Welcome to Week Five, a week in which we can finally see some clear sailing for the teaching and learning program after what seems to have been an endless number of interruptions that come with the start of a school year. Carnivals, camps, photo days, assemblies – all necessary, all important and in most cases positive, however, they do make getting into a sound routine difficult. The boys have risen to the occasion and are now into a productive study routine that I hope will hold them in good stead for the year ahead. It has been a tropical couple of weeks with the extreme heat of summer appearing to be behind us, leaving us to deal with humidity. The sense of joy in the community has been strong, which I hope continues for the remainder of the year.
Of particular note to commence the year has been how well the Year 7 cohort have transitioned into the community. Last Wednesday many of the Year 7 parents took the opportunity to join us for our annual Year 7 Information and Social Evening. There were many instances of parents sharing stories and reflections on what has been a very positive start for their sons.
On Thursday 13 February, the College gathered for our annual Dux Assembly to celebrate the academic achievements of 2019, with a particular focus on the boys from the Class of 2019. This gathering is a highlight of each academic year, providing a sense of pride and joy in the community as we marvel at the achievements of so many of our boys. Once again it was a wonderful gathering with many great highlights, especially having the boys of the Class of 2019 back in the community to recognise their achievements. Congratulations to Ms Irene Apostolopoulos and all staff involved in bringing the gathering together. As a way of reflection, for this week’s blog I thought I would share my Dux Assembly speech, which appeared to be well received, for all members of the community to read and reflect on.
‘The Dux Assembly is an auspicious event on the Salesian College Chadstone academic calendar. The opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the outstanding achievements of our highest performing students is truly inspirational, providing a great sense of pride and joy. Today we honour the boys of the Class of 2019; in particular our Dux Joseph Cefai, and the boys from across the other year levels who excelled in their studies last year. I have the greatest admiration for these boys and their accomplishments, and I hope all gathered here today rightly understand the level of their achievements.
To attain an ATAR greater than 90, to be the Dux of a year level or an individual subject, or to be a recipient of a Salesian College Scholarship is an amazing acheivement, an achievement that should never be seen as the sole domain of a privileged few. It is too easy to believe such achievements are beyond us, convincing ourselves that somehow we don’t have the intelligence or talents to be worthy of such awards. To do so would undervalue the efforts of these boys and suggest that only the brightest are capable of great deeds.
None of these boys’ achievements are simply the result of how smart they are, nor is there a guarantee that you will achieve great things just because you are intelligent. Whilst their intellect played a part in their achievements, their results can be attributed to an abundance of persistence and dedication and a series of choices these boys made each and every day over a twelve year period. Choices to apply their God given talents, to work extremely hard, to make the most of the opportunities offered to them, and to use their time wisely. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “I am who I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.” I think this is true of these boys, and for that matter, of all of us here in the auditorium today. So I put to you all, that everything in your life is a reflection of a choice you have made. We need to be asking ourselves, ‘What choices am I going to make moving forward?’
There is always social commentary on the big choices we make in life, such as purchasing a house, choosing our life partner, deciding on a school or career and even the friends we keep, just to name a few. The one I want to focus on is the choice all of us have to make, one that is critical for each and every one of you right here, right now. This choice is the decision to be a life long learner. To embrace the opportunities life presents, to experience new things, to broaden our minds and to become better people. I would argue this to be the most important choice you will ever make, and it is a choice we are forced to make every day.
Now, there would be many of you in the audience that would say that this choice is already made for you, with current Government legislation stating that all children under the age of 17 must be at school. Further to this, I’m sure many of your parents would also insist you go to school regardless of this legislation. Whilst this is true, the Government and your parents are merely choosing whether you go to school or not. They are not choosing whether you are going to learn. That decision remains solely with you.
At this point, I diverge to highlight that there are many influences that impact on our choice to learn or not, many of which I believe make it too easy for us to choose to opt out. Sectors in our society provide excuses for kids not to learn on a daily basis, without knowing or understanding what they are doing. I refer to groups such as governments and sections of the media who appear to be continually criticising the education sector or teachers. Headlines along the lines of “Australian teens are falling behind, as others race ahead”, “NAPLAN results worst we have seen”, “Teachers don’t have basic literacy skills”, “Australia drops further down in PISA results”, “Parents lose faith in our education system”, “Students not being equipped to meet the needs of the modern workforce”, are all headlines that I believe combine to undermine confidence in our education system and therefore have the potential to lead many students to question whether it is ‘worth the effort’.
Whilst there is some truth in such stories, highlighting them in the way we do can only undermine students’ confidence and ultimately encourage some of our less motivated students to opt out on the basis of, ‘What’s the use?’ This fear mongering, hysteria and over simplifying of the education debate worries me, as I believe it does more harm than good when it comes to improving the Australian Education system. It makes it too easy for students to lay the blame for their lack of effort elsewhere, giving our students the excuse they need to explain poor effort and poor results.
It is obvious that I don’t share these views, and I have full confidence in what I truly believe to be a wonderful education system. Not for one second do I think it is perfect, but I certainly cannot accept the negative rhetoric that is published on a regular basis. Having said this, it is important that we continue to identify areas of weakness and to do our best to address these issues.
This negativity appears linked to Australia’s overall standing in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing, which has fallen in the last few years, along with declining data coming out of our very own NAPLAN testing, with basic skills like reading comprehension, spelling, literacy and numeracy falling away. Data such as this should raise questions or concerns, and we must look at all factors that are contributing to this worrying phenomenon. However, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to have knee jerk responses that could have a detrimental impact on our standing, rather than actually improving it.
Teachers are working harder, are better trained and care as much about the kids they teach as at any time in history. So why do I think Australian educational standards are falling, as measured by the PISA and NAPLAN testing? And how can we improve student achievement? Firstly, let me say that is a very complex issue, and that there a myriad of factors; including overcrowding in the curriculum, cultural diversity, language barriers and the standing of teachers in the community, to name a few. However, I wish to focus on one factor that I deem to be significant. This factor is one that is totally in our control, and something we can address very easily, resulting in significant and immediate positive outcomes. This is to get our students excited about their learning, developing in them a love of learning and respect for their own learning and their peers learning, so they choose to learn.
I have had the privilege of seeing my three beautiful grandchildren develop in the early months of their lives, and I cannot help but watch in amazement as they learn new skills at an exponential rate; a rate that we adults could only dream of. Now, I use them as examples, as they are simply doing what every human does in the early stages of their development. As I observe them, I ask myself why it is that they can learn at such a rate. Now, there will be neuroscientists and psychologists who would have far better scientific explanations as to why this phenomenon occurs, however, I have a simple theory which I’m sure would stand up to testing. They learn because they want to learn. They haven’t put up barriers or established some of the hurdles that we have. They have no inhibitions and no restraints, and ultimately they want to learn. They want to learn how to communicate, they want to learn how to walk, they want to know how things work, to know what things are. They have an insatiable aptitude to learn new things.
All of this leads me to the point I wish to make to you all today, and that is that learning is a choice. We choose to be a learner, to explore, to research and discover not because we have to or are forced to, but rather it is because we want to. Think back on the things that you have learnt easily, and I bet more often than not they will be the subjects or topics you enjoyed and therefore wanted to learn.
The boys we recognise here today made positive choices in most, if not all aspects of their learning. If you were to ask them, they would tell you that they chose to apply themselves in class, they chose to complete their homework and study regularly. They chose to seek help when needed. They chose to learn.
It saddens and frustrates me when I hear a student; and worse still, parents, use excuses. Here in Australia, unfortunately this has become the norm, whereas in many of the countries often held up as high achieving which I have visited, this is not the case. Once again there are numerous factors that contribute to this, however, from my observation and experience it can be put down to the frame of mind in which students enter their classes. In these countries, students appear to come to class with respect for their learning, ready and willing to listen and wanting to learn.
Roy T. Bennett once said; “Attitude is a choice. Happiness is a choice. Optimism is a choice. Kindness is a choice. Giving is a choice. Respect is a choice. Whatever choice you make, makes you. Choose wisely.”
I truly hope that you all choose to take advantage of the opportunities offered to you here, and experience the joy a Salesian Education looks to provide. I hope you choose to be someone who contributes to making this College a second home that welcomes everyone, that you choose to establish relationships that care and nurture everyone in the community, and that you go on to become the best young men you can be.
Choose to create a wonderful learning environment, not merely to obtain good results. Ensure you are part of a community that builds justice and peace in our world, one that accepts and celebrates difference. The Salesian ethos demands this of us. It implores us to impart the Christian values to all we meet, to take on life’s challenges and to enjoy life just as the boys we recognise today have done.
Once again I congratulate all the boys who have been acknowledged today, in particular Joseph and the members of the Class of 2019. I wish you every success in the next phase of your lives.
Finally, I ask you all to remember that you are free to make whatever choices you want, but you are not free from the consequences of your choices. Make good choices today so that you don’t have regrets tomorrow, and in the words of Nelson Mandela, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”
I leave you with the words of Brodi Ashton:
“Heroes are made by the paths they choose, not the powers they are graced with.”
Good luck for the year ahead, and I wish you all every happiness.’