(And some words about a teacher who inspired me: Jim Gall)
My two previous blogs have focused on the significant work intensification and changing employment practices which are contributors to a decline in teacher satisfaction and morale, and a concomitant increase in teachers’ levels of stress and rates of leaving the profession. Responses from teachers to these blogs have been unanimous in reporting on the difficulties of administrative and data-driven burdens which are often carried at the expense of time given to teaching students and obtaining the best learning outcomes for each one. These reports are also confirmed in a recent opinion piece by Nan Bahr, Donna Pendergast, and Jo-Anne Ferreira (https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?tag=nan-bahr) who, in rejecting the negative claims about teachers of many commentators, noted that “Australian teachers are doing well. They are not under-qualified and they are certainly not under-educated, as some media stories would have you believe. They are doing an admirable job managing exhausting workloads and constantly changing government policies and processes.”
Teachers often have to respond to negative and deficit-focussed language. Their work is highly scrutinised and teachers are often criticised, in particular when test scores are perceived as inadequate.
Many of the teachers responding to my previous blogs also reiterated why they became teachers – to support the learning of their students. Teaching is a profession which calls to the heart of an individual. Almost to a person, teachers describe their motivation to teach as related to helping children, or changing the world through teaching children, or to give back what was received from their own teachers. Similarly, to a person, everybody can recall at least one teacher who had a considerable positive influence on them, who changed their lives, recognised them, and gave them hope.
The residual of what are often noisy and ill-informed critiques is that society has been distracted from affirming the essence of good education: the devoted professional teacher. We need to reclaim the stories of our teachers and return their value to individual teachers, the teaching profession, and to society.
As World Teachers’ Day draws closer, it’s important to think about how we can best acknowledge and celebrate the work and achievements of teachers in a genuine way. Never forgetting their role in our lives, and telling them how important they are, is just one of the ways we can do this. One of the things I am often amazed about is the unintended consequences of our being on others. Teachers often learn, sometimes years later, about how something we did or said influenced someone.
For me, that teacher was Jim Gall.
In this blog I want to celebrate Jim as a teacher who has served the profession and the students of Queensland for 57 years. Imagine 25 full school auditoriums– that is at least the number of Queenslanders whose lives have been directly impacted by this teacher.
Jim grew up in Windorah, in the Channel Country in Western Queensland. A country boy at heart, he left Windorah to attend the closest school, a Toowoomba boarding school, and could only go home three times a year. He obtained a State Government scholarship for his senior schooling and his one year of teacher training, prior to beginning teaching in 1960. He subsequently completed an Education degree, an Arts degree, a Diploma in School Administration, and a Masters in Curriculum, all as an external student. He held various senior leadership positions including Acting Principal, Deputy Principal, Head of Maths Department and Sports Master, but was always drawn to the role of classroom teacher, in particular in Senior Maths and Science.
He was a part of many changes in education during his 57 years in the profession. Beginning as a primary teacher, he transferred to secondary schools in 1964 when Year 8 was incorporated into high schools. Subsequently he saw Year 7 transfer to secondary schools in 2015. He saw external exams move to school-based assessment (in the early 1970’s) and will see the return of external exams in Queensland.
Over the years, this maths guru has seen the progression from ink wells and slates to calculators and computers. Throughout his career, he engaged in many strategies to enhance learning opportunities for students, inside and outside the classroom. In one of his first schools he sourced kits from America and built scientific calculators so students could access them at half the store price. He introduced new curriculum into schools and devised innovative timetabling strategies to increase the availability of subjects, and therefore opportunities, for students. Jim also enjoyed mentoring beginning teachers, sharing some of his own professional learning over many years.
Jim retired from full time teaching (for the second or third time) at the end of 2017. While continuing to enjoy teaching students, he noted an increasing frustration (his own and that of his colleagues) with the amount of non-teaching that was required to be done in the classroom. In addition, noting the extensive extra-curricular activity which was embraced by teachers in his early years, and which enabled teachers to get to know their students in a more holistic way, he commented that increasing expectations for documentation and reporting meant that teachers could find it challenging to find the time and opportunity to do this.
However, Jim remains passionate about getting the best out of, and for, his students 57 years after he first walked into his own classroom. I asked him what aspects of teaching encouraged him to stay in the profession. He emphasised how much he enjoyed teaching young people – “It really gives me a buzz when you see the lights come on in a student’s eyes showing that they understand what you are talking about. It makes them feel good, it makes me feel good, and it gives the student confidence to continue learning. These ‘lights turning on’ moments are what makes it all worthwhile. You teach to get these moments. Students really appreciate a teacher who takes the extra time to get these moments.”
So why Jim Gall? Jim taught me Maths 1 in 1972-1973 at North Mackay State High School. Admittedly it was a small school in those days – my Year 12 class only had 23 students – and I also must admit I was not one of his best Maths students – but 44 years on, Jim was able to recall many aspects of our classrooms during those years.
After my Education degree, I undertook a degree in psychology. I very specifically remember wanting to tell Jim Gall, my Senior Maths teacher, the year I received a grade of 7 (the top grade) in my second-year statistics subject. I knew he would have been proud (and probably even pleasantly surprised).
It was an honour to speak at Jim’s final school assembly farewell in December 2017, to thank him for his contribution to my life, and to so many lives. His contribution to teaching far exceeds longevity – his work right through to his final classes demonstrated passion for, and commitment to, learning outcomes for his students. … “I take composite 11/12 Maths C and just got my results back from the panel,” he wrote in an email. “They agreed to my submission with 4 VHAs, 2 HAs and 3 SAs in a class of 9 Year 12s. I was pretty pleased with that. I have always tried to do my best for the kids, the school and the parents and that is the satisfaction and reward.”
Jim is remarkable in many ways – indeed, I believe he has had a courageous career. Despite system and organisational challenges, increasing workloads, and contextual changes, he has maintained for 57 years his passion for teaching young people to be the best they can be.
I chose to finish my blog series on teacher well-being with this positive story. I hope it encourages teachers to revisit their reasons for choosing the profession, and for those who may be struggling, that it provides encouragement to rekindle the joy of teaching.
I wish all teachers a celebratory World Teachers’ Day.