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Address to UWS School of Education Graduands – 26 September 2013 October 8, 2013

Posted by christinefjohnston in Directions in Education, Educational Leadership.
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By Gregory B Whitby

 As someone who has spent more than thirty years in education, I can honestly say this is a great time to be a teacher. And never before have we needed great teachers than we do today.

You are joining a profession that touches the lives of students each and every day, developing essential competencies and skills and nurturing values that will endure for a life time. All of this taking place in the context of a rapidly changing world.

 Author Daniel Pink calls this the conceptual age but I think this is the age of the learner and learning. The advances in technology just in the last decade have been incredible. I read an article in which a teacher and blogger refers to this as living in a moment of ‘ubiquitous learning’. The context may be global but for you as teachers, the challenges and opportunities are local.

 When I began my teaching career thirty years ago, the world was a very different place and so was schooling. I was handed the curriculum and with a pat on the back, I was sent into the great unknown.

 We have learnt a lot about the art and science of teaching since then. We have moved from an understanding that intelligence is fixed, a one size fits all model is the norm and that some students just simply cannot learn, to an understanding that intelligence is malleable, personalised learning is the norm and a conviction that all students can learn.

 None of us here needs reminding that schools and even universities today are under increasing pressure to improve. It’s not surprising living in a world that is changing and challenging us at incredible speed both locally and globally. Access to online learning is expanding at an incredible rate. This is the age of 24/7 connectivity and 24/7 learning.

 You have had the benefit of attending the University of Western Sydney – a university that doesn’t treat you as a number but as a learner – a university that recognises that in order for you to be successful teachers; you need to learn to teach in the same way you expect your students to learn – a university that utilises today’s tools to support good teaching.

 You leave UWS today with the knowledge AND the skills to be able to think critically, to solve problems creatively and to work collaboratively. These are the skills we want all learners to have – and our schools are faced with the very real challenge of ensuring a relevant and quality learning experience for every child no matter what their learning style or background.

 You represent a new generation of teachers who will not simply deliver the curriculum but design it. You represent a new generation of teachers who see themselves as co-learners and who see learners as active participants in the learning process. It will be your imagination, professionalism and relentless commitment to improving student learning outcomes that will drive change and shape the future of Australian schools.

 There will always be people with ideas about how schools should operate and what the role of teachers should be. And there will always be competing agendas, external requirements and daily distractions. I think beginning teachers need a degree just in the educational acronyms used – ACARA, AITSL, ATAR, PISA, TIMMS and NAPLAN. The list goes on.

But if you are to stay focussed in all of this, it is important that you keep returning to what is important. Thankfully we know a lot from decades of research about how people learn. It is this multi-disciplinary research that helps us to be more effective in teaching and the technological tools to support us in our work in ways not possible before.

 We know from the learning sciences that teacher learning is just as important as student learning. The more we learn about learning and the more teachers learn about their students’ learning, the more influential and important teaching becomes.

 Harvard Professor Richard Elmore once said “teaching isn’t rocket science; it’s actually far more complex and demanding”. He’s absolutely right. It recognises the role of teachers as team members of a learning community – engaged in the practice of reflective dialogue, collaboration and inquiry in order to continually improve the learning and teaching in schools.

 I know each of you is capable of meeting the challenges of teaching in today’s world because you have had the benefit of being taught at a university that is committed to excellence and innovation. Of course, with the challenges come the great rewards. Sometimes it’s the ordinary events that will have the most extraordinary significance. I want to share with you a story about one of my former students that reminds us of what is at the very heart of our work as teachers.

 A few years ago I received an email that asked whether I was the Greg Whitby who taught English at Liverpool Boys High School in the early 1970’s. The writer said that he just wanted to thank me for being such a great teacher. It was signed Ron Hawkins, Chief Consultant Virtual Storage, Hitachi Systems, Hong Kong.

 Ron’s face came straight back to me and I could see him sitting in the right hand side of the classroom. I would have to say he was a challenging student. We began to correspond by email and eventually, in passing through Hong Kong, we were able to catch up together. It was a great trip down memory lane. When we were leaving he said he wanted to show me something and pulled something out of his wallet – he handed me a piece of paper – and told me it was something I had written on one of his English assignments.

 I opened the paper and it was a comment I had written on an assignment on a text we were studying. On it I had written that it is easy to judge people from your own shoes but very different when you stand in another person’s. Ron told me that it was the best piece of advice that he had ever been given and that he refers to it regularly in his work. You would understand how moving that moment was for me. To know that you have had such a profound influence on someone’s life and his achieved so much because of the education he received.

 There are thousands of stories like this that reveal a universal truth – teachers do make a difference. They reflect what the late author Morris West called ‘moments of grace’. I don’t mean grace in the religious sense but in the sense that you often, in teaching, get the opportunity to see the extraordinary in the very ordinary work that you do. I hope there are many moments of grace throughout your careers.

 There has been debate about the role of teachers in today’s world – are they mediators of learning or sages on the stage, are you a teacher or a learner? I say you are all of these but I believe teachers in today’s world are also prophets.

 The word ‘prophet’ comes from the Greek word (profetes) meaning advocate. Biblical prophets were advocates – agents of social change through their words and actions. You are advocates for a new way of learning and teaching that is relevant to today’s learner and today’s world.

When you walk into your classrooms every day, remember that what you are doing is transforming children’s lives by giving them opportunities to become better learners and better people. You are shaping the future of our nation.

 I trust that each member of today’s graduating class is leaving the University of Western Sydney with fond memories and life-long friends and of course, as life-long learners.

 Congratulations to each of you on the occasion of your graduation. I hope that you find yourselves in positions where you are supported by the strength, wisdom and experiences of others. I trust you will find personal meaning and significance in the work you share with your colleagues.

As the great American pedagogue John Dewey said “education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” I wish you every success – stay passionate and stay learning.

Gregory B Whitby is Executive Director of Schools, Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta

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