I recently revisited an interview between Senator Bernie Sanders and Michael Render (Killer Mike) from January 2016. This obviously pre-dates the election and places Bernie in the midst of his campaign for the Democratic nomination. The issues explored by the two centred on the philosophies of social justice and particularly, as a focus for Bernie, the rights of citizens to have economic freedom. I encourage you to watch the interview if you are at all concerned about the growing equity crisis we are facing in education. It will definitely provide an insight into the path we face ahead, thus the title “The Urgency of Now”.
I was motivated to revisit the interview upon return from an incredible three-week educational tour exploring North America. I will use another post to provide further reflection on this rewarding experience, but first I wanted to draw some connections between some of the striking systemic challenges that the Australian and US systems share.
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late…………. This is no time for apathy or complacency…………. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” – Martin Luther King Jr
“College Readiness” was profoundly embedded in all the schools and systems we visited in the States, and I preface this by saying this is not a reflection upon the incredibly dedicated and passionate educators we connected with, but instead the system that they are part of. This is, of course, a significant driver of the premise that The United States of America is the land of opportunity and that everyone has access to the “American Dream”.
What I found growingly hard to swallow, was the disparity between how this manifests when so many of the places we visited had significant homelessness and obvious mental health issues. It would seem to me that, this American Dream is fit only for those who are already somewhat advantaged. The significant programs and philanthropic works that are working to combat the equity in education is mind-blowing, but it also makes me wonder……for every program that is not public (and that I mean government) funded, does this not just perpetuate the lack of responsibility that governments have for providing equitable education?
Now I must disclose here, that my own school and growingly a number of significant personal professional opportunities have indeed been afforded due to our relationship with an amazing non-profit organisation, but this has only emphasised to me that we are able to access a range of resources and opportunities that all schools should be entitled to.
Whilst Martin Luther King Jr was referring to the Vietnam War when he said: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today”, it is true of the challenges we currently face in education. So many of the passionate educators in the United States that I met are hamstrung by a system that is centralised on standardised assessment and access to the right college. This is the lens through which they view opportunity and educational innovation. The same threatens our system in Australia with earlier and earlier attempts to formally assess children and monitor schools through the use of arbitrary testing and processes. As educators representing disadvantaged communities in Australia, we cannot let others speak for us, let others make decisions for us, let others perpetuate systems that maintain a complicit and undereducated “lower class”. It is only through the critical work that we do with young people, how we advocate to provide the same opportunities as their wealthy peers, how we speak out and stand up when dogma drives the educational discourse that we will start to shift the divide.
I think Bernie hits the nail on the head when he says: We have the freedom of speech, you can go out on the street and give a speech, that’s your constitutional right…but you know to be truly free you need economic rights as well. You can go out and give a speech but you may not have food in your belly… a roof over your head. If you don’t have any education, are you truly free?”
I love the word potential. It is full of hopes, dreams and possibilities. I believe we all have unlimited potential and the journey of our lives is how we cultivate and utilise opportunities to achieve our hopes and dreams. There are however challenges in how many opportunities we can create and how many opportunities we have access to. Unfortunately these challenges are harder for some groups than others, and as an educator, as a parent, as a human being, this frustrates me.
Public schools in more affluent suburbs have self-fulfilling prophecies. They attract their cohort because of their perceived success and have success because they attract affluent families. This does not necessarily correlate to good teaching and learning, but it does mean that they can demand more of their families in terms of contribution; be that money; devices; uniform; or extra-curricular involvement.
As schools increasingly innovate and utilise technology to improve learning, this generates a greater disparity for schools with higher numbers of low-SES students. If schools in more affluent communities can insist (as does my own children’s school) that families provide a device (in my case an iPad) for middle school and another for secondary (in my case a Macbook Pro), how does this leverage opportunity?
There is undeniable evidence that when students have access to technology it increases their opportunity for learner led construction of understanding and personalised learning. If schools are able to demand the best of devices to be accessible to individuals 24/7, this of course enables a range of innovative approaches including the breaking down of traditional education. When students do not have access 24/7, this limits the opportunity for schools to challenge traditional systems, approaches and structures and ultimately makes it more difficult for them to foster and cultivate learning that leads to critical, creative and independent thinkers who can leverage a range of technologies.
The ultra-conservative approach to education reform and funding is failing a significant proportion of our young people to compete with their privileged peers. I do not believe for a second that the young people I work with could not have the same opportunities as those living in the leafy greens. In fact, I truly believe that the resilience and determination embodied in their daily actions would lead to the achievement of even greater potential if they were afforded the same opportunities as more affluent teens.
If we do not address this issue, and do not support schools by subsidising technology in lower SE areas, then we will not long see the limitations upon social mobility, further widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
People often ask why I am a teacher. It wasn’t my first port of call and I once felt a sense of shame, that I chose teaching after my previous (somewhat socially higher valued) profession. Now I cannot imagine doing anything other than “cultivating learning”!
So what made me divert the course of my life?
Well it was a community of young indigenous boys in the centre of Australia. A group of boys that caused nothing but havoc to the organisation I was employed. Every program we implemented and every facility we renovated, they destroyed, hijacked or sabotaged! For my colleagues they were rogues, to me they cried out to be nurtured, their boundless energy harnessed, but most of all someone to give them a sense that there were greater possibilities, they needn’t be welfare dependent nor expect incarceration. This community was rife with young children affected by drugs and alcohol, violence and neglect. I worked with grandparents, amazing people frustrated and crying out for their babes to be saved. This is what hurt my heart. I thought I was on a path where I could “change the world and make a difference” but at times I was was watching it pass me by.
This was the moment I decided I shouldn’t give up on that ambition, it just had to be a different path. That path was education. When I called my mother to have that awkward conversation (I have written previously about how inspirational mum was/is to me), “umm mum (mom) you know that 4 years I spent at Uni…..”, she was nothing but affirming. In fact she said “these kids need people like you Rhoni, someone who only sees their potential”. That was it for me. I signed up for Education (Special Education) and have never looked back. My focus since has been how I can support students who need strong advocates to access the learning opportunities so many take for granted. This focus has taken place in the classroom as a teacher and beyond with an obligation to always seek the possibilities and not be hampered by or identified as their deficits.
In terms of leadership, it’s just not in my nature to be idle. When I see unfairness, inequity or something that just doesn’t sit right with me, I am compelled to act. My passion for having kids access opportunities drives me to build with others, a better education experience for all. I have always loved learning, it gives me chills to see my own children passionate about learning and it gives me an incredible joy knowing I have helped a child see their potential and go after it. I believe we (teachers) are important, I believe we can make a huge difference for our students and I know that our future is bright in the hands of kids when they are given opportunities to shine.
So really, I teach and lead to discover possibilities! To help students find the keys to unlock access to learning and passions.
I look forward to how this mentor program can support my development as a leader and help me increase the positive impact we have on young people by developing skills to construct and support a team of passionate educators. I enter this experience excited to connect with my mentor Jimmy Casas @casas_jimmy and fellow mentees Dana Corr @dcorr1 and Kevin Graham @KGrahamHWDSB.