The Dog Ate my Laptop

I used to be a high school teacher.

In the past few years, successive conservative governments have cut public education and demanded more from educators: more reliance on technology, more ideological training and development, more planning and outcome documentation, more data, more number-crunching to manufacture favourable-looking literacy and numeracy stats, and, of course, more kids in classes.

The educator role has evolved into something that resembles a box-ticking, form-filling, planner and evaluator of learning outcomes.

So, what does a class look like?

Cut to a Year Eleven English lesson before recess, not long ago.

‘OK,’ I boom over the babble and clatter of twenty-seven Year Elevens filling the room. ‘Let’s have your final drafts, due today.’

If I get three of them, I will be doing better than usual.

These guys are sixteen, not old enough to vote, but grown-up enough to deem themselves rulers over their immediate destinies.

Unlike myself, as they see it, they ‘have lives.’

For many, the connection between completing assignments by their due dates and passing Year Eleven English in both semesters in order to graduate successfully from high school barely penetrates the fog.

Any time and motion study will reveal game-playing, online browsing, social media and ceaseless banter as preferred in-class activity. Lack of realistic deterrents like old-fashioned discipline have allowed this attitude to become entrenched.

When students rarely do homework, it’s not hard to see how they fall behind.

Headphones secured, tapping at phones, reopening games on laptops, the millennials avoid my sweeping glare in the way that soldiers escaping the concentration camp emerge from tunnels and creep beneath searching spotlights.

‘Eyes this way. Put the phones away. Take the headphones out.’

My demands-machete hacks through the jungle of their passive resistance.

I move sideways, pick up the confiscated phone box and bang it down in front of Jarrod, madly texting, in the second row.

‘Just a second,’ he mutters, thumbs dancing. ‘Just a second.’

‘You know the rule,’ I bark at him.

I hold out the box. If he resists, I invoke the law.

We have a mobile phone policy. They should be switched off, or out of sight. It is on a laminated sheet in every classroom.

We have assistant principals for middle and senior schools, who can be asked to come to any class to collect a recalcitrant student. Provided they are not on the phone to a parent, in another classroom, in a meeting or panel, or already have an office full of recalcitrants.

Jarrod sulks and slides his phone into the box, not before pressing ‘send’.

I glare at three others in turn, who drop their phones onto their laps.

‘Your assignments,’ I prompt. ‘Get them out, ready for me to collect while I mark the roll.’

I open Daymap – our multi-purpose digital repository for the roll, assessment plans, task sheets, resources, student information, assessments and term-by-term report entries – and check off the names.

Back in the Jurassic, when I was a lad with a hand covered in blackboard chalk dust, I kept a manual roll, wrote reports by hand and set essays by writing a single-sentence topic on the board.

Once upon a time, I led classes as they brainstormed meaningfully for part of the lesson as an impetus to beginning the task.

Now, in this Brave New World of Info Technology, given the attention span of the average teen accustomed to instant everything, we have the ‘task sheet’.

It swims in a word count often exceeding that expected of the task description in the text box. It is ‘scaffolded’ into an essay plan, a set of paragraphs, bite-sized chunks of the final response. Much of the significant learning opportunity evaporates.

If I had supplied more guidance and advice on Daymap to follow the Australian curriculum’s committee-driven assessment rubrics, I would have written the assignment for them.

          ‘Can I print mine?’ asks Karen, a sweet girl who submits on time.

‘Of course,’ I say. She darts outside to the printer.

‘Here’s mine,’ says Andrew, all competence and reliability.

They are not all beyond redemption..

Two from twenty-seven. The rest of them are metaphorically crawling through the long grass, away from my Gestapo scrutiny.

I confiscate three more phones. Sullen eyes half-lift my way.

          ‘Today is the due date for an assignment worth 25% of your grade for the semester. Over half of you have not even submitted the draft.’

‘Boring,’ whines Poppy, who replaces her headphones sulkily.

‘Take – the – head – phones – OUT!’

Poppy eyes me as if I am Satan and tips one out.

‘And the other one!’

Every lesson must have a ‘Learning Intention’, a declaration of content to be introduced and studied.

The Learning Intention must appear in your daily Daymap lesson notes. Good luck, having all your students on the same page when you are ready to introduce new work. Every class has a Learning and Assessment Plan for each ten-week term. Good luck, in adhering to that plan. It’s safe to say Poppy is ignorant of its content.

Parents have a portal to Daymap from their home computers. They can check up on you at any time.

So can the principal, when he is not meetings or panels elsewhere, conducting external reviews, at conferences interstate, closeted with Executive, or in his office digesting never-ending performance-related data and processing it to deliver to us in staff meetings.

Fifteen minutes into the fifty-five-minute lesson, the babble rises.

 ‘OK, twenty-five of you are now overdue. I will now decide exactly how many of you will join me after school on Thursday.’

‘But I work on Thursdays,’ pouts Jana, who mixes smoothies in the shopping centre at exploitative wages to pay for her phone and buy petrol for the car her parents are giving her on her approaching birthday.

‘It’s not fair,’ whines Brad, ‘you never gave us the task sheet.’

‘I gave out hard copies the day I set it. And it’s on Daymap.’

‘My laptop’s flat.’

‘It’s Lesson Two. How can it be flat already? You’re supposed to bring it charged every day.’

Instead of leading them towards the light, I’m again mired in the murk of dispute and time-wasting.

‘You’re on Thursday’s list, Brad. And you’re not going to recess until you show me some work completed this lesson.’

‘I told you. My laptop’s flat – ‘

‘Know what?’ I hold up a pen. ‘Once upon a time we used these.’

‘I haven’t got paper – ‘

I slap some lined paper in front of him, a copy of the task sheet and a spare pen from an in-class repository maintained for this scenario.

‘You can ask me what you need to know once you get started. Get on with it.’ I look about. ‘Anyone else with a flat laptop?’

No one responds. I position myself in the rear corner of the room, to scrutinise laptop screens for anything other than Microsoft Word.

Armed with a plethora of paperwork and gaggle of guidelines, it occurs to me once again that I am not really teaching.

At best I am evaluating progress.

Once upon a time there was room to teach, to follow the beat of your drum, to make your mark. There was autonomy, room to breathe.

Not any longer.

Now we are regulated to the last syllable of recorded time, to reimagine Macbeth as a disgruntled English teacher.

But as my wife has not urged me towards Chief-Execu-cide, data-driven ideology from our political masters will continue to devour extravagant chunks of my non-class time.

The need for data is ingrained in departmental DNA.

Once we had staff meetings every week. We addressed in-school policies through democracy: framing, debating and voting on motions.

Now, in our twice-a-term full staff meeting, we sit passively while the Principal and his data-propelled PowerPoint washes over us.

Now we can calculate a decimal point number, usually between zero and one, an indication of a student’s learning over a year, 0.4% being the magic point at which a year’s worth of learning has taken place.

All hail the mighty 0.4%

The smarter and more clearly focussed on content, we are told in tones of breathless insight, the better the teacher, and the more passion for and knowledge of the subject, the greater the impact, the stronger the teacher-student relationship, the more likely is sustained learning.

No kidding. What was I thinking these past forty years?

I have had past students credit me as the teacher in whose class they had their ‘light-bulb’ moments. Somehow, without crunching numbers, I helped many of them to evolve from attention-seeking, selfish, irritating, narcissistic brats into functional, responsible young people.

A well-written tale still inspires me, but there is a point where I must stop ‘telling them the answers’ and start offering a realistic challenge to read, deconstruct, make assessments and guide them towards the light of independent learning.

But it’s possible to enter Year Eleven, having failed every subject, every term for the previous three years.

Apparently, research indicates that the most important aspect of schooling is interaction with one’s peers.

If you hold them back, it will arrest their development further.

Why do they fail? They’re not stupid.

There is a culture of time-wasting. They can lose their school diaries the day after they are issued. They can delude their parents into the myth that they never have homework. Many parents are too busy or distracted to register their child’s lack of engagement.

By the time they’re in Year Eleven, many are in very bad habits.

The other contributing factor is lack of behaviour management.

We’ve seen the disappearance of the designated withdrawal room, staffed by executive staff members, for teachers to utilise when a student’s behaviour was poor enough to warrant it.

Nowadays, a teacher can call an executive staff member to collect an unruly student, but this often takes too long to be effective. And if I avail myself of this service, the onus is on me to meet the student in lunchtime detention and negotiate re-entry to class. It is yet another way I end up having no lunch break.

I check the time: five minutes to the bell. I pace around the perimeter of the room, looking grim.

Those who have drafted around a page or more are excused Thursday catch-up. Sheer bloody-mindedness has saved me sending about ten letters home.

Each time I do it, I must change the name on the form letter I have saved on the hard drive and attach it to an individualised email home, copying in the assistant principal. It all takes time.

The clock ticks.

‘Brad, Jana, Hayden, Poppy and Dylan. Stay back after the bell.’

‘But I have to get to the canteen,’ Brad whines.

The bell sounds.

‘I want those drafts tomorrow, completed. No completed draft? You go on the list for after school.’

The class erupts into the hall outside like champagne from a Grand Prix podium magnum.

Three students rush back in to reclaim their phones from the box. They practically fall over each other in the doorway in their collective haste to be free.

The four detainees regard me glumly.

‘You will all be required in the library tomorrow, from 3.30 until 4.30, with charged laptops. Will you have a charged laptop, Brad?’

‘The dog ate it, sir.’

Despite myself, I guffaw.

An email landing in my inbox distracts me and they escape.

I open it. It’s a screenshot from the principal’s diary, summoning me in my only non-instructional time later that day to his office, behind closed doors, for our next mandatory meeting in relation to the ‘Professional Support’ he imposed on me. Just what I want: remedial classroom management and conflict resolution.

Professional Support is, the union informed me, the first stage of Performance Management, soul-destroying evisceration by a thousand cuts: lesson observations with relentless nit-picking behind closed doors.

This edition, for me, is essentially punishment for speaking my mind in relation to student behaviour management. Or lack thereof.

Applying consequences for poor behaviour gives way to concern for well-being. We counsel them within an inch of their lives.

We ask ourselves: how might I manage that better next time?

My principal asserts I can become a better teacher by clicking through earnestly voiced, one-size-fits-all online courses.

Shall I lie down and invite them to use my face as a doormat?

The door closes behind me after lunch.

He asks if I have read the material.

The dog ate it, sir.