Theory be damned, real-world experience is the best teacher
Justine Ferrari, National Education Correspondent
The Australian 16June, 2012
WALKING into Bernie Howitt’s Year 9 history class at Narara Valley High School, on the NSW central coast, is to be hit by a wall of noise.
Even after 36 years as a high-school teacher, Mr Howitt still struggles with the decibel levels. “It’s when I feel old,” he says.
“It’s like trying to teach 26 over-exuberant puppies who have all failed puppy school and jump on you all at once.
“Year 9 is very boisterous sometimes, with them all trying to tell you something at once. Each kid’s opinion is really important to them but you can’t split yourself into 26 parts. It’s one of the reasons I get them to read at the start of each lesson, partly to do the reading, because I’m encouraging them to read, and partly because it settles them a little.
“They can just jump at you, not in a bad or malicious way, but just like puppies.”
Mr Howitt, who lectures at the University of NSW in teaching methods, said all the theoretical strategies in the world would fail to help new teachers if they didn’t have the experience of applying them in the real world.
For this reason, he sees merit in the idea of a medical-style internship, giving teachers on-the-job training while studying.
“There’s a tension in teacher training between providing the theoretical underpinning for a strategy, which is important, and the practical application,” he said.
“Now I feel the theoretical component of my Dip Ed was a waste of time. I learnt everything in my practical training.”
When Mr Howitt first started at Narara Valley about 11 years ago, the school had a reputation for being a tough place, with low academic results and poorly behaving students with low expectations of themselves and their futures. Many of the students who now go on to university are the first in their family to do so.
“My first society and culture class we were talking about social class, and I asked: ‘What class do you perceive yourselves as?’ And without any sense of irony, their honest answer was, ‘We’re white trash’,” Mr Howitt said.
“They had no reason to behave or aspire to anything. We had to break the fool-to-be-cool mentality.”
Mr Howitt believes the key to keeping control over a rowdy bunch of teenagers is keeping them interested in what you’re teaching, and the key to that is having passion and compassion – caring about your subject and caring about your students.
“It’s not rocket science, but it is hard work,” he said. “One of the things our boss (principal Andrew Eastcott) is always on about is establishing relationships between the teacher and student. That’s the key, all our success is that.”
The only time in his career he has felt physically threatened was in his early days at the school when he was trying to talk down a boy holding a stick. “I understood he was really frustrated and angry and could see he was upset,” he said. “I was trying to talk him down and he ended up whacking the wall next to me, breaking the stick.
“I knew that he was doing that rather than hitting me. You can look at that one of two ways; you can come out all hard or you can ask what caused that.”
He said much of the problem behaviour among students stemmed from social issues, including family breakdowns, abuse, poverty and community dysfunction.
“You have to be much more of a counsellor these days. My job as head teacher has a very high welfare component,” he said.
“Of the kids who are often sent to me, this is the safest place in the day for them and some of the issues we deal with in this school are horrendous.
“The issues you hear about on the news are in this group of parents in this school.
“The school staff have set about to change the school’s culture, setting high expectations for the students academically and of their behaviour. We raised the bar, we wanted kids to be aspiring to be above average.”
The school introduced two integrated courses in the humanities and sciences for Year 7, giving students two teachers who could develop relationships rather than six.
The school has also introduced accelerated classes for more able students, compressing Years 7 to 10 into three years, and runs a program in creative and performing arts.
Original article here