Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Bear and a Lion and a brand new school

Our world has fundamentally shifted. We have moved schools halfway through the primary years, and our worlds, especially those of our children, have been ruptured and changed forever.

Two posts back I talked of reaching this point. The pain, disappointment and betrayal will have a lasting effect on the way I view public ethics, politics, people and life. There is no softening this. I am also still grappling with twisting mixed feelings about the impact on our children.

Beloved and I were deeply worried about this: I read and heard stories of children swapping schools half way through and finding no new friends, becoming excluded, lonely and sad. Neither of us loved our own school experiences and we both knew what changing schools could feel like.

As a good start, each of them had a good friend who was also changing between the same schools. Then as I quizzed them after each day, new names started cropping up. The locals, it turned out, were friendly, and our kids were getting along fine. Bear in particular is thriving.

I worried the most about her - anyone who has followed this blog over the years would know she's almost ten now and I assumed, with the help of the 'literature' (read: discussion fora and op-eds) that the move would be harder the further we went into primary school. She was becoming a little withdrawn and shy at the previous school and I worried that this might get worse. Our decision to make our move now was partly driven by a decision that any later might be too disruptive.

Bear seems to be thriving. She has definitely come out of her partial-shell. We were stunned when she signed up for school council elections, requiring her to give a speech to her new peers, given she was struggling with public speaking the previous year. She gave the speech and got the reserve role, surprising us even more. She runs off a number of names of new friends she is playing with and smiles as she chats about her days.

Mr Man is also thriving. Confounding my over-analysed expectations he has had the slightly harder social fit, but not by a big margin. He ran into a couple of minor teasing incidents very early on, and one of his (several) new friends seems to phase in and out of being a bit unpleasant to him and his bestie from the old school. I am not sure what is going on there, and we are keeping an eye on it. But he is loving science and drums and his big surprise was signing himself up for a percussion and woodwind ensemble. He is the youngest child there, and is proud of that along with, of course, his drumming.

Coming from a school with significant unresolved wellbeing issues, including low morale in the older years and a noticeable problem with girls not feeling safe, where parents' views were not welcome and where, frankly, a large contingent of parents had accepted a sort of victimhood where energies were pumped into craft wars, to see both kids shining and confidently signing up for new experiences makes me start to feel that maybe we made the right decision.

Academics were never the primary consideration, but we have certainly noticed the difference. Both teachers come across as highly engaged professionals - unfortunately this has not always been our experience. And both kids are travelling very well in classes full of bright, engaged children.

I feel a little sad and guilt. I know now that while I remain a big supporter of the public schooling idea, there are huge issues with some of the schools in Melbourne's northern suburbs (as I'm sure elsewhere). There is a huge gap between what schools deliver, as there are substantial differences in competence and engagement between teachers.

It isn't just funding - if poor quality individuals sit there protected, year after year, that is not funding.

It goes without saying, most of all, that a Principal makes, or breaks, a school.

For those stuck in a bad school, unable to move for a range of reasons, the system - and the terrible bureaucrats who are still untangling themselves from IBAC - lets them down in a big way. It needs to change. Funding is part of it, but now I know that is only part of it. And nobody in the debate is really acting as an honest broker.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The long tail of a short defriending

Today I went to the facebook of a friend, wife of a former-friend, to leave birthday wishes for their daughter. The former-friend and I go back over 20 years, and although that has been an up-and-down relationship, usually down when he took offence at something I was doing, failing to do, or not doing well enough and let me know, recent times saw us meeting up a couple of times a year with our families.

Our wives and daughters built relationships. It is those I am most disappointed about as I reflect on being defriended.

I have been in other defriendings - both ways - but usually the impact is marginal. Someone I know through a friend, or knew a little years ago, and in nearly every case due to deep divisions over how we engage with the muslim world (or how we, being the friends, engage about how we engage).

This one was about kale, as far as I can tell. After my friend mocked my exercise efforts he showed us how he blends kale into a drink every day. Plainly, that's awful, so later in the afternoon I mocked the kale a couple of times, serving back the dish I'd been greeted with.

These gibes were low level, in both directions, and we also chatted quite genially at other times at what was a larger gathering with friends. Yet I did leave feeling like he was dwelling on something. And then, several weeks later, I was defriended. I can only assume he dwelt on whatever it was for those several weeks.

Facebook is just facebook, yet because this happened without fanfare or explanation, and was not in direct response to, say, one clear shirty altercation on the web, it was immediately slightly uncomfortable, even creepy. These things are different when they happen among groups of friends, in the intersections of many people including partners and children.

Immediately, it became awkward to catch up with our families or in that group of friends. This impact will either have suited, or not been seriously considered by my former-friend, as that is how he lives life. An arc traces back from this to the exercise niggles, an issue on which he's been competitive for some time. We both have small children, but one of us felt free to leave our wives to the household several times per week to go to the gym, then kickboxing classes. As pictures of former-friend started popping up replete with six pack, or posing with his foot lodged in someone's ribs, the 'gentle' digs about me being housebound and comments about how good he feels slipped out each time we met up.

While I complimented him on his efforts (for the most part) and expressed genuine interest, I couldn't help wonder how I would ever make a similar routine work when I wanted more time, not less, with my family. Yet while I might have mocked kale (seriously, kale, ffs), I never returned fire on this issue. The ability to make personal attacks about the most sensitive matters was something that, looking back over 20 years, remained an almost-entirely one-sided affair.

Which made the defriending all the more petulant.

In any event, as he lived his life, centred around himself, so he also made the decision that impacted our wives and children. He did not mention it to his wife, who found out months later when she suggested we all catch up.

And I find that group of friends, in which I was always an 'outer' member, a third or fourth wheel, although we likewise go back decades, now continues on without me. They know (and more than one has privately agreed) it was not my doing. But there are tiers, and mine is more dispensable.

In a year of deep, harsh, lessons, about schools, community, work, people and life, this one must be added: at a certain point, if you have put a lot of time in with people and are still a second-tier participant, it is time to shift your efforts.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The heartbreak of changing schools - part 1, the decision

We have moved both Bear and Mitts to a new school, following a terminal process that commenced when we first met the leadership and wondered whether this was someone we wanted to leave our children with.

I have been so careful discussing this on facebook, I do not want to hurt the feelings of the parents where we have been, so this has finally pushed me to come back to this site to unpack thoughts and experiences from what has been an incredibly painful process for beloved and I. I will write this post about the lead up, and a further post about the way this impacted our children and is now impacting our friendships.

I will not skewer individuals, that is a fair swap for writing under pseudonym, and besides, I hope to hear their names as little as possible. I share my feelings and opinions, and I know not everyone at the school agrees,

As decisions go, this has to be one of the hardest we have made as a couple. It has been a while since I last posted here, and Bear and Mitts had both settled into school and made friends. We have also made friends and felt part of our community. It is less than 10 minutes walk from our house, whereas we are moving to a larger school - still public - around 20 minutes by car, 40 by combined public transport and foot falcon.

I already knew rumours the school had problems, especially in the relationship between the leadership and many of the parents, when we signed on. After we had a tour, where my and Beloved's guts said no, I rang around both public and private schools in the area, gauging availability, before we decided to 'go local' and give it a shot.

My attitudes to going local, public schools, the education department - even wider beliefs around community, collective action and human nature itself, have all been deeply damaged.

I will not list the litany of complaints here, but I would say they span wellbeing, curriculum and other matters. It wasn't just 'a gripe'. I will say, as a foil to the now-dominant 'narrative of the problem parent', which I am now deeply cynical about, that dozens of parents have made formal complaints about similar matters to the Department of Education and Training in recent times as well as in the past. Those parents included teachers, OH&S officers, people working at other government departments and people who give hours of their time to NGOs. They were not some cliched gaggle of helicopter yuppies. They just wanted their kids taught well, and kept safe.

It wasn't just us: as I became involved with the small group of parents gently but persistently trying to achieve change (and feeling heavily smashed down at every step) I was approached by parents of older children who had been through the same thing over the years. The Department was well aware there were deep, long-term problems, but chose - chooses to look the other way or characterise the parents, despite the repetitive nature of the complaints, as trouble makers or prosecutors of a vendetta.

As they do to parents at numerous troubled schools around Melbourne. I have learned there is far more to the issue than problem parents, and most of the problems never see the light of day.

There were plenty of good teachers, but there is no leadership manual in the world that says good workers can make an environment great, on their own, in a steep hierarchy.

I spoke to a senior bureaucrat who effectively admitted there was a problem, but said that, essentially, nothing would change. I also got talking to parents from other schools and learned that our school's issues are sadly not uncommon. Some of the tales I've heard about rogue principals are simply awful, beggar belief, and make a mockery of the Department's publicly-stated policies.

This would not be sustainable without the consent of many, but sadly, despite being in an issue-aware Greens-voting area, too many people, for various reasons, walk past the standard they would not accept for their own children. I did not. Nothing bad happened to me or to my kids, at least not before I started asking questions and pushing back, but it did to others, and you can only rely on fortune to keep you and your children out of trouble for so long. This is fundamental to being a community.

Many parents took firm stances, some even stronger than ours, but others undermined - leaking or at minimum whining in the school yard about how the parents raising issues were lowering morale. Given many kids already had poor morale (just one example - prep kids holding on to pee all day because they were scared of going in the toilets), I thought this was a terrible case of sticking heads in sand and blaming the messengers.

Others again - possibly a majority of parents - just felt intimidated. They would approach the active parents in the playground and thank them (us), and tell us we had support, but when the moment came their understandable concern for how their children might be treated came first. Parents were scared, they still are.

Over the past couple of years a number of families left the school. Having sworn as recently as a year ago that we would not consider this, we paused, considered the reality, and ended up doing the same.

Our children only get one run. Disappointed with the gaps in their education, and with most of our trust gone, we decided enough was enough. 

Having decided to take such a big step, things like reputation, quality and curriculum became more important. Our trust in the public system was damaged and from my discussions with both bureaucrats and other parents it became clear there are huge variations among the schools in the northern areas of Melbourne. A number are barely dragging along, a number of others are excellent models of everything a public school can be. And the latter are nearly all 'zoned'.

We visited a school with wonderful music, language and overall teaching, the envy of the region. After ten minutes talking to the Assistant Principal, we were both nearly crying. It was so clear that we had been deluding ourselves for so long, and that our worst instincts were on the money from the beginning. You can tell when you are speaking to a passionate educator who loves their school and everyone in it.

The impact was so strong that, upon learning they were zoned to the nth degree, we looked at moving house. We have only recently renovated (how that would have been fine fodder for this blog if I'd been active!) but were realising just how much more important some things are. Then, on a tip from a friend, another parent already in the process of moving, we made some more enquiries and found a great school that could take our children.

If you had told me 5 years ago that I would shave and don a tie to meet a public school principal I'd have laughed. But when your children are on the line, and you've seen how inconsistent and unreliable the system can be, you don't take chances.

We have made the move and I am still unpacking and unwinding and releasing all the stress. I shake or feel sick when I think about it, writing this was not easy.

The impact on our friends and our children is still ongoing, and that will be the subject of my next blog post.