Watching The Sun Rise: Reflections on life and teaching in 2012/13

Stephen Hurley at VoicEd asked for a reflection as the year ends, so I’ll give it a whirl.  This is going to be tricky to do without spiraling into Nietzsche’s abyss.

This past school year started with the worst summer of my adult life.  I’m still recovering from my mother’s suicide and I probably shouldn’t have resumed teaching in the fall, but I did out of shear stubbornness.  Rather than trying to deal with this nightmare in a quiet year I got to do it during one of the most turbulent political periods in Ontario education.  You need only look over Dusty World in the fall to see the white water political ride education in general and my board in particular went through.

In a few short weeks, as OSSTF swung from a confrontational stance with the Liberal government that I supported by volunteering on our district executive and attending many rallies, I found myself suddenly muzzled by an organization that I realized I have very little in common with.  Rather than standing up for what is right, they would rather do what is expedient.  I’ve never been good at bending a knee to bullying, even if it does serve a political end.  It’s half a year later and our OLRB complaint against OSSTF for misrepresentation is still awaiting an outcome.  Being an idealist I find this very upsetting.  It seems any organization is politically self interested before it can stand for anything else.

It’s easy to forget that teachers are people, and the job is a deeply personal one.  This past year has had a number of strange confluences both personal and professional for me.  As my school and board tried to leverage the suicide of Amanda Todd to address bullying I couldn’t help but feel that this was manipulating misery for some kind of administrative end.  The contrite, ‘suicide is bad, don’t bully someone into it’ struck me as simplistic.  That cyber-bullying got selected by the media as the cause of her suicide (which a number of anti-technology teachers immediately trumpeted as proof that we should back off on it) was doubly frustrating.  That Amanda, like my mother, suffered from years of mental illness tends to be ignored because dealing with something as complicated as mental illness is more than most organizations, no matter how well intentioned, are willing or able to do.  That provincial and federal governments have basically bowed out of caring for the mentally ill has put a great deal of stress on already over stressed families.  If we’re going to address mental illness it better not be on a poster stuck up in a high school.  This trivializes a very complex issue.  Suicide is never a simple result of bullying, it’s the most profound, existential decision you’re ever going to make.  It deserves more than a soundbite.

Between the fractured politics in education and my own personal baggage 2012/13 has been a difficult year to manage.  As the storm subsided and we began our two years of government mandated contract, the school trundled on and extracurriculars resumed, kind of.  In a subdued second semester I began to get some closure with my Mum and tried to find ways to get back on my feet again.  The first semester was like watching a horse with a broken leg that didn’t have the sense to lay down.  At the end of second semester I’m able to stand without it hurting so much.

With some perspective on a year that felt like nastiness was crowding in all around me, I’m able to see the good that happened too.  My wonderful wife has done backflips to help me through this, all while battling the same political nonsense and working on her Masters.  My spectacular son continues to astonish me with how deep he is getting, even as the education system continues to wring its hands over how not-normal he is.  I got a new principal who knows what she’s doing and who appreciates the work I do.  I’ve been able to develop my professional interests both as a department head, teacher and online PLN presence.  My board has been developing a real 21st Century presence in educational technology and I feel like I’ve played an important part in arguing for that.  The year has been very professionally satisfying, if you ignore the Ministry, the union and the media… which is probably good advice.

Even with a nasty political infection, education in Ontario has been able to produce outstanding results, and I’ve been able to develop my professional self in satisfying and challenging ways.  No year is ever going to be without challenges, and the challenges of this year have been mighty, but that I’m able to find intense intellectual satisfaction in my profession is a great help when dealing with all the slings and arrows life can throw your way.

Consumerist Learning

I tried carrots, sticks and begging. I offered repeated hands-on opportunities with thousands of dollars of equipment (that I maintain just for their use), access to the latest industry standard training methods and information, flexible deadlines, and just about everything else imaginable. We’re at semester’s end and I’m exhausted trying to get students to take an active role in their learning.

As consumerist thinking gets more deeply embedded in our culture more and more students think I’m some kind of educational store clerk who isn’t doing a good job of serving them. The only relationship they can understand me having with them in the classroom is that of an employee. This isn’t only a student perception. Many of the powers that be would love to see a de-professionalization of the teaching profession (it’s cheaper!). This is a current social trend.

Disaffected students looking to control how I assess them fall into two camps: the risk averse academic and an exciting new kind of student: the five-oh (a term coined by seniors at my school for a student who is aiming for a grade in the forties because they know it’ll be rounded up to a pass). You don’t have to do an awful lot to get a mark in the forties. You can miss weeks of class, not hand in major assignments and fail tests but still pull off a forty. You also tend to do a wonderful job of poisoning a classroom when this is your approach.

What drove me around the bend this week was several of these poisonous five-oh’s approaching me to complain about their term grade. One seventeen year old who had missed three weeks of class and failed to hand in multiple unit summatives, all while playing games on the class PC and ignoring instruction even when he was there, approached me to demand an explanation for his terrible grade. It was somehow my fault that he categorically refused to do anything useful. I suggested we look at his participation in the current group-study project for the final exam. He hadn’t even signed up for it – he is nothing if not consistent. I told him something that’s as much a survival mechanism for me as it should be a consolation for him:

“look, you don’t care. You seem to be OK with that, and I can live with it too, but not if you’re going to come up here whining about grades you haven’t earned. The grade you have is charity, but you come up here demanding more. If you’d have put in any kind of effort at all I’d be doing back-flips trying to help you, but you didn’t, and you still aren’t. Your grade is reflection of your terrible work ethic. I don’t know what you know, but what I’ve seen suggests it isn’t much. That’s also a result of your work ethic. Are we done here?”

It turns out we were done there.

Less bothersome because they don’t actively work to dismantle the entire learning apparatus of education is the risk-averse academic. I’ve run into ‘you don’t teach properly‘ frustrated student thinking before. This is inevitably spouted by a relatively successful student who has been taught to be a passive consumer of learning in an overly structured and systemic classroom. These students tend to be academic kids who have figured out the game, and like the five-oh, they are looking to exploit it while doing as little as possible themselves. You give me pointless, linear, obvious information, I consume it then regurgitate it for you. You think I’m very smart and give me an ‘A’.

Marking exams the other day I came across just such a ‘you didn’t teach us anything’, they got this in the response section:
“I didn’t really teach you?  I have provided you with gigs and gigs of material and thousands of dollars of hands on equipment in an environment designed to support everyone from experienced to brand new learners. If you think learning is someone putting ideas in your head you’ve misunderstood learning (telling people what to think is indoctrination). You learn when you internalize information, and that happens best when you are the one discovering it.  You can’t own knowledge you haven’t earned.  Learning isn’t a handout, you’re not a passive consumer of learning, it’s an active endeavour on the part of the student.  If you’re waiting for someone else to tell you what to think, you aren’t learning anything at all.”
This is a relatively successful student who refused to make mistakes and sat there passively, waiting for clarity. Clarity means getting concise, linear directions that make clear a pointless exercise (so you can follow the pattern and get an ‘A’). Guess what his parents do for a living? Yep, they’re teachers. Fortunately for him (if not for learning itself), he’ll find many teachers more than happy to play the game with him. I encourage and reward failure and admire brave attempts at understanding stochastic processes that defy easy description. I guess I’m a nightmare of a teacher.
Between the insidious five-ohs and the ever-so-smart risk-aversers, I’m exhausted.  I’d day dream (as other high school teachers do) about teaching in post secondary, but this consumerist thinking has infected it too, with helicopter parents demanding to know what they’re paying for when their university child (in their twenties) gets a low grade.  I’d prefer to teach high school anyway, you get to help a student find their way from the ground up.  When it works it’s very rewarding.
Thank goodness ‘tech millionaires’ (the same people who have monetized your attention) have a solution to one of the last non-economic human relationships left in Western culture (I bet it involves monetizing the teacher-student relationship somehow!)

You’d think that teaching an optional subject like computer technology would get you out of the five-oh infection, but thanks to guidance dropping kids into a class they have no background in just to fill up their time tables, and the five-ohs themselves seeking out courses that they think will be easy (computer engineering?  that’s video games, right?), I’ve had a rough semester.  The next one doesn’t  look much better since I’ve already found half a dozen students parachuted into senior computer engineering classes without the required requisite (computer engineering?  that’s playing video games, right?).


I’ve spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of my own time getting comp-tech certified as a teacher and building a department up. This year is the first time I’m teaching a full schedule of computer-technology courses, but half way through it I find myself wishing I’d never left teaching English. I thought that teaching computer technology (a passion I’ve had since I was a child) would be thrilling, a chance to help other kids like I was develop into capable engineers and technicians, but between risk averse passivity and the rising tide of learning poisonous five-ohs, I’m left gasping for air.

Collegiality vs Teamwork and Digital Technologies

We re-aligned our computer courses last year.  Our school formerly was one of the few with a Computer Studies Department, with computer science and computer technology courses all existing under a single banner.  Last year the department was dissolved and computer science was put under the Mathematics Department while computer technology was re-integrated with the Technology Department.

I transitioned from Computer Studies Head to a co-head of Technology, but I’m finding working in such a diverse (we cover everything from metal work to food school to digital design) department challenging.  With so many horses pulling in so many directions, I can’t help but feel that digital technologies tends to be a second thought.  Rather than feel excluded I’ve been finding ways to develop a stronger digital technologies continuum.

The computer lab has always been next to the design lab, though run by different departments.  Now that we’re on the same team so to speak, I’ve been re-thinking how digital technologies, always minimally represented in terms of classes, should work within the school.  We’ve been developing an integrated digital technologies curriculum in order to facilitate that.

With the dissolution of Computer Studies the realigning of our school’s digital technologies was inevitable.  No longer is Technology Design the lone digitally focused technology course in the department.  Combined with Computer Technology, our digital technology courses can now offer a continuum of learning across a wide variety of digital platforms.

I initially felt that dissolving the computer department was going to be bad for the discipline, but now I’m feeling a new synergy.

By drawing together our digitally focused technology courses under the many common threads they share we’re able to offer 9-12 curriculum in a wider variety of areas.  For students in a rural area where digital-tech doesn’t have the social impact it has in more urban settings this is a big deal.

The first step was to diversify our high-tech offerings.  I argued successfully at Heads for Tech-Design to offer Robotics (our tech design teacher has a background in it).  I also argued successfully for a Software Engineering option that would allow students interested in the field to experience industry standard practices around software development rather than the mathematics focus offered by computer science.

From the junior grades students get a wide variety of choice in 11 & 12 around what aspects of digital technology they want to pursue.  And even if the student isn’t going into a tech-focused profession, they are at least able to develop the kind of digital fluency that will be handy in any 21st Century workplace.  Of course, digital-tech doesn’t end at the workplace.  If we’re going to graduate citizens capable of communicating in the 21st Century, they need to have digital fluency.

I always felt isolated as the head of computers with only a part time comp-sci teacher who wasn’t interested in collaborating.  Now that I’m the co-head of tech, or perhaps Head of Digital Technologies fits better, I’m able to empower our tech-design as well as my own computer-tech fields and build a more complete set of options for our students to benefit from.

Change isn’t always easy, but in this case I feel like it’s led to a good place where teamwork and a common goal has replaced cold, distant collegiality.

A 9-12 Digital Technologies Continuum with a healthy variety of choice that will develop graduates ready to take on the challenges of the 21st Century:

The layout is so helpful I’ve expanded it out to the Technology Department as a whole: