Anecdotes from a teaching life.

I went to University at the age of 30 in 1982 and started my teaching career in 1985. Before this, I had become a qualified Fitter and Turner (using the original terminology). I progressed from the jobbing shop (engineering) to installation and maintenance of lifts and escalators and then moved on to driving concrete trucks and underwater bridge construction and maintenance. I even had the opportunity to do some underwater survey work on ships. I moved on to running my own woodturning business and eventually ended up at University.

I did some practicum teaching in other schools to the one I started at as a teacher.

As a first year out teacher, my first placement was at one of the least desired schools at the time. I was thankful, as it was not one of the isolated schools.

I was given the subjects of Woodwork, Metalwork Technology and Drawing (engineering and architectural)

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Technology at that time was nothing to do with computers it was all about design education and working in materials like leather, plastics, casting pewter and silver smith work using copper and brass. We used to do a lot of work with copper chasing which was fun. In later years when I was the main teacher in the area I also introduced scrimshaw using large beef bones. The local butcher used to donate the bones and I would cook them up at school with a little bleach to help whiten them. Nobody liked the smell so I had to do it when there were no people about. The kids loved doing the scrimshaw and they used to scratch patterns into the surface of their bone jewelry and I would squeeze a few drops of ink out of a biro to rub into their patterns and then polish the surface with a cloth buffing machine.

In later years I wanted to increase the female participation rate in this then male dominated area so I started a jewelry and small project class. One day 5 of the girls said they couldn’t be bothered working so I said ok, what about playing with some paint so I grabbed some colours and some paper and they played with some art affects of marbling and modern art styles. They had a great time so they lay their works of art out on the benches for all to see. ‘Gee! they have come up well but they really need some picture frames to hang them on the wall’. I had timber ready to go already with a groove for the picture inset so we talked about mitered corners and for the second part of the double lesson block the girls that were too tired to work made up 3 or 4 picture frames each. Every teacher has stories they can tell, but few people other than teachers can appreciate them.

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Many of our staff were complaining about the amount of difficult students we had in the school. We all attended a staff meeting with a specially qualified social worker and child physiologist in attendance. Ok they said give us an idea which 3 or 5 kids do you think are troublesome and what is the troublesome behavior. Several staff started mentioning students and their issues and the list rapidly grew past 4 or 5 up to about 24 students. The conversation continued and my colleague teaching woodwork turned around and said to me ‘that’s my woodwork class Brett so it must your metalwork class’. We laughed every hard-core student in the school we had with sharp tools in the one room.

A student came up to me in metalwork one day and said Mr. Wilkin I have chopped the end off my finger. I thought he was joking until I looked and indeed, he had. I went home that evening and started to tell my wife about the stress of having an injured student with its possible ramifications and she immediately sidetracked the conversation to her workday and how someone could not type and spell properly. I never tried again.

Anecdotes from a teaching life.

I went to University at the age of 30 in 1982 and started my teaching career in 1985. Before this, I had become a qualified Fitter and Turner (using the original terminology). I progressed from the jobbing shop (engineering) to installation and maintenance of lifts and escalators and then moved on to driving concrete trucks and underwater bridge construction and maintenance. I even had the opportunity to do some underwater survey work on ships. I moved on to running my own woodturning business and eventually ended up at University.

I did some practicum teaching in other schools to the one I started at as a teacher.

As a first year out teacher, my first placement was at one of the least desired schools at the time. I was thankful, as it was not one of the isolated schools.

I was given the subjects of Woodwork, Metalwork Technology and Drawing (engineering and architectural)

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Technology at that time was nothing to do with computers it was all about design education and working in materials like leather, plastics, casting pewter and silver smith work using copper and brass. We used to do a lot of work with copper chasing which was fun. In later years when I was the main teacher in the area I also introduced scrimshaw using large beef bones. The local butcher used to donate the bones and I would cook them up at school with a little bleach to help whiten them. Nobody liked the smell so I had to do it when there were no people about. The kids loved doing the scrimshaw and they used to scratch patterns into the surface of their bone jewelry and I would squeeze a few drops of ink out of a biro to rub into their patterns and then polish the surface with a cloth buffing machine.

In later years I wanted to increase the female participation rate in this then male dominated area so I started a jewelry and small project class. One day 5 of the girls said they couldn’t be bothered working so I said ok, what about playing with some paint so I grabbed some colours and some paper and they played with some art affects of marbling and modern art styles. They had a great time so they lay their works of art out on the benches for all to see. ‘Gee! they have come up well but they really need some picture frames to hang them on the wall’. I had timber ready to go already with a groove for the picture inset so we talked about mitered corners and for the second part of the double lesson block the girls that were too tired to work made up 3 or 4 picture frames each. Every teacher has stories they can tell, but few people other than teachers can appreciate them.

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Many of our staff were complaining about the amount of difficult students we had in the school. We all attended a staff meeting with a specially qualified social worker and child physiologist in attendance. Ok they said give us an idea which 3 or 5 kids do you think are troublesome and what is the troublesome behavior. Several staff started mentioning students and their issues and the list rapidly grew past 4 or 5 up to about 24 students. The conversation continued and my colleague teaching woodwork turned around and said to me ‘that’s my woodwork class Brett so it must your metalwork class’. We laughed every hard-core student in the school we had with sharp tools in the one room.

A student came up to me in metalwork one day and said Mr. Wilkin I have chopped the end off my finger. I thought he was joking until I looked and indeed, he had. I went home that evening and started to tell my wife about the stress of having an injured student with its possible ramifications and she immediately sidetracked the conversation to her workday and how someone could not type and spell properly. I never tried again.

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One year was a reasonably difficult year and if I had not broken up a skirmish between two students during the week it was going to happen in my Friday class. One Friday a student started to annoy another while he was working in the grinding bay so the annoyed student spun around and pushed the other away. The problem was the angle grinder was still going and got caught in the annoying students clothes and dragged the grinder into his shoulder. The result was a cauterized cut that required 15 or more stitches.

They were interesting days but the kids were great even if they were sometimes difficult. I screwed a piece of square pipe (RHS) high up the wall and set a little square of clear plastic into the bottom of the pipe. Inside I cut up (with tin snips) a small piece of old computer mother board and told the students it was my new video monitor. Realising it was a dummy took most students 2 years. Behavior improved dramatically.

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One day a student lit a fire in the classroom adjoining the woodworking shop. Another student raised the alarm and I raced into the room, dragged the waste bin away from the wall, and smothered the fire with a board over the bin. Another 30 seconds and it would have been a disaster. I grabbed a ream of paper from my office and told all students to sit on the closest bench to where they currently were. They students then positioned themselves on a map of the room when the fire was started. Extra they drew one other person on the map and confirmed they were in that position. After analyzing where everyone was there was only one student who could not be positioned accurately on the map. I reported this but the student had a protected status and I could not prove it was he that lit the fire. I was not far wrong though as he is currently serving a life sentence.

Another time I had a group that wanted to sit around the desk in the end classroom so I got all the other students working and went back to the social group. There was two ways I could deal with them, one way was to be very verbal and the corresponding reaction would have been sullen students that would have moved into the workshop and still not done any work. The other way that I elected was to jog into the room and jump on to their table, and said to them, ‘you have two choices you can go into the workshop and start work or you can sit and listen to me practice my singing’. I then broke into a corny song. The kids all shook their heads and said ‘aww Wilky’ and moved into the workshop in a happy mood and worked hard.

I rarely ever yelled at a kid as I believe if you raise your voice more than twice a year you are not using your brains and educational psychology. I will qualify that in that if I did yell at a kid they never came back for a second dose.

The students seemed to respect me and were always selecting me to support them when the school had the behaviour panel in operation. When students were accused of bad behaviour they had to go before a panel of senior staff to justify their behavior and discuss their future, during this intensive interview the students were allowed to have a teacher to support them. This also extended to doing the same at the local police station.

The 20 or so difficult students that parents always said we were picking on had no benchmark to assess their own children, they also had no definition as to what constituted bad behaviour.

With this in mind at one stage I created an excel database and a big chart for the staff room. Each student was on the chart with 5 boxes under their name. The category boxes were, ‘avoids trouble’, ‘completes homework’, ‘listens in class’ and ‘arrives on time’. These were all positive comments as nearly all students in the school could do these things well so they automatically received good reports as they rarely lost points.

The staff then came into the staff room and ticked the appropriate category that removed points from the particular students score.

The most important box was ‘avoids trouble’ that meant the good students learnt rapidly to move away from trouble areas which in turn isolated the students always at the centre of any issues. The good student may lose one point but the consistent offender started to lose points every time they were at the centre of disturbances.

It quickly became obvious exactly who the problems students were that were disrupting most of the classes.

Each week 20 to 30 students would have points taken from their score and a whole school graph was printed off (names only on personal reports). Any student below a certain number had their reports mailed home every week.

It was interesting to note how accurately the charts predicted a student starting to use illegal substances (although this could not be stated) as the first outward sign was their behavior in school.

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The other point of note was how the staff would come into the classroom complaining about a student disrupting everything they did in class and they took their time and immense pleasure at ticking the box. The tick (only one per lesson allowed) was enough to relieve their stress and leave their emotions at the chart to go back into the classroom with a very professional attitude. It was a marvelous pressure release valve and the teacher could be seen to visibly relax on the ticking of the chart.

After several parent teacher interviews with the parent and child the parents could see how their child was out of step with the average and many students made strong attempts to change their behaviour. Sadly a new principle could not see the benefits and wanted to make their own mark without understanding the philosophy as to why the charts were there so the students patterns of behavior dropped for several years until something else could be developed to take its place

I spent many years doing martial arts and used to train with the Phys Ed teacher in the gym 3 times a week. We had the gym to ourselves but many students used to peep in through the air vents. The stories and imagination that developed was far better than reality.

A student was being difficult in metalwork one day and one of the tougher students looked at the difficult kid and and told him to get on with his work because if Wilky doesn’t spin kick your head off I will. The student just quietly walked away and worked well and I did not have to say anything.

Years later I have had a beer with most of many of my ex students and am proud to be able to call them friends.

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In those years all the teachers were part of an efficient team and we developed programs and procedures to deal with difficult students. One of the main things was always pick on the behavior not the student. Our procedures worked so well that Bill Rogers the behavior guru at the time came down and studied what we did and included it in his Behaviour Management book.

Another person who did very valuable research was Ruby Payne. Her research into poverty. Middle class and weath made teaching much easier as I related to all of these students in different ways and I find now in Thailand most of what she says is still relevant even though the cultures are very different.

We were, and the school still is, an inclusive school so we took on all students with behaviour and disabilities problems of any description. Including the most severely autistic student in mainstream school (I think in Australia).

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I was very fortunate to be one of the main persons working with these students as for many years I was the main support teacher to assist other teacher with curriculum and teaching practice in the classroom.

I took on many roles in the school including teaching every subject in the school including Driver Education and Physical Education. As I could teach any subject and got on well with my students I was given the role of student support through special funding. I kept a teaching role and every student that had some issues was sent to me. The expectation was; ‘fix this student they are broken’. Hmm.

One of these I was expected to fix was a student with a brain tumor that aggravated an already aggressive temperament. Keeping her calm and focused on something she enjoyed was very difficult. She always worked well for me when she came to school but sadly she could not function outside of an institution so later in life every time she got out of incarceration she did something to ensure she went straight back.

During these years I was exposed to the results of the worst type of person the child molester. The results of their actions is devastating to young teenagers and creates lifelong issues. I have had to deal with suicide attempts in the school as a result of students being molested and have since formed the opinion that molesters only have one good place in society and that is as practice for martial arts training.

One of the things that did come out of dealing with all the students having problems with personal, emotional and learning was that the students without exception disliked teachers who used blame or sarcasm in the classroom. After 30 years of teaching across two cultures I consider both blame and sarcasm have no place in education. Negativity and put downs do not inspire other to do better and has never worked better than positive directions and positive comments that build others up. The same psychology has never worked for management either, anyone who thinks it does has not learnt the positive ways of dealing with issues and therefore is not getting the best from their workers or students.

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One students boyfriend was stabbed and he died in her arms. She was distraught and turned up at my house as my partner and myself were the only people she could talk to. It was a very sad time.

We did standardized testing at the school and the two grade 8 teachers had a competition to do with the mathematics testing. One teacher was a middle school teacher; she was trained more as primary school rather than high school teacher. The other teacher was a Mathematics Science specialist teacher who mainly focused on upper senior classes. The competition was to see who could get the highest gains in mathematics according to the next lot of standardized testing. The middle school teacher taught to the students not to the Maths. She had 4 different levels of work for her class and all the work was at the students level of ability. She had very short sessions of didactic teaching in the class and the students mainly had project work. She would tell you she had very poor mathematics skills.

The other Mathematics teacher taught to the content and did less project and more teaching style of work and did not cater for the different levels of ability. The next lot of testing showed that the highest gains were by far with the female teacher teaching to the students not the mathematics content. I think this teacher was one of the best teacher I have ever worked with.

I believe that being an expert teacher is far more important than being an expert at a subject and have seen this born out continuously.

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During these years I also taught Computing, Health and Physical Education. I purposefully moved away from the Manual Arts Technology area and tended to focus more on student specialist support and middle school involvement and about this time was asked to set up a Vocational Education and Training (VET) program in the school.

The VET program was federally funded so there were lots of new regulation to work within starting with remodeling the premises. We started with 20 students and 3 subjects and a belief from myself that the teachers involved should have as much control over their areas as possible and there would be total transparency of funding. The Psychology being that if I could not justify the emergency money kept to fund contingencies than I should not be doing the job. Contingencies money went back to the departments at the end to fund the setting up of the next years curriculum. We also bought equipment that could be shared with the whole school so everyone benefited without us contravening any federal regulations. Our program ran very efficiently and our enrollment went from 20 + to about 140 in the space of 4 years. For the betterment of the whole school we relinquished two full time teachers to work in the mainstream area as we were running very efficiently in our area and all VET staff were happy. For 3 years in a row we were responsible for getting 40 long term unemployed into full time employment. We trained 60 people in our best year to full certification with 40 or more part certificates. I had 8 staff delivering the packages of Computing, Office, Safe food Handling, Aged Care and Disability, OHS, Tourism and Horticulture, and Workplace skills, as well as Maths and English for all our students.  

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We had an induction process that was subject to audit procedures, that involved assessing for learning styles and we also included brain dominance's. This took most of a day and had mature aged students doing many different activities It was interesting to note that nearly all of these students failed at school the first time around and now were extremely nervous at coming back to school. Our job was to work through this nervousness and make them understand that school now was very different. These students after testing were nearly exclusively kinesthetic and visual learners and they all with almost no exceptions were the failed products of didactic teaching methods from teachers with a logic brain dominance. Some of the illiterate students when exposed to student centered classrooms and visual teaching techniques became literate over the ensuing 18mths to the stage of writing young children novels on computers that some had burst into tears through fear of failure when they sat in front of the computer for the first time.

Every time we expanded the program from our original 3 subjects we had to go through an audit extra to our annual audit. The annual audit involved Community involvement in the program, management style and techniques, student satisfaction, staff satisfaction, organizational procedures, record keeping, and show evidence of adherence to a rigorous set of VET standards. The key points of course were showing evidence and what constituted as evidence. These were all separate to the monitory audits.

The subject audit required showing evidence that we were running a quality programme and that we had the qualifications to provide the new course. I was proud to say that I had kept appropriate evidences and as a team we passed all our audits, 8 in all, over 4 years plus another 3 or 4 monitory audits.

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It was interesting to note that the whole feel of the school and community perception changed over these years. We had many adults moving through the school, talking about and being involved with education at many levels. The school created a community better informed about education and classroom techniques. As a local resident, the locals stopped running down the school and started building it up. Nothing else had changed but the teachers they were running down the year before now could do no wrong.

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I was often criticized for not transferring and experiencing more than the one school, but my feeling was the school changed so much around me with mobile staff and principals that staying gave me the chance to study the different affects staff and principals management styles had on the school. I had always been interested management and its effects on the workforce as well as students and to this end kept 25 years of anecdotal notes about management decisions and the affects they had on the staff and students. I compared these notes to many books I studied on management and decided that a manager should never change something until they understood the philosophy that created that procedure or situation in the first place. When this does not happen, so much good stuff disappears and nothing is created to replace the issue so the school, students, education and teachers suffer needlessly. Sometimes this down swing will go for many years before the original philosophy and what it created is re-initiated under a different umbrella, for the new principal to say look at what I did. Everyone goes round patting themselves on the back forgetting about the years of suffering in between. I am not saying don’t change as change is very important in fact policies and procedures should be revisited with the new staff every 12 months so the new staff can have some ownership and full knowledge of how the program is running. What I am saying is that the philosophy that created a situation should be understood fully before changing evolving or scraping. This would stop those negative years where the quality of the school is diminished.

The fourth year into the VET program we took out the top award as the best program in the state and I was awarded the Education Ministers Award for Services to Education. At the time, I was very stressed as the new principal was trying to dismantle the VET program and take all the funding away. Much of this funding was due to federal grants as opposed to state and my name was on some of those documents and she would have put me in breach of Federal regulations. At this stage, not one person asked what the philosophy was behind the decision-making processes in the program. The whole feel of the school started to diminish and after one discussion, I told the assistant principal I was to be moved back into the mainstream school and in be given a middle school class. Over the next few years, numbers in VET dropped and the community started commenting more on negative aspects of teachers and the school.

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I was in a position to open the door as a form of politeness for the new principal one day as I was to the front while we were walking into the school; she walked through and started to berate me for opening the door for a female insinuating I was a male chauvinist. I informed her that I was not opening the door for her I was opening to make myself feel better and I would have opened the door for anyone regardless of gender. It appears being a polite person was not as desired an attribute as being an aggressive rude person. It is a sad world we find ourselves in sometimes.

Middle school was wonderful and the students were the youngest I had taught I was also acting AST1 and did yard duty in the primary school and got to know the younger students. I did some team teaching with an extremely competent middle school teacher while rooms were being sorted and then moved back into another single room. I bought two old computers and set them up with spelling programs and put an old computer in the back of the room with some tools for students to pull apart and wreck. The boys loved it and 10 years later have commented about how they enjoyed it and how much they learnt. The boys started getting bits and asking me what they were and how they worked. The bench was a mess with bits and pieces of bent computer everywhere but the boys had a wonderful learning experience.

I then decided to try to gain some international experience in communicating across cultures so moved to Thailand to a job in an English Program (EP). Everything turns about as the school has data projectors in every EP classroom and all the students have to have a laptop to enroll. The big thing I have noticed is that educational psychology still remains the same in that the students respond much better to positive reinforcement than blame or negativity. They have trouble understanding the concept of a student centered classroom as being an active learner is very foreign to everyone including students. Once they start to get the idea of having to ask questions and be an active part of their own education then the students can come up with surprising results.

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So far, in Thailand I have set up and managed a full network server and taught many subjects and best of all gained a Thai teaching license so now I am licensed in two countries to teach

The six years in Thailand have meant a complete rethink about communication and how to communicate with students in such a way that no one is left behind. This is a challenge to which I am using LMS (learning management systems) to help with keeping all my students on task and up to date. One challenge closes and another opens.

Sorry about the disjointedness of this but one of these days I will re-edit. While writing this I kept remembering other anecdotes that may be included in the next update.

Brett Wilkin 2012