Jane Wilkinson

Is COVID-19 heralding a new way of the media representing teachers?

The sport and politics of teacher bashing, and in particular teacher union bashing, has a long and inglorious history in the Australian media. Whether this is connected to an anti-intellectual bias in Australian society, the glorification of sport and the physical as opposed to the intellect, is unclear. However research suggests that mainstream media plays a critical role in creating dominant representations of particular groups in society and these representations directly impact individuals and the groups involved.

During April 2020 when schools were rapidly moving to and from remote teaching we collected and analysed a range of media articles focussing on schooling issues. What we found makes us believe the COVID-19 pandemic might yet be an opportunity to reset the often-antagonistic relationship between the teaching profession in Australia and the Australian press.

In this post we want to tell you more about our research and why we think it could be an opportunity to herald change in the way the media connects with our teaching profession.

Major disconnect of perceptions before the COVID-19 pandemic

Two pre-COVID-19 surveys of Australian teachers and public perceptions of teaching revealed a major disconnect between the public perception of teachers as respected and trusted, and teachers own views of their reputation. In the nationwide survey conducted in 2019 with both public and non-government systems, teachers were asked to indicate their agreement with the statement, I feel that the Australian public appreciates teachers.  71% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. In contrast, a second survey of the general public conducted simultaneously reported that 82% of respondents felt teachers were well respected or moderately respected. In addition, 93% of respondents in the public survey felt that teachers were trusted or moderately trusted.

This disconnect between teachers’ perceptions of respect and trust and the public perception has serious direct consequences for the education of our children and young people, particularly in terms of teachers’ well-being, the retention of teachers in the profession and even educational outcomes. The survey reports that in order for teachers to remain motivated and committed to their profession, public recognition by politicians, communities and society of the importance of teaching is critical. They further report on international research which has “found a correlation between teacher status and student achievement”.

Why media concentration in Australia, and media discourse, matters

It has been regularly noted that the concentration of media in Australia is one of the highest in the world. And although levels of public engagement in traditional media outlets such as newspapers and television have declined rapidly, their ability to shape public opinion and political policy remains high.

Of the 58% of teacher respondents in the 2019 survey noted above who indicated they wished to leave the profession, 10% cited a lack of appreciation as the main reason for their departure. One respondent’s unsolicited comment typified these responses:

I feel under-appreciated and disrespected in community, public and media”.

Recent studies of principals shows that negative representations of teachers in the press deleteriously impact on the health and wellbeing of principals who are expected to manage the media, particularly in time of crisis. As a society we all pay the price and are poorer for it.

The COVID-19 outbreak and media representations

Health workers are rightly valorised by politicians and the media for the front-line role they are playing in the pandemic. However, teachers have been shamed in the media, for example by the Prime Minister, for raising the issue of risks associated with keeping schools open, but also sometimes praised for being on the frontline by continuing to teach.

Nevertheless at the beginning of this pandemic we were hearing more about parents doing schooling from home (not home schooling) rather than recognition of the work of teachers teaching online and face-to-face, often at the same time. 

Our research project

As part of a large scale Australian Research Council Discovery Grant examining school autonomy and social justice, we collected a range of media articles which discuss the particular issues facing schools and systems as they tackle the move from face-to-face schooling to remote learning, and back again.

We analysed 18 articles collected from a range of state jurisdictions and from a cross-section of the traditional media, as well as one article drawn from social media, written by Lyndsay Connors, a highly respected senior education adviser for the New South Wales and federal governments. These included the more right-wing News Corporation (or “Murdoch press”), the more traditionally centrist newspapers owned by Nine Entertainment (formerly the Fairfax press) and the Saturday Paper, an independently funded, left-leaning newspaper. The articles range from ‘hard news’ pieces, opinion pieces and letters to the editor.

They were collected across April 2020, a month which spanned the shift from the closure of schools across Australia due to the COVID-19 pandemic to their gradual reopening as restrictions gradually eased. As states gradually lifted their lockdown measures, there was increasing pressure from the federal government for schools to reopen across the nation so that workers could return to employment and fuel an economic recovery.

However, given that Australia is a federation and funding and governance of public school systems is a state responsibility, there were differences in opinion between the various state governments and the federal government as to the wisdom of reopening schools. This is where teachers and their portrayal within the media becomes revealing.

Prior to the debate about reopening schools, there was a brief time when the Prime Minister and Federal Government more broadly appeared to be in consensus with the media that teachers were front-line workers and required respect and trust. Lyndsay Connors reflected in her opinion piece on 15 April 2020 that

The shock of dealing with the realities of the coronavirus pandemic has forced our prime minister to realise that schools are fundamental to our democracy and that teachers are on the front line of society and should be valued accordingly (Connors, 2020).

This statement appeared to be borne out by a range of commentary both in the Murdoch press as well as in the former Fairfax media. For example, in a wide-ranging opinion piece, Teachers earn belated respect (paywalled) published in News Corps’ Herald Sun and Courier Mail,  David Penberthy argued that  “one of the most derided  professions in this country has historically been teaching” but that hopefully this perception was changing, forcing a “national rethink when it comes to the perception of teachers”.

The article was a welcomed and nuanced discussion of the competing medical advice and messages that were being faced by state governments in regard to whether it was safe for teachers and students to resume face-to-face teaching. The article finished with two keywords, “thank you”, which the journalist noted were too often lacking in the Australian public’s attitude towards teaching and teachers.

Welcome though this opinion piece was, it appeared on pages 47 of the Herald-Sun and 56 of the Courier-Mail on a Sunday, not the most newsworthy day of the week or a prominent position in the papers.

The following week in a highly critical opinion piece, Not a very class act from teachers’ unions (paywalled) published in the Sunday-Telegraph, a Sydney News Corps paper, Bella d’Abrera, the Director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute Public Affairs, castigated teacher unions across Australia for “being reckless when they ignore the science and fight to keep students out of classrooms”. This was in response to news reports, for example, in the Weekend Australian (paywalled) where the Prime Minister was quoted as taking a “swipe at teacher unions, saying that workers… were showing up each day at work despite the risk”, the implication being that teachers should take that risk also.

In keeping with the more centrist approach of the former Fairfax media, a range of articles appeared that were broadly sympathetic in their representations of teachers and the dilemmas facing teachers as workers. These included letters to the editor in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled, “Teachers can be heroes but only with proper resources”.

Media matters

Media discourses form a crucial part of a broader discursive framework of how teaching is perceived and enacted. They can also inform policy which is often used symbolically as a means to solve a ‘problem’. These discourses also shape the professional identity of teachers in ways that have profound and ultimately negative impacts on their work, their ability to commit long term to the profession and their motivation to continue in a vocation for which many have felt a deep calling. This is the cost of a constant negative media barrage about teaching.

The opportunity presented by COVID-19 media coverage

We believe COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to reflect, reconsider and set aside the poisonous politics of the media and society’s teacher blame game. Are we ready and willing as a society to grasp the potential it offers us and our children?

Jane Wilkinson is Professor in Educational Leadership, Faculty of Education at Monash University. Jane is Lead Editor of the Journal of Educational Administration and History and a member of the Australian Council of Educational Leadership, Victorian executive. Jane’s research interests are in the areas of educational leadership for social justice, with a particular focus on issues of gender and ethnicity; and theorising educational leadership as practice/praxis. She is a lead developer of the theory of practice architectures (Kemmis, Wilkinson, Edwards-Groves, Hardy, Grootenboer, & Bristol, 2014). She also draws on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work and the philosopher, Ted Schatzki. Jane has published widely in the areas of women and leadership, refugee students and theorising leadership as practice/praxis. Jane is on Twitter @JaneWillkin1994

Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Education, Deakin University, Australia. Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, social justice, educational research history, and the sociology of education through a practice lens (feminist, Bourdieu, practice architectures). Katrina is a former anthropologist, archaeologist and primary and secondary teacher in Victoria, Australia. She tweets at @drfreersumenjin

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP190100190) with Deakin University as the administering organisation. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or Australian Research Council. Other investigators include Prof Amanda Keddie (Deakin), Prof Jill Blackmore (Deakin), Dr Brad Gobby (Curtin), Associate Professor Scott Eacott (UNSW and Associate Professor Richard Niesche (UNSW).

Public schools DO account for their funding: Public school autonomy processes are onerous and exacting

Among the turmoil generated by COVD19 for schools – are they open, are they closed, staggered attendance, online learning – and significant planning and workload on schools leaders and educators, the New South Wales Auditor-General released a report reviewing needs-based equity funding under the NSW Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) reform.

The timing of the release was perhaps curious however the reaction to the report from public school principals was loud and immediate.

The Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) reform was introduced in 2012 in NSW by the NSW Coalition Government.  It gave public school principals new powers to spend funds and make local decisions. In 2014 extra needs-based funding was allocated directly to many disadvantaged NSW public schools to for them to spend on the unique needs of their students.

Lack of accountability

The NSW Auditor-General’s report highlighted a lack of accountability for funds being spent. The report found that the NSW Department of Education “has not had adequate oversight of how schools are using needs-based funding to improve student outcomes since it was introduced in 2014.” And it accused the department of not being “able to effectively demonstrate the impact” of equity funding.

 This is consistent with recent political pushes reported in mainstream media where political leaders suggested public school principals needed to earn their autonomy and that extra funding has not delivered better results.

Reaction to the report of “lack of accountability”

This message from the Auditor-General was however met with counter examples from overloaded public schools principals working hard despite contradictions to achieve equity within their schools.

In response to the Auditor-General’s report and newspaper articles on the topic, many principals took to social media with stories of what accountability under Local Schools, Local Decisions was like for them.

A screenshot of a computer

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Permission was sought and granted by Ann Caro to include the screenshot of her Tweet in this post.

Examples teachers gave of what funds were used for included hiring paraprofessionals to provide tuition for students, subscriptions to software programs to support student learning, updating technologies and learning spaces, resources (e.g., science equipment, textbooks, calculators, musical instruments, and novels), additional counsellors, and professional learning for staff to be meet the needs of students in the school.

These are hardly extravagant and as mentioned in the tweet, all auditable by the system.

Our project on School Autonomy and Social Justice

The NSW Auditor-General’s report and the reaction of NSW public school principals was of particular interest to us. We are a group of educational researchers conducting extensive research across four Australian states in order to generate an evidence base and new knowledge around the impact of greater autonomy in our school systems. The ongoing tension we are currently witnessing between oversight of spending and the freedom to deliver context-sensitive solutions, is consistent with data we have generated as part of our ongoing Australian Research Council funded project on School Autonomy and Social Justice.

Our interviews with principals

While bureaucrats and politicians bemoan the lack of explicit accounting for dollars spent and direct links to impact and performance, school principals and educators are spending more and more time on administration and accounting for activities.

Interviews with principals and principal groups in our research project have reported numerous concerns with increased workload and burdensome administrative accountabilities (compliance) under Local Schools, Local Decisions. In addition, there has been the reduction in systemic supports for the work of schools. For example, some responses we collected include:

There are a lot of people in principal positions now who feel pressured to comply with everything, all the time. They are being pursued by people in the department. They are being pushed. And the stress levels have gone up enormously. People are burning out…people are having nervous breakdowns; people are drinking too much. And that’s something the department should be concerned about. I don’t see that level of concern. They just lay on more and more requirements that go against the spirit of autonomy. (Erin)

So much has got pushed back on the schools that principals were just coming apart at the seams. (Charles)

So, I think burnout is a big issue and health and well-being is a really big issue (Ursula)

Well part of the issue for principals is there is so much work…it’s the emotional labour…quite often because of the way they have to operate, quite often they are isolated. (Ursula)

The role is now sort of 24/7 principal…you have got to be contactable at all times; and you have got to manage situations when they pop up. (Russell)

There’s a lot more compliance, policy implementation that’s mandated…because there’s no consultation to it, there’s no feedback, or the famous thing when we’re doing policy implementation review – “look the deadline for that is tomorrow, can you get your feedback on that policy by 4pm tomorrow?” and you are ‘well I am just trying to stay afloat here at the moment’ (Russell)

 The high stakes of achieving equity

There are very few who disagree that context matters in schools. And there are very few who disagree that those closest to students and schools should be making decisions on how best to meet educational needs. However, the tensions for school principals in terms of increased autonomy, compliance and accountability with public funds remains difficult to balance. This is particularly important when the equity funds are to alleviate disparities for disadvantaged schools and communities and are not necessarily ‘extra’ funding above what public schools need.

Granting additional funds to compensate for social disadvantage while reducing systemic supports means that the schools needing to do the most work to achieve a socially just education are left with a higher share of the burden. Generating more administration and compliance further takes educators and school leaders away from the work that matters – providing high quality education to all students.

Delivering a high-quality equitable education for all students is always a challenging task. The diversity of communities makes a one-size-fits-all solution next to impossible. Finding the balance between systemic supports and local context-sensitive initiative remains the desired utopia of school autonomy reforms.

The stakes are high. Australia is often considered to have an inequitable school system and finding an approach that delivers high-quality context-sensitive schooling is the key to addressing inequities.       

Scott Eacott is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. His research interests and contributions fall into three main areas: i) developing a relational approach to scholarship; ii) educational leadership; and iii) school reform. You can find out more about his work at scotteacott.com. Scott is on Twitter @ScottEacott

Richard Niesche is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. His research interests are in the areas of educational leadership, the principalship and social justice in education. He has published his research in a number of peer reviewed journal and books. His latest book (co-edited with Dr Amanda Heffernan) is “Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research” published with Routledge in 2020. Richard can be found on Twitter @RichardNiesche

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP190100190) with Deakin University as the administering organisation. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or Australian Research Council. Other investigators include Prof Amanda Keddie (Deakin), Prof Jill Blackmore (Deakin), Prof Jane Wilkinson (Monash), Dr Brad Gobby (Curtin), and Dr Katrina MacDonald (Deakin).

Is there a need for multi-faith education in all Australian schools?

Australia’s diversity is frequently celebrated by politicians as a multicultural success story. Schools, particularly public schools, educating children with diverse cultural and social backgrounds, are seen as the lynchpin to such success. Yet schools and other education sites in Australia constantly confront tensions and difficulties in their efforts to be inclusive and to create a climate of social cohesion.

Our research looked at the potential and limitations of current approaches used by teachers and school leaders who work in a school community experiencing high levels of racialised, gendered and religious conflict, often fuelled by fear politics, mainly Islamophobia, in mainstream media.

What we found supports calls for critical multi-faith education courses to be taught in Australian public schools.  We believe this would be a welcome resource for teachers and schools.

Our research findings also point to the need for support and professional learning for teachers who face these complex social and religious tensions in their classrooms, schools and school communities every day.

Our research project

This research project was generated from a larger study (still to be published) that sought to examine school-level responses to social cohesion in Victorian schools. In this project we focused on one of the case studies, a small state primary school situated in an outer suburb, that we refer to as  ‘Starflower’ Primary School. It is recognised as exemplary in its efforts to support social cohesion especially in relation to fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance for students and parents of minority faiths.

Starflower Primary is located in a community (of low socio-economic status) that has experienced much change over the past thirty or so years. The cultural diversity has markedly increased from a largely white Anglo population in the 1980s to a vibrant mix of ethnic cultures where approximately 70% of students speak a language other than English. The majority of students identify as Muslim, followed by Christian and then a mix of other religions. The majority of teachers and administrators identify as Anglo-Australian. The school performs well on external and public measures of academic learning such as NAPLAN.

Although the teachers and leadership team who participated in the study generally saw the climate of Starflower Primary in a positive light, they did relay many stories of social conflict. This conflict occurred within and beyond the school community and was associated with racial, religious and gender discrimination.  For example the teachers spoke of one Muslim family who had been “chased” out of the community by an Anglo-Australian family who “used to go in and trash their house at night”. Children from both families were enrolled at the school.

They also told of gendered reactions and attitudes from “Middle Eastern” boys and men towards female staff members, including a father telling the female principal that he would not speak to her about an issue at school because she was a woman.

Our research included interviews with the school principal and leadership team, data collection and debriefing conversations with the principal. This study was largely interview-based.

Secular Christianity and Australian public education

Anxieties around terror and rising social unrest

The terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001 and those that followed have fuelled a demonizing of Muslims. As a result the Muslim community is bearing the brunt of increased levels of discrimination. Also the fear of terror has generated intense interest and resourcing (from the state) to the growing industry of countering terror and fostering social cohesion.

There has been a range of different responses to these anxieties and unrest within the context of public education in Australia

Public school policy reactions

Some of these responses have been driven by fears that schools are becoming breeding grounds for radicalisation, for example, the state-wide audit of prayer groups in all NSW public schools and the instating of training for educators to identify students who may be at risk of radicalisation.

Others are focused on security such as the Federal Government’s Schools Security Programme (2015-2018) that provides ‘at risk’ schools with funding for security infrastructure, such as CCTV.

There have also been responses that are more educative in their focus on countering religious racism, especially Islamophobia, through embedding the teaching of religious beliefs and spirituality across the curriculum.  A good example of this is the new Victorian curriculum for state schools (Foundation to Year 10) that includes Ethical Capability as a key learning area. The aim here is to broaden students’ understandings and appreciation of different religious perspectives. The content includes opportunities for critical thinking and reflection towards developing students’ capacities to apply these understandings to the investigation of ethical problems.

Teacher understandings of secularity

As outlined in the Victorian Government’s Education and Training Reform Act Australian public schools are governed by an overriding principle of secularity that does not permit the promotion of ‘any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’ but that provides for general religious education that ‘assist[s] students to understand the world around them and act with tolerance and respect towards people from all cultures’.

In our research, the first part of this definition of secularity provided justification for dismissing religion as a topic or area of discussion and learning as one teacher’s story suggests.

The teacher tells of interrupting an argument between two young Muslim girls about gender modesty and what it means to be a good Muslim. One was telling the other that she could not be a good Muslim and wear shorts to school. The teacher said her response was to tell them:-

‘…we don’t bring religion into school … Religion is personal. I don’t tell you about what religion I am. I don’t push that on you guys. And you guys should not be talking about religion here at all.’

This dismissal of religion was understood as consistent with the secular position of public schools in Australia – to not promote ‘any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’ (Victoria State Government 2017). Like fellow teachers at the school this teacher was particularly mindful of not offending the Muslim students and parents.

Another teacher from the same school commented:

I’ll be very honest, I think some [teachers] go, ‘Well, okay … we’ve accepted different cultures, but then you don’t want to respect ours’ … as one teacher said, ‘Well, it’s a state school … it’s secular’ … If you want your child brought up in the Catholic system, well, you can send them there. If you bring them to the state system, you’ve got to understand, be accepting of what goes on in that culture…

Secularity in this regard was associated with a rejection of religion – a common but narrow view based on avoiding the promotion of any particular religious practice, denomination or sect (consistent with the Education and Training Reform Act). In our research, we noted the potential for this exclusion to reinforce understandings of secularity as distinct from and oppositional to religion, within a binary where secularity is associated with rationality and objectivity and religion is associated with irrationality and subjectivity. These understandings and practices do not reflect a nuanced understanding of secularism, nor do they recognise the Christian privilege embedded within Australia’s public education system.

Christian privilege

Christian privilege plays out in Australian schools in explicit and implicit ways. Explicitly, it plays out through the National Chaplaincy Program (which provides funding for schools to employ a chaplain but is primarily serviced by Christian organisations) and the conducting of religious instruction classes during school hours, which is predominantly un-regulated and delivered by evangelical religious groups.

Implicitly, it plays out through the normalising of practices (sometimes masquerading as secular) such as timetabling around the Christian calendar which does not recognise non-Christian occasions and days of worship, curriculum choices that reflect Eurocentric (typically Christian) perspectives, standards and values, and dietary norms, which tend not to include Kosher or Halal foods. Such structures and practices reflect an infusing of Christian hegemony that reinforces the marginality and stereotyping of non-Christian religions.

Educating for religious inclusion and social cohesion

Teachers are not well equipped

Schools are confronted daily with new and increasingly complex forms of racial, religious and gender conflict. What our research indicates is that teachers are not well equipped to productively respond to and address some of the contentions arising from the cultural and religious diversity in our classrooms.

Teachers’ personal beliefs and perceptions about secularity and religion are significant in shaping their practice and relations with students. Engaging in ongoing self-critique is a crucial personal resource that is necessary for teachers to identify how their beliefs might impact on countering or contributing to racialised, gendered, religious-based or other oppressions.

Teachers require ongoing, regular and targeted support and professional learning to develop the personal resources and pedagogic skills to support their students’ critical understandings of religious and non-religious views

An interpretive, reflexive, critical and student-centred approach is needed

Such teaching requires a particular level of content knowledge about religious, secular, philosophical and ethical concepts that are important for facilitating informed and critical discussions that can broaden students’ understandings and appreciation of different perspectives on the world.

Important here is an interpretive, reflexive, critical and student-centred approach that

1) is inclusive of, and sensitive to, the views and beliefs of students from a wide range of religious and non-religious backgrounds;

2) adopts an interpretive approach where there is the opportunity for productive discussion around multiple perspectives;

3) is conducted in a ‘safe space’ where students feel comfortable to express their views but where there are agreed ‘ground rules’ to moderate behaviour (such as respect for others, democratic process and due regard for accuracy);

 4) reflects a spirit of openness in which personal views or theoretical positions are not imposed upon students; and

5) encourages an attitude of critical enquiry

Such an approach reflects potential in teaching for religious inclusion and social cohesion. It can engender a sense of belonging and acceptance in relation to religious identities.

As professor of sociology at Monash University, Gary Bouma, argues

 ‘for Australia to continue to be a harmonious culturally and religiously diverse society, it is in our national interest to invest in multi-faith education as a strategy to promote social inclusion’.

Rolling out multi-faith education and support for such education across Australia would take commitment and dedicated funding from our governments. We believe it would be an invaluable investment in ensuring the continuation of Australia’s multicultural success story.

Amanda Keddie is a Research Professor at Deakin University (Melbourne, Australia). She leads the program Children, Young People and their Community within REDI (Research for Educational Impact). Her published work examines the broad gamut of schooling processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in schools including student identities, teacher identities, pedagogy, curriculum, leadership, school structures, policy agendas and socio-political trends. Amanda is on Twitter@amandaMkeddie

Jane Wilkinson is Associate Dean for Graduate Research, Faculty of Education, Monash University, Australia and Associate Professor Educational Leadership. Jane’s main research and teaching interests are in the areas of educational leadership for social justice and practice theory (feminist, Bourdieuian and practical philosophy). Jane has conducted extensive research with refugee students, schools and universities in regional and urban Australia. Her most recent study examines the role played by school and community leaders in building social cohesion. Jane’s new books include: Educational leadership as a culturally-constructed practice: New directions and possibilities (with Laurette Bristol, Routledge, 2018); and Navigating complex spaces: Refugee background students transitioning into higher education (with Loshini Naidoo, Misty Adoniou and Kip Langat, Singapore: Springer, 2018).Jane is lead editor of the Journal of Educational Administration and History and a member of the editorial boards, Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy and Practice; Journal of Gender Studies and International Journal of Leadership in Education.

Dr Lucas Walsh is Professor of Education Policy and Practice, Youth Studies, and Interim Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His work explores responses to the questions: what does the world beyond school look like for young people and what types of education and training do they need to navigate it? He is currently a chief investigator on The Q Project (Quality Use of Evidence Driving Quality Education) funded by The Paul Ramsay Foundation. Recent books include Educating Generation Next (Palgrave), and with Rosalyn Black, Rethinking Youth Citizenship after the Age of Entitlement (Bloomsbury) and Imagining Youth Futures: University Students in Post-Truth Times (Springer). He next book with Amanda Third, Philippa Collin, and Rosalyn Black is Young People in Digital Society: Control Shift (Palgrave Macmillan).

Dr Luke Howie is Senior Lecturer, Politics and International Relations, School of Social Sciences at Monash University and Deputy Director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC).

Read more about our research in our paper …we don’t bring religion into school’: issues of religious inclusion and social cohesion

What Finland wants to learn from Australian schools

Finnish schools do well in international rankings, but few Finnish teachers, parents and students really care about it very much. Finland cares much more about the wellbeing and happiness of their children. As I am a teacher from Finland, currently working with schools and universities in Australia, I have experienced this first hand. Generally, teachers in Finland care more about how their students are faring in the world rather than how the world feels about their students. Tom Stehlik explained this very well in a post on this blog as ‘pedagogical love’.

So you might wonder what Finland can learn from Australia when it comes to working with children. But it is what you do with refugee children specifically that drew me to Australia. I came to Australia from Finland to learn more about how you settle refugee students in schools in ways that makes them happy.

I knew Australian schools do something extraordinary with migrant students because Australia, together with Canada, lead the way in supporting the feeling of belonging and wellbeing of its migrant students. I also knew that Australia’s history in resettling large numbers of refugees is much longer than Finland’s. As Finland is now becoming a home to many more refugees due to the global refugee crisis, I thought that Finland could learn important lessons from Australia. I am not talking about Australia’s truly shameful treatment of the asylum seekers who have been detained on Manus Island and Nauru, but in its progressive ways of resettling refugees.

Despite the well-documented issues of settling refugee children into schools into Australia, there is another story. I wanted to find out what Australian schools did in the learning journeys of their refugee children that made them feel supported in their schooling and at the same time look at what Finnish schools were doing to help their refugee children. I do this in collaboration with Jane Wilkinson at Monash University, building on Jane’s previous work exploring refugee students’ success stories.

Asking the children about their learning journeys

We started exploring stories of refugee education by asking teachers in Australia and Finland to nominate ‘successful’ students with a refugee background. Teachers were asked to consider success in the broadest possible sense, including academic achievement, school wellbeing and a range of ‘flourishing’ that is difficult for a researcher to see but might be easy for an engaged teacher to identify.

We then asked the nominated 45 students (25 of whom were in Australia and 20 in Finland, between six and 17 years of age) to draw a picture of their school journey before and after their migration, marking moments when they had felt happy or successful in their learning, and to identify key people who had played a role in their learning journey.

 

After that, we interviewed the students based on their drawings. With our guiding questions (What happened here? Who helped you here? How did this make you feel?) the children talked about and around their moments of success, helping us understand what had made a difference in their educational journeys. This data was complemented by classroom observations and interviews with teachers and leaders in the schools.

Significant moments were not always at school

As we anticipated, children’s learning journeys were not limited to schools. Significant moments took place at detention camps, rainforests, reception centres, mosques or homes. First steps of the journeys were mostly painted in dark colours; dangerous sea crossings, dead family members, fear and abuse were common themes. However, all these educational journeys had taken an upward direction. Much of this was explained by what Tom Stehlik wants to see more of in Australian schools. To me it was various forms of pedagogical love: the different ways love appears to exist in schools.

Messages from the refugee children in Australia and their teachers

What we found at one Australian primary school in a disadvantaged neighbourhood is a good example of how pedagogical love is happening with refugee children in some Australian schools. The school does not shine in its NAPLAN results, which is not surprising considering that 90% of the students speak English as an additional language. Rather than teaching for the test and improving the results artificially, there was an explicit attempt not to do it. Instead, the school invested in caring relationships, safety and belonging, believing that they are prerequisites for learning.

One of the teachers told us about her approach in working with a young refugee student:

He needs mothering, he needs fathering, he needs socializing, he needs – so, it’s yeah, positive reinforcement, prizes and I’ll use the word love because I think that that’s what they need, ultimately.

This teacher showed her love by spraying magic mist over her sometimes-restless group. It was insignificant that there was just water in the spray bottle; the love effect was immediate.

Another teacher learned to do a Sikh boy’s hair so that he could go to a school camp, and a third teacher organised support for a mourning child who lost her beloved cat. All teachers showed their love by not only teaching the curriculum, but also being available for the whole child. The was not done at the expense of students’ academic growth. We work on prioritising the wellbeing of children without sacrificing high expectations of learners, as one of the educational leaders noted.

This did not go unnoticed by their students. One of the girls recalls her early experiences in the school:

My teacher was very nice, so like, “Whenever you need help, put your hands up.” And I was like, why? She was like, “Put your hand up and say ‘help’.” I was like, ‘help’, every day; I was just checking her that she would come or not.

Another special mention goes to a teacher who:

was also nice. She was kind. She made me calm down. When somebody bullies or fights, she made us calm down. Not with a ruler but because she was kind.

One boy summarises what many of the students communicated in different ways:

In this school, in this school they don’t actually hit, they actually help, so that’s what I wanted.

It is about pedagogical love

Paulo Freire wrote in his Letter to Those Who Dare to Teach:

It is impossible to teach without the courage to love, without the courage to try a thousand times before giving in. In short, it is impossible to teach without a forged, invented and well-thought-out capacity to love.

Almost a century earlier, a Finnish scholar Uno Cygnaeus noted that:

Every teacher has to blaze with the spirit of sacred love. Sacred love that does not seek its own, that does not look at the present but the future; love that can even punish when considered necessary. That kind of love towards pupils has to smolder in a teacher’s heart. That kind of teacher’s love affects the whole school in a protecting way.

I think teaching without love is possible, there are many examples of that, but as Finnish and Australian, as well as other international research, has shown time and again, teaching with love makes more sense. Pedagogical love (and common sense!) requires that teachers do not hit, that they are available, care, and that they show it. Successful teaching depends on relationships so concerns with relationships need to come before any concerns with performance, efficiency or “excellence”. It means that teachers and leaders engage in their work holistically, with their own whole persona, thinking what makes sense for each individual student at that moment.

As love-rhetoric sits awkwardly in the present day educational discourse, the word can be rephrased as warmth, engagement or positive school climate, all of which can be reduced to love; the quality of relationships between people in the school, or at least, to a niche where love can find root and grow.

NAPLAN cannot measure this essential part of schooling

Bringing love into Australian schools would require working against the grain of Australia’s current strict, performance-based guidelines. Standards and measurements overlook (if not kill) love. NAPLAN does not measure student or parent satisfaction, wellbeing or the quality of relationships. The MySchool website does not show how happy or engaged students are. Neither does PISA. No standardised test can really capture what goes on in schools, how students feel and how well teachers do their work.

I don’t know what is behind Finland’s PISA success, but trusting teachers’ interpretation (rather than tests) on what does and should happen in schools might be one reason. There is no shortage of excellent, caring and loving teachers in either Australia or Finland, but a system like Finland’s with less concern with standards, and so much less testing, leaves teachers with more time to do what they think matters for their students.

I am not suggesting there would be a single reason behind any refugee student’s educational success or wellbeing at school, but I believe pedagogical love plays a major part. I think Australia’s politicians and policy makers should be paying much more attention to the growing bank of research evidence in this field.

 

Mervi Kaukko and Jane Wilkinson from Monash University will be presenting today on their research ‘In this school they don’t actually hit, they actually teach’ at the 2017 AARE Conference in Canberra.

Dr Mervi Kaukko is a researcher, teacher and teacher educator from Finland. Mervi has been a visiting researcher at Monash University since July 2016. Her research, conducted in collaboration with Associate Professor Jane Wilkinson, explores educational practices which support refugee students in school. Mervi’s previous research focuses on global education, unaccompanied minors, children’s participation and children’s rights. Mervi starts as a lecturer at Monash University in 2018. Mervi is reporting on her research at the 2017 AARE conference today.

 

The theme of the 2017 AARE conference is ‘Education: What’s politics got to do with it?’ There will be over 600 presentations of current educational research and panel sessions at the conference which runs all this week in Canberra. Journalists who want to attend or arrange interviews please contact Anna Sullivan, Communications Manager of AARE, Anna.Sullivan@unisa.edu.au or our editor Maralyn Parker, maralyn@aare.edu.au

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