Sunday, July 21, 2013

In Praise of Longwarry Primary School

Last year I was faced with a difficult choice. I had to endure homelessness and am still experiencing extreme poverty despite having three degrees and 17 years of teaching experience and other assorted experience in editing and writing, I am unable to find employment.  In July 2012, despite our poverty and lack of funds, we had to move house because we had been given notice and also because I had to find a school suitable for a small boy who had been bullied and assaulted at his previous school. We have been assisted thankfully by charitable organisations and Jewish Care to find housing and given funds for the basic essentials of living and I still continue to search for employment that I am able to do and that is well paid to ensure that I can support my son.
I searched for several weeks and used much petrol to find a school that I believed would be suitable for my son and for him to be welcomed and educated properly and respectfully. I went to a total of ten or eleven schools in country Victoria. The second or third school I went to, was Longwarry Primary School. There I met with the principal Julia Sadler who turned out to be both warm and caring as well as firm. She felt right for my son. Still I wanted to be sure so,  I had a look at several more schools. I kept coming back to my interview with Mrs Sadler. She was the Principal who impressed me the most and her school impressed me. I also looked at classroom rooms, the way staff interacted and the way the students interacted in the playgrounds.
Longwarry came out a very clear winner.
It is a school of 120 students. A nice size and a very hamishe (homey and friendly) atmosphere exists between staff and students and parents. Everyone knows everyone else or gets to know who people are. Even if you do not know them by name, you know them by face. Louise, who runs the office very efficiently, always has time for a friendly word and her smile never seems to leave her face. Nothing fazes her and she takes all things in her stride.
Mrs Julia Sadler visits the classrooms on a regular basis and takes an interest in the students's work and the teachers, as well as meeting parents, organizing activities and going to meetings and is a darn good principal. There are principals who do sit in their offices and kick off their shoes and drink coffee and relax - most of the day. I know. I have worked for a couple of principals like that and believe me, it did not inspire confidence to have to bring a student to the 'box' as they called the isolation room at one school and have the principal waltz down the hallway bearing the letter of suspension for the child's parents and he - the Principal, not the child - was in stocking feet and carrying his coffee cup which he sipped daintily while telling me that this child was suspended for four days. These are the principals you hope retire quickly before they do too much damage.
Mrs Sadler is amazing. She has her hand on the pulse of the school. She knows every student at the school because she takes an interest in them and she knows their parents and their family situation. She is firm, but caring and sensitive. Her staff are amazing and echo her good management in their classrooms and out in the playground. It is wonderful what good leadership achieves and how a principal's enthusiasm filters down through the school hierarchy.
I will give you an example. Today as always we have an assembly in the mornings. There are Principal awards and class awards given every week to students and Maths awards for a maths competition for seniors and juniors in the weekly newsletter. They also give out reading awards. There were heaps of reading awards this week. The Longwarry students must have been reading like buggery over the holidays.My son received an award for 100 days and we are well on the way to 150. However there were 29 awards given to students for 150 days reading.  29 little boys and girls up there in front of their peers and parents with reading awards for 150 nights. That means nearly a quarter of the school has read 150 nights at home reading and we are just over half way through the year. Mrs Flemming and Mrs Sadler even bought a bit of maths into it and asked the students to total up the number of reading nights. One smart little chap multiplied 150 by 30 and then took away 150 to come up with a total of 4,350 reading nights. That is the sort of lateral thinking we need in schools and to nurture in the younger generation.
Kids don't need dogma, but to be taught how to think and to analyse and interpret facts. Yes, they also need to know how to memorise and to summarise but the thinking skills taught at this school are fantastic.

The positive atmosphere the school has made a dramatic improvement in my son's self esteem. He was not wanting to learn. He was depressed and angry because he had been treated like a half witted idiot at his old school and they did not bother to find out who the sensitive little boy was under all the pain and the anguish which had been created by bullying at the school and his previous school. He has been to three primary schools and we have made it third time lucky. We spent kinder at one school in 2008 and then he was only two weeks into the term in prep and I was told that he was mentally disabled and deranged and that he should go to a special school. Part of me knew deep down that that was not true, but I was being pushed into believing that he was a very disabled mentally challenged child and he would 'never learn to read or write'. That was said to me by teachers at two schools.I fought back tears night after night and endured comments from people who told me that I was the one with a big problem and that I just did not see that he had a problem. The second school was forced to take him because we lived across the road from it and we were in the region. The only choice I given when we left the first school was a special school that they were trying to talk me into sending him there.It would have totally destroyed him as a human being and wrecked his confidence in himself for life. He would have gone through life thinking he was a total idiot.  It was a school that  had kids with autism, Down's and other learning challenged students. When I took him home after the second day at that school he was mimicking a boy with autism and rocking back and forth in his car seat and making grunting noises. He was just five. Horrified, I never took him back there. I insisted that the state school take him and they did so reluctantly but treated him as though he was 'different' and as though he did not have a brain to bless himself with. I still believe that the 'tests' are wrong and that they are flawed as to assessing a child or a person's true ability. I, also by the way, do not believe that students with autism or Downs' (especially if they are high functioning) should be in a special school. Is it a problem with our whole school system that other students and teachers cannot cope with a child with special needs? Yes, indeed it is. We are becoming so specialized that anyone who is a bit different, is to be shunted off somewhere else and they are viewed as not as good or as smart or as intelligent as we are.
Learning and education are co-operative activities. There has to be co-operation between the students and the teachers, the office staff and the principal and the parents. We need to value the diversity in humanity and to treasure it. We are individuals and we are a community. We can be treated with respect and with love as individuals and as a member of a broader community. We have to appreciate each person whether they are older, younger or middle aged or teen aged. It is important in a community to mirror the larger community as part of a whole family. There may be some members who are different faiths or from different cultural backgrounds. It is important that there is respect. This respect starts at home within the family. Sometimes that is harder because they are family and being familiar breeds contempt and diversity. We have the examples of Esav and Ya'acov as well as Ishmael  and Itzak - brothers who do not see eye to eye and live different lifestyles. We must learn to be respectful of each other even though we do not agree on certain philosophical and theological questions. So one child or five children in a classroom of twenty  is having difficulty with work. It is better to modify their work, maybe explain it in a different way or even to look at the work and see how you as a teacher can help them to understand and not just condemn them to the trash heap of humanity because in your opinion, (and it is only opinion, after all) they are 'clueless' and 'will never learn to read.'
Maybe it is you who should take a good long look at yourself if you believe that of students or even of fellow teachers. People are only as good as they are allowed to be. If they are derided and held up to ridicule by other staff and students are allowed to denigrate them, then they will become what you help to make them and their full potential will never be realized unless drastic action is taken to stop the steam roller from crushing them.
There are too many games and not enough hard work is put into learning. Learning can be fun but it is also hard work.
At Longwarry they appear to have the right balance of seriousness and fun. They have rules and they have flexibility and understanding.They expect students to be decent and polite individuals because they are themselves respectful and polite. It is a great school and Mrs Sadler is a great principal with great staff who work with great students who have great parents and families.