How might we confront the challenges of time and "the system"?

Speak to teachers the world over about what they want for their students and you find clear patterns emerging. Key dispositions, capabilities and attributes emerge from the conversation. There are the traits of kindness and empathy which allow our students to become caring stewards of the world, its animals, its people, its biomes, its history and its future. There are characteristics which allow them to be productive problem finders and solvers imbued with capacities for creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. They are respectful of diversity, open to new ideas, flexible in times of change and aware of their place in the world. They are happy in their own skin, aware of their limitations but always aware of their potential for growth. They are agentic and desire to take action for a better world with an understanding of their role within the collective citizenship of the planet.

Dig a little deeper and you find that these teachers have a reasonable imagining of what is required for our young people to achieve these goals. An education which values and enculturates these dispositions is essential. Teachers the world over understand the part that they can play (alongside families and the broader community) in providing our young people with the foundational experiences they require to emerge as young adults ready for the challenges which lay ahead. While the methods required to achieve this may vary the goal is clear and we are blessed with a highly professional collective of educators who are driven by a desire to meet this challenge with their energy and passion.

What then stands in the way?

Two forces seem to present the most significant obstacle to educators hoping to achieve these illustrious goals for and with their learners. The first is time, the second is “the system”. Together these two factors act as a bulwark to change; the constraints within which progress is able to occur but only to the point that it strikes against the seemingly immutable obstacles.

Time, as Bilbo Baggins exclaims is what we always need more of. Our greatest plans and hopes seem to be dashed by the limited time that we have in which to make them real. Teachers want more time to understand the needs of their learners, more time to collaborate, more time to explore the details, time to spend on detours from the curriculum, time to reflect, review and redo. We work within the limitations of time all of the time. We make plans spread over multiple years to give ourselves the time required to implement our designs and yet we know that the students before us now will have moved out of our care before our plans are fully realised. Our limited time causes all manner of pressures and tensions. We seek a semblance of work life balance and strive to give time to all that matters to us across all the spheres of our life. We need and want to spend time with family and friends, we hope to find time to take care of our health (physical and mental) and we desire to learn and enrich our lives with arts and culture. We see that our days are often occupied with the minutia of our roles and sense that we are not spending our time on that which has the greatest impact on our quality of life or that of those who rely on us.

We may have no control over the amount of time that we have but we must at least strive to take charge of how that time is used. Only by taking stock of how we utilise our time and value it as the limited and irreplaceable commodity that it is might we hope to allocate it and our energy more wisely. This is no small task but it is one we cannot hope will be done for us.

The other great tension felt by educators looking to better serve the true needs of their learners is "the system”. Individual teachers function within schools, which function within the boundaries and demands of larger organisations which serve the needs of governments driven by a desire for reelection by a citizenry that may well be misinformed of what is required to build a future-focused education system. The legacy of the past, the incessant pressure of the now, the structures which are imposed, the processes which constrain action, the poorly applied proxies of success which measure only what is easily measured act in combination to restrict and limit teacher agency.

For the teacher within this system it can be near impossible to imagine a way to enact change in the face of such an overwhelming entity. The system takes on the proportions of Hobbesian “Leviathan” acting with malicious intent to stifle and suppress our best intentions. We come to see the system as either an unassailable foe or as great authority figure to whom servitude is required. As meek individuals within this system our role in its functions is erased by the inky completeness of our adversary. And yet it is a truth that the system is us and we are it. We choose to see it as that which authorises us to maintain the status quo even where we see it failing our learners or to see it as that which binds our hands. Change has never had its roots within the system but always within the minds of those who seek it out.

As we confront "the system” we make choices about the path we shall take. One is to accept that it exists and that we must be content with acting within its constraints and hope that in a brighter tomorrow that it may change and allow us greater freedom. Another path is to take what action we might, to bring about change where we can and push against the limits of the system where it constrains us. Others will confront the system head on, question its authority and demand change.

In all of this we must not turn away from the promise of our own agency. Time is short but we can choose how we use it, the system is mighty but we are a part of it and can act to maintain it or to change it. In the end, we can choose to let the world happen to us, or we can let our voice be heard.

By Nigel Coutts