AUE Column Dec 2016

My 84-year-old mother, who taught in Melbourne from the 60s through to the 80s, reckons that these days, school kids are too indulged and overstimulated. And she’s not speaking from the skewed benefit of hindsight because Mum’s been raising my late sister’s son since he was 15 months old. He’s seven now and in Grade 1.

“Every week there’s some kind of event or celebration, and every second week I get a note home asking for money for this fundraiser or that multicultural day or whatever.”

I tell Mum she sounds like a grumpy old woman, a Depression kid from migrant parents, stoic and frugal. She looked after them, as much as, maybe more than, they did her.

But Mum, surely things are better now than in your day when you and your little brother were at Fitzroy Primary. You know, when school excursions didn’t exist, when learning was by rote, and when shaming and fear were classroom management strategies.’

Clearly conditions have improved since Mum first started teaching in public education in her late 20s (she was a baby journalist for an Italian Communist rag in Sydney before that). Back then curriculums were less complex, varied and stimulating than what they are today.

‘Of course things are better today,” Mum pipes up. “When I went to school, the Aboriginal and migrant kids were lucky to make one day out of five a week and nobody sent notes home to the parents in those days.’

Mum’s on a roll. Always the journalist, providing background and context to a story’s still important. ‘It was tough for those teachers too with often 40 kids a class and lots of them struggling with the language. No ESL teachers in those days!

Since my sister died, Mum has devoted herself to her grandson’s rearing and education with enviable single-mindedness and energy. I wish my parenting were half as consistent.

But today after our usual morning walk around the Castlemaine Botanical Gardens, she’s irritated.

“It’s as if teachers are expected to be entertainers and festival directors as well as just teach, nowadays. I really don’t believe kids require a teacher’s constant attention and affirmation. A bit of benign neglect doesn’t hurt either, you know.”

“Yeah,” I say, “except that we know so much more these days about student engagement, multiple learning styles and authentic assessment. We have smaller class sizes and better teacher training so of course there’s going to be more going on at school all-round … more extra-curricular opportunities, more newsletters and forms to fill out for incursions and excursions to Sovereign Hill or Japan or wherever.”

“That’s my point. Japan! When I was at school, Japan was the enemy, not a bloody school excursion!”

“You want a coffee at that new place in town?” I suggest.

“No. Save your money. I’ll make us one at home.”