. There is often much knowledge that is common to family members, but gaps can be filled by other people and official documents. Like many families, there have been some surprises, with some troubling events uncovered, and amazing stories unearthed.

As I have embraced this journey I've been reminded of the words of Alasdair Macintyre:

"The story of oneself is embedded in the history of the world, an overall narrative within which all other narratives find their place."

Of course, it is true, every story is unique, but also our personal stories reflect the stories of others before us, as well as those we live life with now. Alasdair's words seem to be very much 'big picture', but I believe that he is right. It should not surprise us when we discover that every personal stories is unique, they share elements with other people's stories, and all demonstrate how we are shaped in part by the lives of our family members, and previous generations from our maternal and paternal relatives.


 Above: My Dad near the Forth Bridge in Scotland having returned after 60 years

I grew up in a less than perfect home. For much of my childhood both parents were 'absent' from my life for varied reasons. My older sister and I were fairly independent from about the age of 10. But we both loved our parents and were shaped in varied ways by their lives.

With our less than perfect parents, some of our teachers also had a strong influence on us. My sister was better behaved so she had more! In my case, there were a few I loved and some I loathed. Only a few could see much potential beyond the unkempt and at times disobedient child. These few teachers demonstrated the way we engage and nurture the children in our care matters. Sadly, many saw me as just a cheeky and annoying kid (which in their defense I was). Whatever role we fill in life, we can and should seek to have an influence for good. Teachers are in a critical category of their own.

Above: Terry Malone, Dr Phil Lambert & Me

I had the joy last night of attending the launch of a book from the recently retired Assistant Director General of Education in NSW Dr Phil Lambert. The book is 'The Knowing and Caring Profession'. He invited me to attend his book launch, along with a former colleague I taught with 48 years ago! To our great surprise he mentioned us both in his book (and not for bad behaviour!). As a 1st year student teacher he was assigned to my class (in just my third year of teaching at Chester Hill Primary school in Sydney). 

Phil shared at the book launch and in his book, that he'd considered leaving teacher training until he came to my classroom for his first period of practice teacher. He said that he observed my love of teaching, my love of the students, and the friendship and fun I had with the teacher in the next room Terry Malone. The fun and joy we had teaching, and the impact on the children's lives inspired Phil to continue. He came to the school thinking of dumping teaching, but he left keen and excited about completing his course. To learn this many years later was a joy!

I share the above story, not to blow my own trumpet, but because it reminds us that our stories are always intertwined with other people's stories. As teachers, it is important to consider how we encourage our students to live in ways that acknowledge their true identities, while also seeking to help them grow and mature through lived experience. Just like their parents and wider families, teachers play a part in helping to shape the character of our students and can change their lives for the good!

The central goal of education should always be more ambitious than just academic standards, cut-off scores, future jobs, sporting achievements, and so on. As Alasdair MacIntyre argues, education in our schools should lead to “purity of heart,” not just appropriate behavior and school success. As I outline in my book "Pedagogy and Education for Life":

"The role of teachers and schools is to partner with parents to create school learning communities that work in concert with the many other communities in which all students are participants. These school communities of learners will teach, nurture and indeed form the children who God gives to us, in whatever educational context we meet them."

I know there are many challenges in teaching right now, but be encouraged, you can make a difference to children. As tough as teaching can be, seek to place the learning of your students and their growth as people at the centre of your concerns. You serve in a noble and important profession that has an impact on the lives of others.