Category: Teaching

What is progress?

I contemplate progress through Ernest Hemingway’s maxim – “never confuse movement with action.” As a teacher I ought to say that progress is quantifiable through rigorous assessment during 12 years of formal education. However, education often appears to resemble movement under duress.

Movement is not necessarily action.

Much of our modern education is about compliance with set curriculum, testing to establish standards and allocating percentages to students to facilitate their swift processing through the system. It seems we are less interested in the individual’s progress than in their results that will justify the efficacy of the system. Authentic progress is a series of internal shifts for which there is no accurate means of measurement. An individual’s progress is determined by the context of their lives. There is no universal standard for personal progress. Social or institutional criteria of progress are set and administered for the benefit of the organisation to which the individual belongs. An improvement in social standards and education does not equate to progress. History reflects that an educated society can be swayed by the demands of irrational and psychotic dictators. Progress is not a state of being, a process or even an objective. It is an abstract social artefact, a dialect of power. Like truth, justice and equality it is a language that those in power speak to synchronise the social machine they control. It creates the illusion of concern for the individual.

After 32 years of teaching I have past students who have become doctors, CEO’s and leaders in their chosen field. They have advanced spectacularly. However, the student whose progress made the most lasting impression on me was the young man who, after spending 18 months in detention, whispered to me “I can’t read and I want to. Can you teach me?”

Some students acquire knowledge because they can, some to satisfy parental ambitions and some because they know that this is what is expected of them. They move. A minority of students pursue knowledge to sate their curiosity of the world. They understand that knowledge is a personal quest for which reward is irrelevant. They progress. I have told fretful parents that their children are ‘making progress’ to assuage parental neurosis and relieve myself of lengthy philosophical diatribe.

Pressure to choose a future more often blinds.

Most students get to where they need to go despite their parents and the education system that has formed them. Young people will navigate their unique path through and beyond school. Their progress will depend on the quality of their humanity, not their qualifications. Progress in schools may reflect the student’s ability to comply more than their personal development. Education is like a waltz. Instead of assessing who has danced and how they danced we should be teaching the dancers to appreciate the music. 

I did teach that 18 year old bloke to write his name. Soon afterwards the school for predominantly Indigenous young people was audited by the State. One of the auditors pulled out this young man’s file,

is this all you’ve done? He asked.

Shortly after that the State Education Department shut the school down. That young man had been working towards an apprenticeship. I don’t know what happened to him? There were about 140 other young people at the school, all progressing quite well. I know some of them ended up in prison. When State authorities claim they are acting in everyone’s best interests, that they want progress, you’ll forgive my jaded smile.

We ought to interrogate our allegiance to ideas whose value appears self-evident. Sometimes we may believe we are progressing, but in the wake of our single minded ‘progress’, we have created waves that unsettle and drown others.

We are all born into the species Homo sapiens, not everyone progresses to become human.

I learn, therefore I doubt.

Until I spoke to Ganesh, I thought I understood what learning was. I met Ganesh in 2003 in Mumbai. He was a blind in one eye street kid. He spoke some English, we talked a bit about his life, where we came from, the weather, the usual stuff. He showed us around for a while and we came to a local supermarket somewhere off the Colaba Causeway. To thank him for his help I bought him rice that came in a white linen bag with carry handles. He was grateful, so were we.


He had attended school but now needed to help his mother care for his siblings. He said he could read so I told him to read as much as he could, more, as much as possible. In the Cafe Leopold I sensed the absurdity of such contrived advice to an 11 year old boy whose priority was survival. How uselessly abstract in this world of poverty, and I called myself a teacher? For days after, for years beyond that I felt I had ridiculed my own faith in literature. I began to doubt the power of books to change anything. Change is either loose coins in your pocket or an ideology. Reading had expanded my world, made it bigger. I had the luxury of imagining possibilities beyond my circumstances. Later studies in literature affirmed my devotion to writing but taught me to respect words the way you respect the sea for fear of it drowning you.
My time in Mumbai reminded me that Art, like God, is a personal thing. One’s own journey through either is not a template for humanity. Ganesh shone a light on my doubt. It has remained illuminated. I’ve learned to live with my ignorance. Maybe I don’t really teach. Sometimes it feels more like I’m assembling data as determined by policy makers who are in turn determined by elected officials whose priorities are in turn determined by elections. I feed a gargantuan social mechanism whose primary function is consuming basically functional, highly maleable cogs. I myself am also a cog.

So I don’t know much about learning. Twenty five years of teaching doesn’t build a skill set, it elevates ignorance to a more sophisticated level. It has enabled me to recognise the academic pretence of “experts” and see the greatest obstacle to learning is that their rhetoric has become the language of education. Teaching has become the craft of bureacratic window dressing, of marching young minds painstakingly through the ever narrowing arch of the final examinations. Years of ‘rigorous’ assessment press fresh minds into stale social moulds.

The term education is derived from the Latin word ‘educere‘ which means ‘to draw out’ or ‘to bring from’. Learning should not be about placing knowledge into people, that is what propaganda and politicians try to do. Besides, what is knowledge? Something to talk about another time perhaps? Education, in the real sense of the word, works from the inside out. Teachers ought to ignite within students the desire to know more about themselves and their world in order that they might extract from within themselves the means for living a meaningful life. In this respect I believe that teaching is a noble profession for what it professes to do-draw out of young people the best they have. Teaching, therefore, doesn’t pass knowledge on, it shows us where to look and where we start is where we end, with ourselves.

I believe schools are inherently places where learning is desired. I suspect it happens despite teachers or curriculum. It is possible that what we learn is simply what we need to know to survive life. And survival is what all of us do. Some do it in style in expensive mansions, some in surburbia and others in shanty towns or on the streets. I believe wisdom is what we learn about being alive and education is the commodity we purchase to make living comfortable. In the interim, between the wisdom and the knowledge, there is something far more important, love. Despite the trudgery and sadness of this flash of existence, we have to keep an open heart.


I photographed this lady as we passed a beach close to a small community near the Sassoon Docks in Mumbai.


I never saw her face and would not have photographed her if she were facing me. She walked to the edge of the beach with graceful dignity as waves crashed into shacks lodged precariously on the side of an embankment. She fixed her gaze on the horizon and did not look back for a long while.

Featured image: A washer takes a break in Dhobi Ghat, a huge open air landrey where the linen from the best hotels in the city are sent for cleaning and pressing.

The day Dickinson got rapped

So there I am with my unruly pack,  in the library,  to read. Yeah right!

A handful of serious readers are face-planted in their novels. The rest,  the other 22, form clutches sprawled around our awesome student friendly reading room. Here three boys each have a copy of Guinness World records and they share bizarre facts,  a competition to see who can find the grossest recorded fact. They’re engaged,  all good.

Over there two students are doing some strange yoga or getting comfortable, too early to tell. There five students are draped over the comfy floor cushions,  giant multi-coloured squashed marshmallows. They’re reading magazines and graphic novels. One student is going the extra mile and reading his book upside down, a copy of “Where’s Wally?”.

Two girls are cocooned in the reference section, almost asleep. Lucky them!  Then there are the boomerang gang. They keep coming back with new ways of testing my ingenuity and patience.
Fancy a game of poker with us?  Tom winks while dealing to Steve.
I’ll show you a trick sir,  then we’ll read,  ok?
I say okay like it’s my decision. The trick is good,  really good but I don’t say wow! Not yet.
One more? Tom says.
One more, and tell you what,  I’ll read to you. Deal? I ask.
Deal! They echo in unison.

True to their word they do the trick, make the queen of hearts reappear, drop the cards into the plastic box and lok at me expectantly.

Tom, you’re the musician, beat-box for me I say. I happen to have my poetry anthology open at an Emily Dickinson poem, should be interesting to say the least.


Tom begins a rhythmic tapping of the table, sounds his tchook, tsk, pututt …

                                               Because I could not stop for Death –
                                               He kindly stopped for me –
                                               The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
                                               And Immortality

I’m more shocked at how well Dickinson lends herself to rap than the sudden attentiveness of students. We do another stanza and another and now i’ve created more noise than all of the students i’ve been shushing since we arrived. Somehow it seems ok. I page through my anthology screening lines for rhyme. Lord Byron …

                                                             And thou art dead, as young and fair
                             As aught of mortal birth;
                                                               And form so soft, and charms so rare,
                             Too soon return’d to Earth!
                                                              Though Earth receiv’d them in her bed,
                              And o’er the spot the crowd may tread
                                                                                      In carelessness or mirth,
                              There is an eye which could not brook
                                                                           A moment on that grave to look.

It’s a revelation, I think I get rap! It’s awesome! I feel like a kid discovering sherbet for the first time. I have a selfish thought, if they’ve learnt nothing, stuff it – that was amazing.

Soon it’s time to pack away and on their way out two girls are jiving to a line of Byron while Tom slaps Colin’s head in lieu of a table.
Thanks for the lesson sir, they shout after me…

Thank you all I reply.
On the way home I’m rapping the witches scene from Macbeth
fair is foul
and foul is fair
Hover through the fog
and the filthy air…

staccato beats on the steering wheel, foot tapping, in minutes my heart rate is up and and I’m smiling wide, this has got to be good for me. Does this mean I’m a bro in the hood? Too far?

Stacking chairs: last lesson of the day via Hemingway and a bullfight

It’s 34 degrees Celsius, 27 students have just arrived from double maths, it’s the last period of the day. They are like prison inmates smelling freedom for the first time. Grown men have taken flight from less terrifying prospects than trying to teach English under these circumstances.

… , then Devon starts throwing the pieces of an eraser he has been meticulously slicing into cubes at Jonathan on the opposite side of the classroom. Jonathan has been drawing a dragon, that’s really quite cool, and looks with bewilderment up at the ceiling which gets the trebuchet crew to begin buckling over in restrained laughter. Meanwhile Alice is deeply engaged in coversation with Molly who, having caught my stare, is feigning interest while under the desk her hand is trying to shush her friend or at least draw her attention to me. Jill, Skye and Candice, bless them, are disassociating from the class by focusing on me with such intent it’s quite unnerving. Jack and Ben are duelling light sabers that look just like pencils, their sound effects are fantastic!
I sense a disturbance in the force paduans, put aside your weapons, someone may get hurt. As I walk away I can hear the light sabers deactivating.

With faultering enthusiasm I explain how Hemingway’s writing is like an iceberg. Most of what’s important is not written, not seen, we have to fill in the gaps…
Like the gaps between Tony’s teeth? Josh shouts.
Tony, your teeth are fine, unlike the gap between Joshua’s ears. Josh leads the laughter, I smile, high five him. Ok, we’re on.
Hemingway loved bullfighting. One of his mates was gored, got a horn where you don’t want one. They’re sufficiently intrigued. A little blood goes a long way, and I am in blood stepped so far I must go on.

Sometimes, the bull wins. The bullfight is a metaphor for life,
Picasso was intrigued by the bullfight as well. The matador has ten minutes to make a clean kill. As the frothing, bleeding ton of muscle charges you, you must stand your ground and drive the sword behind the neck down into the heart.
I demonstrate the swirl and downward thrust with the board ruler, quite elegantly I believe.

Sir, if there was a bull here, I reckon you’d be dead.

Thanks Davo for that vote of confidence.
Undeterred I continue. You know, sometimes school or reading a novel for English can feel like being chased by a bull. What do you do?

You grab a white-board ruler and stab it sir? Josh says, he’s on a roll.

You do whatever you need to do, but you stand your ground and do it, I say.

Just “do it” Chris jabs Donovan in the ribs, raucous laughter ripples through the class.

Yep, that’s how you fight your bulls.

Then one day you wake up and realise that all this stuff you’ve been doing, is actually for yourself. That’s a great moment, one I hope you all have. It’s about looking at things differently. Changing your perspective …

The end of the day arrives and I ask the students to stack their chairs. A daily ritual to acknowledge the people coming in later to clean, a nod of thanks and a closure. They stack their chairs. Some of them show me they’ve listened to what I’ve said. They’re looking at things differently, and I’m the richer for it. Thanks guys, you make me smile from the inside out.

Sod Sisyphus

I used to have a teaspoon hanging from my classroom ceiling for many years. One winter morning a window was broken by a cricket ball and I placed a masking tape frame around the hole and beneath it a sign reading “where was this hole before the window broke?”

When students asked me why there was a teaspoon hanging from the ceiling I told them that if I had left the teaspoon on the floor no one would have seen it. This answer frustrated them immensely. Sometimes I would direct their attention to another sign I had stuck to the ceiling which read: ‘It takes longest to see what is closest to you.”
This usually generated very interesting discussion and debate that would sometimes find it’s way back to Fitzgerald, Shakespeare or the poem I was teaching at the time. Truthfully I was as eager to understand why the teaspoon hung from the ceiling as much as my students were. I was curious to see what else a simple teaspoon could become. Original ideas and discoveries have been birthed from looking at the ordinary with new eyes. I think it’s why time seems to pass quicker as we age, there seems to be less and less ‘newness’ in the world. Perhaps the world becomes, after a while, not what it is but what we expect it to be. Familiarization renders everything invisible and for us to regain our sight we must learn to see new things with old eyes. e.e.cummings explored this wonderfully in his poetry by ignoring the traditional rules of grammar in order to infuse old words with fresh vitality. During the late twentieth century we experienced the post-modern panic of a world where everything had been said and done. We briefly entered the mind of Sisyphus, that tragic figure of Greek mythology destined to roll a boulder up a hill and once it rolled down, back up again for eternity .His is a bleak world and especially grim when modern life can feel as though we are caught in a surreal nightmare of repetition. Life loses its brilliance, colours fade and days bleed into weeks into years. However, the world is not thus-we have made it so. Consider the possibility that when the world seems mundane, that you are observing it in a state of pause … temporarily frozen. Originality is not a characteristic of the world, it is not innate in any object; rather it is characteristic of thinking, a way of looking. I always encouraged my students not to look for answers because answers are easy; anyone can find an answer. Instead I urged them to find the right question. “But what’s the answer?” someone once shouted in frustration. “Excellent!” I said, “that’s better”.