Teachable moments: What lawmakers could learn from the classrooms they critique

Teachable moments: What lawmakers could learn from the classrooms they critique

Yesterday saw the release of the Final Report of the Senate Inquiry into The issue of increasing disruption in Australian school classrooms. Nearly two months after the release of the Interim Report, Australians might have expected more than one additional recommendation which calls for “an inquiry into declining academic standards in Australian schools”!

Spare a thought for teachers and school leaders across Australia who’ll read this as a further indictment on their commitment and dedication. Despite the frustration, they’ll turn up again today in thousands of Australian schools.

Picture this classroom.

Instructions and expectations are made clear, but within four minutes, students are arguing and raising their voices, nitpicking, and needling peers they appear to dislike.

Within ten minutes students are shouting across each other with little regard for the teacher’s indication for students to focus on their work.

At the 12-minute mark, one student responds to a question. She is interrupted with an accusation from another that she is making up the answer! An egregious slur, followed by heckles and rancorous contributions from others. What does the teacher do? Asks the accuser gently to reconsider their accusation and apologise. She does, and the lesson continues.

Fifteen minutes in, a vociferous lad, who continuously interrupts with apparent impunity, is heard to call another student “a clown”; this type of behaviour, the teacher says, is not “what I expect”.

It doesn’t stop, and the teacher warns some particularly disruptive students they might need “to go outside and chat” about their behaviour. But they never do, and the interruption continues.

Frustrated, other students complain. One asks the teacher to get the students focused but is also reminded by the teacher not to “backchat after you sit down”. It’s evidently not a respectful culture.

The constant calling out continues. It descends into farce.

Finally, one frustrated student implores the teacher - “can you please try and bring the temperature down a little?”

You’d be right in thinking this is exactly why the Australian Senate holds concern about the state of disruption and behaviour in schools and has released its final report shortly into the start of a new year. Loss of focus, lack of courtesy, dissipation of energy by a teacher struggling to keep students on task – we surely cannot let this continue unabated for the rest of the year.

You’d be wrong, though. This account is not from a school.

It’s recreated from the Hansard transcript of Proceedings of the Senate from November 10, 2023, a few weeks before the release of the Inquiry’s Interim Report. Quotations are unedited.

Teachers who read the transcript might rightly throw their hands up in despair. What discourtesy, disrespect, intolerance, and incivility…and thus what right do senators have to question disruption in schools when this behaviour is evident in the most public forum we have – Commonwealth Parliament? What might senators conclude if this transcript was presented to their own inquiry in the guise of evidence of disruption in schools?

It seems only reasonable to hold parliamentarians to the same stringent expectations they expect of schools. I imagine many of them might say not, yet the onus seems on them to explain why not.

There is little doubt schools and teachers could benefit from some of the recommendations of the more expansive Interim Report. For example, Recommendation 6 calls for “integration between education and healthcare services…to help identify and manage disruptive behaviour”, and Recommendation 8 calls for “including strategies for addressing disruptive classroom behaviour as one of the priorities for the next National School Reform Agreement”. At face value, these have merit, so the work of the committee is not entirely in vain.

Yet, given the (not so) fictitious account above, it’s hard to escape a conclusion that until Honourable Senators can behave in a way befitting their own high calling, educators across the nation are unlikely to welcome insights about how to address disruption in schools when the behaviour in their own workplace is manifestly, and routinely, disruptive.

If the Terms of Reference of the Senate’s Inquiry were applied to the behaviour of the Australian Senate evident in the Hansard of Friday November 10, 2023, we can only wonder what recommendations might ensue.

Dr Paul Kidson is an ACU Senior Lecturer in Educational Leadership and a former school principal.