It was such a nice day today I sat out on my porch and enjoyed Spring at its finest. I experienced a flash of inspiration and started to write. I suppose it could be described as poetry, which is not something I indulge in too frequently. I love poetry, but as a rule, only other people’s. Here goes:
I listened and I heard them
Your whispers on the wind.
I listened and I heard them
And took their meaning in.
From your words and through them
I came to comprehend
Your sadness, frustration, anger and sense of loss
Your arrogant self-belief, injury and insult
Your unedifying lustful spite, your desperation and despair.
Then comprehension’s grasp loosened
And your words again became as air
And from the East the wind
propelled them somewhere, anywhere
To fall as rain upon the earth
But not anyone who cares.
So this morning we had the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Chris Bowen MP, and the Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett MP announcing what they called “The National Plan for School Improvement” as part of their broader “Better Schools” initiative. The idea is that they believe the way to improve Australian educational standards is to address shortcomings in the teacher training process. They acknowledged that there is a high turnover of young teachers in their first few years of teaching and that they want to attract the best people to the job. Mr. Garrett specifically stated that they wanted teachers who are “likely to stay”. Which raises the first question: What are the factors preventing people from staying in teaching?
In order to improve the standard of teachers coming out of our universities, the ministers are proposing that candidates are tested in two important ways. Initially, they will be run through a raft of “emotional tests” (similar to the kind of things applicants to degrees in medicine are subjected) prior to commencing their studies, so that candidates are demonstrably the kind of people the public might want to have teaching our children. Towards the end of their studies – which will also involve some kind of improvements to and standardisation of practicum experience, of which the details are yet to be revealed – teacher candidates will also have to complete a national literacy and numeracy test. Candidates who fall outside of the top 30% of results will not be able to proceed with their qualifications until such a time as they can achieve the required result. Which raises the second question: Surely people who qualify to enter tertiary degrees in Education have already demonstrated sufficiently high abilities in literacy and numeracy?
The so-called Gonski Report into school funding, which was a report into Australian school funding by an independent expert panel headed by David Gonski, highlighted a large number of flaws in the education funding model used in Australia and made dozens of recommendations to address these flaws. There has been a popular movement to support the recommendations of the report, with the catch-cry “I give a Gonski” enabling people to feel as though they are striking a blow against the rapidly diminishing prospects of Australian students. The recommendations can be largely summarised into one statement: Education funding in Australia should be equitable for all students and be based upon logical, common-sense principles. There is a strong focus on the notion of equity, specifically with regards to “disadvantaged” students. The report’s 19th finding states, “The key dimensions of disadvantage that are having a significant impact on educational performance in Australia are socioeconomic status, Indigeneity, English language proficiency, disability and school remoteness.” Finding 20 goes further, “There are complex interactions between factors of disadvantage, and students who experience multiple factors are at a higher risk of poor performance.” Time to editorialise: If the Gonski recommendations into school funding are based upon logical, common-sense principles and are designed to deal with inequity and disadvantage in our society then they are doomed to failure because in order for them to be implemented they must first pass through Parliament. There are too many conflicting ideologies and interests at play in the world of politics for common sense to prevail, let alone logic. Which raises the third question: Is being seen to try and address issues in education by targeting teachers simply a convenient means by which to side-step the more significant, societal issues that are evidently having a far heavier impact?
I’ve raised the questions, now I will offer my answers (whilst furiously editorialising).
What are the factors preventing people from staying in teaching? Well, it would appear as though there are many factors. There has been quite a bit of research done into the topic, because it is actually a worldwide phenomenon. One report claims that anywhere up to a third of teachers will leave during the first three years of a teaching career. That figure can climb up to 50% within the first 3-5 years for teachers at schools in low socio-eonomic areas. The report found two major factors to why teachers leave the profession early – lack of support on the job and workplace conditions. I would add to that in the state of Victoria at least the lack of job security and the constant fiddling about with curriculum imposed by the government. Work conditions don’t necessarily relate to salary, by the way. It’s actually pretty low in the list of priorities for teachers, despite the recent industrial action. Teachers are expected to take on workloads that are huge, not only in terms of hours per week (including unpaid hours) but also in terms of the scope of practice. Teachers are frequently expected to not only teach but generate curriculum content, conduct and supervise extra-curricular activities, attend several meetings per week, patrol school grounds during breaks, deal with parents’ concerns, provide pastoral care and counseling advice both formally and informally to large numbers of students, deal with the emotional needs of students and other staff, occasionally intervene in violent altercations, suffer physical, verbal and emotional abuse and that’s all on top of what you’re trained to do at university. Couple that with having all these expectations placed upon you without any additional remuneration and often without any guarantee of a job next semester or next year, and you wonder why teachers find their jobs difficult?
Surely people who qualify to enter tertiary degrees in Education have already demonstrated sufficiently high abilities in literacy and numeracy? Well, see that’s just the thing. I don’t see how the government hopes to address issues in the quality of teachers coming out of education degrees without first having addressed the issues inherent in those tertiary institutions that offer education qualifications. Surely the people educating the educators must also be of the very highest standard? I wonder how many people working in university education departments are ex-school teachers who just had to leave and returned to the nice, safe world of academia? I really do wonder that. I suspect it’s quite a lot. This comes back to my previous musing on the topic of teaching – being highly educated or highly intelligent doesn’t mean you’re a good teacher.
Is being seen to try and address issues in education by targeting teachers simply a convenient means by which to side-step the more significant, societal issues that are evidently having a far heavier impact? Oh, of course it is. The 17th finding from the Gonski Report says,
“New funding arrangements for schooling should aim to ensure that:
• differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or
• all students have access to a high standard of education regardless of their background or
Neither of those statements have anything to do with teacher performance. Indeed, teacher performance is a secondary issue in the Education debate, but it’s being brought to the fore because a) it enables politicians to pull tricks like suggesting that performance-based pay bonuses are the means by which to motivate teachers to their best efforts; and b) it’s easier to appear to be solving teachers’ problems than actually fixing real societal problems. The government needs to do more to address the division in society between its “haves” and “have nots”. It needs to address the attitudes of its citizens towards education and teachers generally. It needs to address the deficiencies in service provision to disabled, indigenous and disadvantaged people. These are the serious issues. Issues in Education exist, but fixing them now can only hope to serve a cosmetic purpose (especially in an election year).
Time to end this rant. Conclusion: Education is, once again, which is to say for the third consecutive election, being kicked around like the proverbial football in a vain attempt to lure voters. If you’re unsure of how you feel about the issue, may I suggest talking to some teachers? If you have kids at school, talk to their teachers. Get involved in your kids’ education. Be interested in what they’re doing. Role-model for them a healthy attitude to learning. Raise concerns with your kids’ school. Don’t wait until reports come home to give a shit about what’s going on. That way you’ll be doing what you can to help your kid succeed. Believe me, that will be more effective than any about of governmental meddling.
Both of my parents were teachers. I swore blind that I would never become a teacher, and yet here I am.
I swore blind that I wouldn’t become a teacher because I didn’t like school when I was a kid. The main reason why I didn’t enjoy it was because I was quite bored. Under-stimulated by the matters to which I was required to turn my attention. I say to students now that there is no such thing as a boring topic, only boring people. It’s a poverty of the imagination that leads one to conclude that something is “boring”. I say that, but I don’t really expect that many, if any, of my students will take me seriously. Because I know that when you’re at school, under normal school conditions, loads of things are boring. Even exciting things.
One of the hardest things a teacher is asked to do is make being at school an interesting occupation. It’s easier for me now that I’m a music teacher, because my students want to come to my lessons. I had the gratifying experience of a Year 8 girl tell me that my lessons were one of only two that she actually really enjoys at school. The other one was Woodwork. When I was a History teacher, and my students were required to attend compulsorily, it was a much more difficult task to engage students in the topic at hand. As an adult, it isn’t hard to see the value in learning about and discussing the important events from history. As a child, however, it isn’t about the value of the study of History, it’s about the topic at hand. It simply isn’t possible to have such amazingly good fortune that your entire class of diverse young individuals just happen to think that the lives of Australian pioneers is really interesting. That would be like expecting everyone you know to read the same newspaper you do, or watch exactly the same television programs. The best you can hope for is maybe 50% interest, with a possible 15% level of feigned interest included. The other 50% are probably not enjoying themselves very much and would rather be doing something else. Anywhere up to 5% of them may actively seek to sabotage lessons for their own amusement. The rest are asleep inside.
The mark of a good teacher, we’re told, is one that can make any topic interesting to the majority of students in their class. Very often, in order to achieve this, many hours of additional work are required, and very few of them will be acknowledged by anyone else. The first rule in making any topic interesting is to know the subject matter very well. Students are adept at sniffing out the teacher’s weaknesses, and they will know if you’re relying too heavily on a textbook or Googling on the fly. Obviously it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to know everything about everything (although many people do have this expectation) and a good teacher, when faced with an unfamiliar topic, will make the experience of learning about it something they include their students in. I’ve had to do it before, and the only thing that kept me from losing my sanity was an openness to possibility. My students and I shared the burden of learning something new. I would like to say it was an unmitigated success, but it wasn’t. It was a success, but mitigated by the inevitable few students who didn’t come along for the ride, for whatever reason.
The New South Wales government announced this week that they were raising expectations for teachers in that state. They want to raise the standard of tecahing – and hence learning, they believe – by making it easier to sack teachers that “under-perform” and by requiring teachers to pass literacy and numeracy tests before earning registration to teach. They really want the most intelligent people to become teachers. Seems fair enough, I suppose, except that one of the things we learn in teacher-school is that intelligence is a multifarious thing. Being a proper wizard at Maths won’t make you a great teacher. Being any kind of expert doesn’t necessarily equate with success in teaching. People who aren’t teachers don’t understand that. Those of us whose experience of education is only as a student seldom have any real insight into what it is that teachers actually do. This is one of the reasons why teachers get cranky when politicians in election years start up with lots of hoo-hah about education reforms.
I won’t bother getting into the political aspects of the Education debate because I find politics is never a satisfying topic to investigate in detail. I will make one observation, which is that all of the argument about teachers’ pay and entitlements being centred around “performance” is ridiculous. There are no universal standards against which to make comparisons between teachers, and far too many uncontrolled variables to make sense of any statistical information the government/s like to bandy about when teachers arc up about money and conditions. It is interesting to see a government suggest minimum standards of erudition for teachers, though. Especially when they can get by on popularity alone.
Necessity, as the adage goes, is the mother of invention. With that in mind I have recently been brought by necessity to contemplate a number of interesting topics, ranging from ethics to mercantilism to a much deeper and more uncomfortable examination of my own beliefs and motives. So, as inventively as I can manage, I will attempt to bring a number of these ideas together into an article of writing to amuse and bemuse in possibly equal measure.
The matter, I would reply if someone were game to ask, “What’s the matter?”, is related to in what manner and to what extent it is acceptable to profit from one’s spirituality. “Oh, is that all,” you might reply and go back to your needlework. I have chosen the term “spirituality” here quite deliberately, as I’m rather loath to use the term “religion”, because I don’t believe they’re synonymous. How one defines “religion” is really a topic that deserves its own article, and perhaps one day I will give it some consideration but not today. For the purposes of this piece, the term “spirituality” refers to a person’s beliefs of a spiritual nature, whether they be associated with an established religion, a recognised mode of spiritual practice or just whatever their approach to contemplating the great transcendent “otherness” might be. It will have to suffice as an unlikely umbrella, under which I will stuff (quite against their will) Christians, Muslims, Wiccans and Zoroastrians, with “solo eclectic practitioners”, hedge/kitchen/fairy witches and so on. The more I try to make it work the harder it appears to be but I’m going to do it anyway, as much for the sake of expediency as anything.
Just to make things a little clearer I am also going to acknowledge and dismiss, for the most part, the manner in which the world’s major religions have fleeced the public for centuries as being common knowledge. We all know about things like tithes imposed by the church and so forth, so I’m not going to explore those issues in any detail. This is partly because to do that I’d have to conduct some meaningful research on the topic, but mostly because it’s all rather irrelevant to the principal topic of paganism. Pagans and witches don’t, generally speaking, own large amounts of property and enjoy tax exemptions from the government. So I will limit the scope of my enquiry somewhat and focus upon how us pagan and witchy folks have, and continue to profit from our spiritual beliefs.
Of course, as I look at the bookcase next to me I see a great many books on a variety of topics that bear some relevance to my beliefs. So one of the first ways a witch or pagan can profit from their beliefs is to write about them. A good book is a great treasure, and I have noticed that a great many witches and pagans possess significant libraries. I suppose part of the reason for this is the occult (i.e. hidden) nature of most pagan and witchcraft practices. The knowledge that seekers seek is seldom easy to obtain, and historically the process of finding one’s way through the dark is to follow the lights cast by scraps of text hidden in books. All of the great names have published works: Gardner, Starhawk, Valiente, the Farrars. None of them have enjoyed sales figures like J.K. Rowling, however. Making a living as a writer of non-fiction books within such a limited field of interest must be next to impossible. Anyway, now we live in the Internet Age, and the old ways of going about pagan business are falling into disuse. Once upon a time you would put an ad in the classifieds calling for students (often worded in a somewhat cryptic fashion) or announcing oneself as seeking. Now you just google “paganism” or “witchcraft” and you can have a whole world of information to choose from. So, with a certain degree of irony, what was once hidden now remains hidden, only whereas once it was occult through scarcity and the necessity to hide from unwanted attention, now it is occult through the sheer mass of information that is very often endlessly reproduced from un-cited sources, plagiarised from extant sources, or simply (apparently) made up on the spot. I have both experienced the frustration of the former and witnessed the frustrations of others with the latter.
So how does the money come into it? Well, apart from spending it on books, which can be a thoroughly worthwhile and rewarding pursuit, there seem to be more and more “teachers” emerging who are offering their services for a fee. (They’ve always been there, by the way, I recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Frank Zappa’s song from 1974, Cozmik Debris to give it a listen.)
My personal ethics, and those of my spiritual belief system forbid me from charging people for any knowledge or wisdom that I have acquired through my spiritual path. I believe if you operate in a group system, such as a coven or learning circle, it is entirely reasonable to ask for basic costs to be covered by participants – purchase of consumables like candles and wine, for example, or to maintain tools and paraphernalia. But for teachers, “leaders”, “instructors” or however they like to style themselves to profit personally from passing on “spiritual” knowledge or wisdom in the form of a structured “system” to me, at least, seems highly unethical. And now here comes the difficult part where I have to explain that.
It is difficult, this is now my third attempt. And I suppose the reason why it’s difficult is because in order to explain my position I feel I have to venture into parts of my own path that are not generally something I would share openly. I will go back to a previous article and re-invoke what I consider to be the core principles of witchcraft; or at least should be the core qualities of a witch, which are humility, discretion and the ability to remain silent. To my mind, for someone to use the knowledge they acquired through their own instruction within the context of a structured system for the pursuit of profit they are in breach of all three of these fundamental ideas. I must make it clear that I am trying to limit my premise to the teaching or instruction of spiritual system of practice. I should also reiterate that in my personal view, which is very traditional, knowledge that is passed on through traditional training is free, and should not be used as a source of profit.
Maybe if I examine these concepts further I can address my concerns. In a way, the third quality is really related to the first two. It’s as much about knowing when to be silent as knowing how. Silence is one of the most powerful weapons a witch possesses, and it requires such discipline to be good at it that it strikes me as though if you had taken the time to really come to grips with it, it would seem antithetic to go and sell your words to seekers. Likewise, as a seeker the ability to remain silent is probably the first and most important skill to perfect. How can you hope to hear what you need to hear when your mouth is loud and your mind is raucous?
Discretion is important to a witch because one is very seldom presented with scenarios that offer simple outcomes. This is true as much for one’s craft as it is for life in general. You can’t teach discretion, beyond offering advice, giving pointers or reminding the seeker to always learn from their mistakes. When you think about it, if you’re one of those that hopes to make a living from selling witchcraft you can’t afford to be discerning or to turn anyone away. You have to take all-comers in order to fill your pockets. It is, after all, what advertising folk might describe as a “niche market”. That, in itself, leads down a very difficult ethical path, because to my mind it is not ethical to pass on significant spiritual wisdom to someone who is unfit, for whatever reason, to receive it.
Humility is the most important of all three qualities. This is largely because it suffuses every element of the craft. Without humility you cannot remain silent or employ discretion. Without humility you cannot be anything other than what you perceive yourself to be. It takes humility to be able to release oneself from ego. However one who presumes to offer spiritual training for money can only be motivated by ego, and hence is not acting with humility.
Think about this (he says, in his best Morpheus-from-The Matrix-voice): how can another person tell you how far you have progressed spiritually, without you already being in possession of that knowledge? If I attend (or enrol online, as is more often the case these days) for Madam Moondrop’s school of all-things-witchy and pay to achieve the “first degree”, what does that mean, at the end? That I have enjoyed value for money? If I was humble, I would see that it doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. If I had used discretion, I would have considered, “if the doors to spiritual instruction could be found by anyone with a library card, then money is unlikely to be the key to opening them”. If I had remained silent, I might have heard my common sense prickling at me.
Generally speaking, the great and ever-expanding library of books covering various aspects of witchcraft and paganism contain all of the “knowledge” a seeker needs. It’s been said a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and it is instruction in the use of that knowledge that is at the heart of spiritual practice. I implore all of you to employ your intelligence, refuse to suspend your disbelief, and go about your spiritual path with your eyes open. By all means take a course in Tarot, or Reiki, or herbology, or attend workshops in what-not or whatever. But if someone is telling you that enlightenment, “initiation” or occult power can be yours for a fee, then they’re trying to take advantage of you. The means of connecting with the Divine are many and varied, but ultimately your path is your own, and no-one can charge you for your own relationship with divinity. If you’re humble, use discretion in your choices and know how and when to remain silent, then instruction will come to you.