Sunday, May 12, 2013

Relishing Life's Teachable Moments

In a community building in a buzzing city laneway resides the University of the Third Age, where retired academics and teachers volunteer their skills in a variety of courses and the cost is nominal. If you’re over fifty you can immerse yourself in Renaissance Italy, discover the differences between Left, Right and Centre, or learn how to unleash your buried creativity. Two members of a personal growth group I attend, both in their seventies, are learning meditation there.

Is it a symptom of getting older that you start to look at all your relationships and your life itself as somehow involved with teaching? Perhaps, rather than being happy and having a family, the main purpose of life is simply to teach and to learn; we’re all moving between the roles of teacher and learner throughout our lives.

I come from a family of teachers. My father and two of his brothers are teachers, and two of my sisters are. One of those uncles married a teacher. Three cousins on my dad’s side of the family are either current or past teachers. Another sister - well, you you get the picture. My mother wanted to be a primary teacher before she met my father, but she married him instead.

My dad as I grew up was always in teacher mode, always instructing, always giving advice. I was determined not to follow in his footsteps, to forge my own path in life. Yet, not only have I ended up being a bit bossy and teacherly myself, but somehow I’ve found myself editing web-based resources for teachers.  I've also done a bit of English tutoring over the years.

One of my sisters, a former childcare manager, talks jokingly about ‘teachable moments’ for her children – times when opportunities arise to impart a little wisdom.

Teachable moments are not confined to parents and children. In my twenties I learned important things from housemates: which spices to grind for a superlative pumpkin curry; how to marinate tofu; how to arrange items on a clothes airer so they dry quickly in winter; the importance of tipping out the water after using an iron. Some skills were taught directly, some picked up by osmosis. Tanya, with whom I shared an enormous old-style St Kilda apartment in the late eighties, had a great sense of retro fashion style, a little of which rubbed off on me.

I’ve also been incredibly lucky in the mentors that have turned up in my life at exactly the right time, either role modelling what I needed to learn or teaching me directly. In my case they were mostly informal, or had another role, such as boss or coworker. Without them I wouldn’t have had any career success at all.

One of my many housemates also played the role of informal mentor. Mem was completing a Masters degree, something I’d wanted to do for a long time but felt I couldn’t achieve; seeing her day after day patiently cogitating at her desk in the neat little room across the hallway, dressed in her Japanese housecoat, must have had its effects because I finally managed to complete my Masters in 1998, six years after I’d moved out of the tiny half-house in Richmond that we shared for two years.

I continue to learn from my friends, and they from me. Simon, a telecommunications engineer, occasionally sends me short pieces of text to edit from the website he’s developing. Meanwhile he instructs me on anything to do with the mysterious workings of mobile phones and email, buying a new notebook PC, and improving the sound and picture on my telly. And we both learn from the heated political discussions we hold on the phone so frequently; some views of mine are really an amalgam of the ideas of both of us.

Another friend of mine is extremely knowledgeable about exposure therapy, a treatment for anxiety disorders that involves gradually exposing the patient to the feared object or situation. He has helped me see the emotional and social hiccups of life not as embarrassing disasters but as part of the mental toughening-up process that exposure is all about. (I don’t mean toughening-up in the sense of repressing feelings, but in the sense of mental resilience.)

Teaching is not always benign. Gender is taught by osmosis. We are constantly telling children subliminally what we expect of them as boys or girls, and surveilling their behaviour to ensure they don’t flout the gender norm. A father in a department store keeps calling his four-year-old daughter ‘princess’ when she nags him to buy every object she sees; a fourteen-year-old boy is told to ‘man up’. There are now kindergartens and that work very hard to be gender-neutral, allowing each child to flourish as an individual first.

Scripture teaching versus ethics: the fight for children’s brains

One of the greatest hopes for the future is the teaching of ethics classes in Australian primary schools. This simple enough idea is mired in controversy, because the churches traditionally have a deep hold on state governments, which administer the school system in Australia. In some states, including Victoria and  New South Wales, there is a compulsory thirty minutes of weekly scripture teaching in government primary schools. Students whose parents object simply twiddle their thumbs or read a book for the entire weekly lesson.

The schools and parents themselves have no choice but to let the proselytisers in; so much for the separation of church and state. Ninety-six per cent of the classes in Victoria are given by Access Ministries, an evangelical organisation whose rather sinister name is a perfect fit for its stated aim – excised from its website since controversy struck – to ‘reach every student in Victoria with the Gospel’ and ‘transform the nation for God’.

Unlike scripture classes, ethics classes teach children how to think. Rather than impose a moral standpoint, they encourage children to develop thoughtfully their own positions on ethical questions. The children explore topics as diverse as bullying, animal rights and homelessness. Along the way they learn the importance of listening to and tolerating the viewpoints of others within a respectful 'community of inquiry'.

Angry parents who object to scripture classes have pushed for their children to be offered ethics as an alternative to the compulsory weekly scripture class. There are pilot programs, but NSW is the only Australian state to offer ethics classes systemically. The drawback is that parents have to formally opt out of the scripture program.

Since NSW introduced ethics classes in 2010, there’s been a huge demand for these classes but Primary Ethics, which delivers the program, has lacked the resources to train enough volunteers. In contrast, Access Ministries has had no such trouble because of its ability to collect tax deductible donations. However, in April this year the federal government reversed its decision not to allow Primary Ethics to collect tax-deductible donations. This means the organisation will now have the funds to train the many volunteers who have registered their interest.

Some parents want ethics to become part of the Australian Curriculum instead of being an alternative to scripture classes. They'd like to see the classes themselves become a study of world religions, teaching the children tolerance and understanding of other cultures.

Let's hope that the importance of what's been achieved in NSW doesn't get lost in the debate. Disenchantment with politicians is at record levels; the media tell us to vote for the party that will put the most money in our pockets; multinational corporations are trampling over our democracy more flagrantly than ever. Teaching our children to come to reasoned, empathic, morally thoughtful positions is one way to produce citizens whose hearts and intellects are united, and who can understand the notion of a public good beyond their own narrow interests.

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