Educating Australia

I’ve now been teaching in Australia for three weeks. Too early to make any judgements? Undoubtedly, so let’s call these impressions. I have swapped classes with Tom, Ollie, Izzy and Charlotte (who sound like characters in Downton Abbey) for Mitch, Bailey, Dylan and Harrison (who sound like a 60s supergroup). It will take me a while to get used to the sight of 18-year old boys in shorts, who currently remind me of characters from ‘It Ain’t ‘alf Hot Mum’, and I have thus far remained steadfast in my refusal to call numerical statistics dart-a, preferring the infinitely less annoying date-a. I wear a badge with my name on it to work. It makes me feel like I work at a burger chain, but more people seem to know who I am than was the case after 3 weeks at my last School and I hope that’s a good thing. Maybe I’ll take to wearing it at weekends. It’s magnetic, which makes it a very good badge indeed.

I have always liked Australians – I think they lie somewhere in between the wide-eyed, bounding, smiley, permanently-friendly Americans and the cynical, hand-shakes with old friends, don’t stand on the left of the escalator, I’ve got enough friends thanks British. It’s a healthy balance – everyone seems confident in their tanned skin here, and the country seems as close to a genuine meritocracy as I’ve encountered. Hierarchy exists, but it doesn’t stifle relationships and that makes colleagues good company.

I like the pupils I teach. I think they know the difference between being polite and simply knowing what politeness looks like. They are naturally polite -it doesn’t feel like a put on act. They are happy with adult company, certainly not overly deferential, and they rarely offer a token ‘thank you for the lesson, sir’ (in fact, it was well into week 2 before I was called sir, and have been addressed with a non-ironic ‘G’day, mate’ far earlier in my Australian career). However, they also know what good manners look like – they will look you in the eye, offer a firm hand-shake, do their best to answer a question when asked and present themselves well (even in the shorts).

There are some things I do miss – perhaps the most obvious is knowing the answers to questions I am asked, but I assume that will come in time. It will also take time to get used to the vagaries of a new education system. But good education is good education, and the key principles don’t change. Teachers require challenge, and every year brings with it fresh challenge. My reputation here is currently nothing, and that’s quite an exciting feeling.

When considering the two main continua in edu-debate (traditional/progressive and subject knowledge/pedagogy) I think Australia may have got the latter wrong. This is not a ‘my School’ issue (we’re lucky in the talent we have attracted), but I wonder if the country has done enough overall to get people of serious academic standing into the classroom. Brilliant academics do not necessarily make brilliant teachers, but if presented with a choice between someone who knows a lot about their subject and someone who knows far less, I’ll take the former every time. The craft of the classroom is an irrelevance without a high level of expertise in what one is delivering – otherwise, it’s just engagement and entertainment, and both these words are edu-neutral (ie they might be good, but not always). One cannot have one without the other, but it’s easier for Schools to train teachers in technique than it is in core knowledge. Working with clever people day in day out is one of the joys of teaching, and we need to make sure this brain train stops at every School’s platform. The status enjoyed by a profession in any country can be judged by the quality of people it attracts, and that is a challenge for teaching as for any other profession.

It’s been a great three weeks – welcoming colleagues, biddable and bright pupils and exceptional coffee. What’s not to like?