Rules of engagement for teachers

16 Mar 2017

Rules of engagement for teachers

At Sydney’s Trinity Grammar, everyone has a stake in the smooth operation of the school; each doing their part to create the optimal climate for learning.

“An important ingredient is the establishment of positive relationships which involves respect and responsibility between and among all staff and students in the day-to-day running of the school,” says head master Milton Cujes.

As teachers, parents and policymakers strive to pinpoint the most effective ways of reversing Australia’s academic decline in international and national exams, the old-fashioned water cooler topic of discipline is back in vogue.

Whether it is part of the current “back to basics” push or just common sense, the way students behave at school is receiving increased attention as one part of the puzzle to better prepare children for the challenges of the real world.

At Trinity’s Summer Hill campus in Sydney’s inner west, Cujes believes a disciplined environment is an important ingredient that goes into helping students “increase their engagement and motivation because they are not distracted by matters of indiscipline which take up the time and focus of staff and fellow classmates”. The role of parents is also critical, Cujes says, adding “it is important for parents not to resile from their prime role as parents in the upbringing of their son or daughter”.

“However, in like fashion, as a school we need to be able to express our professional opinion, and in the end parents and the school need to speak with one voice on matters, to ensure that children face up to the conse­quences of their actions, yet are still nurtured and supported.”

Researchers at Sydney’s Macquarie University recently examined the results of the Program for International Student Assessment. The international snapshot, conducted every three years by the OECD, tests 15-year-olds on reading, writing and mathematical skills. Associate professor Chris Baumann and his colleague Hana Krskova concluded better behaved students learned more, performed among the world’s best, and ultimately contributed to a more competitive workforce.

Baumann argues investment in education alone is insufficient to boost educational performance and “the way we actually run the school seems to have a massive effect on how the students perform”.

It’s a theme closely examined in two new reports, released today, by the Australian Council for Educational Research.

The body’s work provides fresh insights into the multiple factors dragging down our performance in PISA and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

Last year Australian students in years 4 and 8 were outgunned in maths and science in TIMSS, leapfrogged by students in Kazakhstan, Slovenia and Hungary, while Australia’s Year 9 students in PISA failed to reverse a downward spiral that is threatening to dumb down an entire generation.

ACER’s work goes beyond debate on socioeconomic divides, classroom sizes, teacher standards and calls for more education dollars. Australian classrooms, it finds, continue to be beset by appalling discipline standards, well below the international average for developed nations.

About one-third of students in affluent schools, and about half of those in disadvantaged schools say they experience noise and disorder in most or all of their classes, while students don’t listen to what the teacher says, and they find it a difficult environment to learn anything.

ACER director of educational monitoring and research Sue Thomson says the lagging performance of disadvantaged students in poorer schools is also a reflection of “a whole bunch of student behaviours hindering learning like truancy, skipping classes, a lack of respect for teachers, bullying — all of those sorts of things are much more prevalent at schools that cater to disadvantaged students”.

The Grattan Institute also recently highlighted the hidden epidemic of disengaged students, where as many as four in 10 children and teenagers were unproductive and as result their performance slipped.

The difficulty of inspiring switched-off kids also left teachers stressed.

The issue of students behaving badly, however, is just one of the elephants in the classroom when it comes to improving educational standards.

Every year for the past six years, Philip Riley from the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education has conducted the Australian principal occupational health, safety and wellbeing survey.

This year, the results were confronting: almost one in two principals and deputies received threats in schools last year, with a staggering 34 per cent experiencing actual physical violence compared with 27 per cent six years ago.

Angry parents are likelier to be the perpetrators in primary school, while students are likelier to be responsible for assaults in high school.

When Riley first started his research, the results essentially fell on deaf ears.

Now education departments across the country request briefings. Awareness may have grown but it is still early days.

“The intervention to change things is what is going to make a difference, and that is moving far more slowly than it should be,’’ Riley says. “The problem we’ve had is that it’s very entrenched; the departments of education are now aware but they don’t know where to start, and a three-year political cycle makes it very difficult.

“We’re losing, I think, our best young teachers early, and there’s now this exodus of people who are pretty much at the top of their game who are retiring early.”

Principals are also weighed down by the sheer volume of administrative work. The survey finds they experience workplace demands 1.5 times higher than the general population, which translates into higher levels of stress symptoms (1.7 times higher) and burnout (1.6 times higher).

But violence remains the headline grabber.

The Australian today reveals that more than 15,000 teaching days were lost in Victorian public schools during the past five years because of assaults on staff. In a problem repeated around the nation, two teachers spent almost three years off work, each suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

Teachers and principals are not the only frontline workers to fall victim to the public’s rage, with nurses, doctors and police also under attack.

Asked why violence is on the rise against authority figures, Riley pauses. “Yeah, it’s a good question, I don’t have the answers.’’

He suggests that Australians don’t trust their institutions as they once did.

“People think if they have an opinion, they have as much right to their opinion as someone who has studied and worked in the field for decades, and that’s across a lot of professions,’’ he says.

“People don’t believe their doctors, and they’ll go and say: ‘I looked it up on Google and I don’t agree with you.’ ”

Riley also points to an increased sense of entitlement in the community.

Chris Presland, president of the NSW Secondary Principals Council, says the principals’ survey is a timely reminder that workplace violence, threats and bullying need to be addressed for the next generation of educational leaders.

“It’s a real concern to see that close to 50 per cent of principals have received threats in the workplace. This is just totally unacceptable and we need our political leaders to take a stand here and look at how this can be addressed at every level of society.

“If we don’t address issues such as offensive behaviour, we risk losing the next generation of school leaders as they will choose not to apply for principal positions or leave the teaching profession altogether.

“We need a whole-of-government approach in actually getting the message across that it’s not OK to be that abusive and aggressive towards each other.”

Deeply concerning is how Beth Blackwood describes the continued evidence of adult-to-adult bullying in schools.

The Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia chief executive says: “Schools are tasked with creating safe communities for students and respectful relationships must be modelled by all adults in those communities if schools are to succeed in this role. Civil behaviour should be a general expectation of all Australians.”

Australian Education Union federal president Correna Haythorpe argues more must be done to ensure schools have the resources they need.

“As well as supporting principals exposed to violent behaviour, we need to make sure that schools have the resources for students to get the individual support and programs they need to reduce difficult behaviours,” she says.

Late last year, the results of the latest round of PISA data for 2015 revealed the performance of Australia’s 15-year-olds was, in the words of ACER’s Thomson, in “absolute decline” and the nation was being outgunned by New Zealand, Estonia and Slovenia despite a strong focus on education and record spending.

The government’s economic advisory body, the Productivity Commission, calculated that spending on school education by federal, state and territory governments increased by $10 billion in real terms in the decade to 2013-14, with an extra $2bn on top of that in 2014-15.

But Australian students have slid 12 months behind where they were in maths in 2003, seven months in science compared with 2006, and about 10 months in reading since 2000 when PISA began.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham, who today calls for a “zero tolerance approach to bad behaviour” in schools, says the latest update on Australia’s performance in PISA shows 46 per cent of students in low socioeconomic schools were badly behaved, compared with 32 per cent of students in high socioeconomic schools.

“While governments are investing ever more in addressing disadvantage, we need communities and families to focus on how we simultaneously change behaviour and attitudes. Turning these results around cannot rest solely on the shoulders of teachers or principals,” he says.

Birmingham says well-resourced schools with highly capable and motivated teachers are central to Australia’s success, but “we equally need policies and parents that empower teachers to expect high standards and adopt a zero-tolerance approach to bad behaviour”.

Baumann’s research on school discipline, investment, competi­tiveness and mediating educational performance points to the success East Asian nations such as Singapore and South Korea have in high academic performance and classroom behaviour and discipline.

“Teachers need effective tools to discipline students in order to create an atmosphere where students listen well, noise levels are low, teacher waiting time is also low, students work well, and class starts on time.”

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Published in The Australian | 15 March 2017