Taking the next step

Maurie Mulheron

It might be apocryphal but the irony of the curse, “May you live in interesting times”, is simply too obvious to ignore.

And they sure are interesting times for those in the teaching profession. Our civil society seems more fragile than ever, our planet’s health is at risk and levels of economic inequality are at historical highs.

Just when the world needs to pull together, daily, we see the opposite: rising intolerance fuelled by social division, fear and paranoia.

In times past we could have counted on our superior intelligence and ingenuity as a species to get us through. But will it? And what role do teachers play in shaping the future?

Almost 40 years ago, Isaac Asimov wrote, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”

Were Asimov alive today we could probably tell him that while there might be a raging torrent of ignorance engulfing parts of the USA, there are some pretty fast-flowing tributaries in other countries, including Australia.

Pablo Casals once said, “The situation is hopeless. We must take the next step.”

Is any profession engaged in work more important than teaching in public schools, especially in interesting times? I suspect not.

As public teachers we do more than educate an individual child: we accept children from a range of diverse backgrounds and create community. But we do more than this. Teachers strengthen the social, economic and cultural fabric of our nation. This makes teaching profoundly transformative.

Our work is about the future. We are in the business of hope, but perhaps in the spirit of Antonio Gramsci who spoke of the “pessimism of the intellect yet optimism of the will”.

The work we do as teachers is complex and profound. Our primary responsibility is to use our intellect to develop the intellect of the young people in our classrooms and to nurture each child’s social, physical and emotional growth.

To this end, on any day at school, children write, read, listen, speak, act, reason, paint, play, compete, dance, sing, laugh and experiment. They provide answers and they ask questions. They experience pride, disappointment, success, failure, acceptance, rejection, but overwhelmingly, they experience joy.

Throughout my teaching career, I have always found schools to be pretty happy places. Walk across any playground and the sound of children at play, chattering and laughing, fills the air.

Of course, no test data will ever reflect the complexity of a child’s intellectual, physical and emotional growth.

In these interesting times, when anti-intellectualism is celebrated and even encouraged in some political circles, teachers are in the front line.

The more governments squander any opportunity to manage a nation’s economy through privatisation, the more they transfer public wealth to private shareholders, turn public assets into private property, remove regulatory controls over corporations, and create tax breaks for the wealthy, the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged widens and the anger grows.

Too often we see the effects of this in our school community.

Our campaign to create a more equitable school system through Gonski is a crucial example of how we fight back against this dominant narrative that government ought to “get out of the way”.

As a teacher, I have always been driven by a belief that young people are the planet’s hope.

One morning late last year, as I drove to the railway station to catch the train to work, I felt the need to turn off the radio. The news bulletin was making me feel despondent. I stopped at a pedestrian crossing to let three tiny kids, no older than six or seven years, cross the road on their way to our local public school, each one of them eating a piece of fruit and each of them carrying a huge backpack that would make a Sherpa proud. They seemed happy.

As they walked in front of me, one of them, a neighbour’s little boy, broke into a grin as he waved to me.

I smiled and waved back. My mood lifted. The world will go on, I thought.

Kids everywhere place their trust in adults. As teachers, we consider that trust a sacrosanct bond.

Our responsibility, more than ever, is to help our young people create the future they need and deserve.

That is their demand even if it is only delivered, sometimes, with a wave of a hand.

So let’s take the next step. We’ve got work to do. We’re teachers and the world needs us more than ever.

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