Teaching: survival of the fittest


Work in progress: School for dull dories (digital collage)

I received my retirement medal this week, which confirmed my 33 years of service to students in NSW public education. 18 of those years were in schools and 14.5 years in ‘curriculum branch’, developing teacher professional learning programs and teaching resources. I also spent one university semester looking after the UNSW dance program while the legendary David Spurgeon was on leave.

Fighting to survive

I feel as though my career was characterised by a constant fight: for time and inspiration, for resources, for respect, and an even share of ‘political’ clout. Arts teachers are particularly vulnerable in an educational regime that force-feeds basic skills. Endless cogent arguments both for and against the need for arts learning to integrate with English and maths just wash away into the fiscally-responsible ether. Most people don’t understand the arguments. Most people don’t understand arts knowledge. Believe it or not, many people still spout the clichés related to ‘I know nothing about art, but I know what I like’. So, (I dare you) try discussing the uniqueness of arts learning with someone who thinks like that.

Pecking order

Arts teachers are generally at the bottom of the pecking order in schools. Except of course when their students trot outside the noisy or messy or intimidating arts classroom to show their stuff in displays for the community. Then arts teachers become VERY important, which gets up other staff members’ collective noses. And when I chose to retrain to teach dance, I discovered that dance was at the bottom of the arts faculty pecking order. I was at the bottom of the barrel! In the pecking order there are the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. The ‘haves’ will never, by choice, relinquish their power. The ‘have nots’ need to learn to play sides artfully.

Competitive not collaborative

Some of us (the ‘have nots’) would love to see a system of public education in NSW where there is some equivalency of esteem for all curriculum areas. Just look at HSC scaling procedures* and it is clear that this does not exist. And the ‘haves’ teachers are all tenacious in trying to improve or at least retain what status they already have. There can be no real collaborative working environment without some giving up perceived advantage.

In the hierarchy of subject domains, certain teachers have a functional advantage (English, maths, science, to name the few). As in the processes of natural selection, their ‘offspring’, the beginning teachers in these subjects, inherit that advantage and pass it on. Status quo reinforced.

The paradox

So, I survived. I weathered criticism, takeovers and funding cuts. I survived because I was reassured and often rescued by some wonderful supporters. There were fabulous mentors and professional colleagues, inspiring students (and their parents) and arts champions. Unfortunately while I was able to personally survive, I was not able to make much of a dent in achieving curriculum parity for the arts.

There is one delicious paradox, though. The offspring of arts teachers have proliferated (more than any other area, except PDHPE). Now there are many more applicants for creative arts teaching positions than there are positions. That says something about the way students think about their arts learning and their arts teachers. Students want to be arts teachers, not maths teachers.

At the presentation of my retirement medal, I was asked whether I wanted to say anything. I declined. Partly because I didn’t know most of the people who sat in the audience. I didn’t know them because in the short time since I retired there has been another restructure of state office and new governance is in place. The other reason I didn’t say anything was because I would have said some of this. And I know that the majority of the audience, had they been ‘haves’, couldn’t have cared less.

* I just have to relate this anecdote. When dance was first examined for the HSC (1993), an HSIE teacher laughingly asked me what the students would be examined on. He (yes, he) was practically beside himself and referred to the study of dance as ‘mickey mouse’. With as much control as I could muster, I tried to paint a picture of what he (middle-aged, unfit, etc etc) would have to do to choreograph, perform and critique dance to the standard required by the 4 separate HSC dance exams. I  let him know that it would be near impossible for him to achieve even a minimum standard without many extra hours with a tutor. I also let him know that I didn’t doubt that I would be able to reach a high standard of achievement in Society and Culture without a tutor and in the recommended hours of study. I’m sure he didn’t get it.

2 thoughts on “Teaching: survival of the fittest

  1. Deidhre, having been a high school music teacher for 9 years, I have a lot of sympathy for your position. Mathematics was always my best subject, but in comparison, the performing arts are hard. Really hard. To get really good at classical music for example, takes at least 10 years of study for 3 hours a day, every day. The practice of maths pales into insignificance. The real-time nature of the performing arts, where being inaccurate to a 1/10th of a second can destroy a performance, requires a cognitive dedication well beyond anything in what you call the “haves” subjects.

    Imagine what sort of mark you would get in the HSC if you spent that amount of time on any subject like maths, science or english. This make the “scaling down” of marks in the performing arts seem ludicrous.

    I gave up music teaching many decades ago for many of the reasons you mentioned above. I went into a career in computing because I found it easy and it was well paid and well respected. Music is however absolutely where my heart lies; I maintain my practice and perform whenever possible. Database design is just my day job.

    Last night I saw the Choir of London and the Australian Chamber Orchestra do the most inspiring performance of the Bach Christmas Oratorio. I saw the 50 odd musicians on stage at the Sydney Opera House perform with absolute conviction, producing an experience of sublime beauty as if they were a single voice. This is the cummulative result of probably a quarter of a million hours of personal and professional practice. I was struck by the uniformity of purpose and utter dedication to the task and it occurred to me that this could happen in no sphere other than the arts. Total collaboration, and no competition at all. There was only the music. How can that fail to be inspiring?

    When you think how little these people are being paid (and they are certainly not being paid for the hundreds of hours of private practice they need to do to prepare for such a performance) and how much people working in, say PR or marketing get paid, it makes you wonder if there is something seriously wrong in our so called “civilisation”. Despite society’s indifference (or sometimes even disdain), I am incredibly grateful for the efforts of our performing artists.

    I understand your reticence in mentioning your serious concerns at your retirement. Who would care? I wholeheartedly support your call for some proportion in the recognition of especially the disciplines of music and dance.

    Daniel Kaan
    BA, DipEd, MCogSc, AMusA, LTCL


    • Hi Daniel

      Thanks so much for your comment. I appreciate you lending your voice to my lonely cry-out. I know so many of us feel the same way, and we do from time to time raise the issues. But the indifference, as you aptly name it, is overwhelming. You are somewhat typical of the ‘artist’ who is highly intelligent and could do practically anything well in the world, but your passion is for music. And you know and clearly articulate the rigour of music as compared to other domains—I appreciate that insight!

      I was also very good at Maths but found it a bit easy and a bit boring, so I didn’t pursue it. The arts were a challenge—much more exciting! I once did some research comparing students who engaged in performing arts activities with those who didn’t and the performing arts students had significantly better achievement in English, Maths and Science. Clearly they were also looking for a challenge.

      We do seem to be going backwards in this fight unfortunately. The loudest voices are super-conservative. The only light I can see is that the speed of technological innovation may put a big bomb under education authorities. Anyway, yours, in arts appreciation! Deidhre


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