To MLE, or not to MLE, that is the question: An open letter to my colleagues

So, another MLE story has been put out by Stuff – students in MLEs as guinea pigs this time; and another deluge of negative comments about MLEs, not just by parents or the media, but by our very own, in forums such as The New Zealand Teachers (Primary) Facebook page of which I am a member - comments that are often dismissive of MLEs as failing and worthless. It doesn’t seem that long ago that teachers were complaining of the “teacher bashing” they were experiencing at the hands of the media, politicians and parents. We clearly have short memories, because alliances have quickly changed and now we see some teachers aligning themselves with some parents and the media against teachers-in-MLEs. The focus of “teacher bashing” just seems to have shifted.

I imagine that those teachers commenting negatively about MLEs would argue that they are not being negative about the teachers within MLEs, but rather they are commenting on a governmental policy that sees MLEs being built without sufficient evidence to justify the policy. The only problem is that comments about students falling between the cracks IS a comment about teachers. Comments that suggest students in MLEs are not receiving the programmes of teaching and learning they need IS about teachers. Comments that MLEs cannot meet the needs of students IS about the teachers in those environments. You see, a school is not its buildings (although, there is no doubt that architecture does impact), a school is the people within it and the relationships between those people and the work they do together within that physical environment.

When people comment negatively on MLEs, they ARE questioning the efficacy of the teachers who work together in those buildings. So often the teaching profession makes public statements to the effect that teachers are resourceful and capable and should be trusted…. except, it seems, in the case of teachers in MLEs. If the negative comments are to be taken at face value, this group of teachers is clearly not to be trusted to overcome any perceived limitations of the physical environments to deliver programmes of learning that meet the needs of students, as it is assumed any other teacher would do.  Let me ask you a question – is putting a group of 30 students into a single cell classroom for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week for 40 weeks of the year with a beginning teacher less of an experiment than putting experienced, creative, resourceful, trustworthy teachers into an environment that is different from the norm? Do these teachers care less about their students? Are they less able to make it work?

All around the world children are being educated in a variety of environments – holes in walls, open air classrooms with no walls or roofs, leaky buildings, classrooms that are dank and dingy and poorly maintained. No one questions the ability of teachers to overcome the possible limitations of these environments nor do they question their ability to take “limitations” and turn them into positives; because we know that in the end, it is the quality of the teacher that makes the difference for the student – except, it seems, in MLEs. Inexplicably, in the MLE environment, teachers are constrained by perceived limitations in the physical environment and are not able to overcome these to meet the needs of their students. They are powerless in the face of the architecture.

Speaking directly to those educators who are contributing to the negativity about MLEs, I understand that it is not your intention to “naysay” teachers, your colleagues. However, I am writing this open letter to let you know that you are, and to ask you to please stop.  We do feel put down, we feel belittled and your comments do objectify and diminish us. You are not thinking of us as human beings, who just like you, care deeply about students and work incredibly hard to meet the needs of every student. I want to tell you, on behalf of my MLE colleagues, and, most particularly, the teachers at my school, that we are just as trustworthy and resourceful as non-MLE teachers and, not only are we able to overcome any perceived limitations of the architecture of our schools, just as you are at your schools, but we are also able to accentuate the positive and leverage the affordances that the architecture provides, just as you are.

I am all for debate about educational issues. I frequently put myself on the line by wading into issues and offering my perspectives (see our website Future of Education for a range of articles including Enough is Enough about Modern Learning Environments). But when a debate takes a whole group of people or schools, lumps them all together as though they are the same, and marginalises them by telling them who they are, and what they are or are not capable of doing, without any reference to reality, then we have stepped over a line and it is a short walk to bullying or much worse.  By all means, discuss the political question of MLE or not MLE, but please…please…ensure that when you do so, your colleagues who are caring, resourceful, trustworthy teachers just like you; are not your victims.

Nga mihi nui ki a koutou

Lesley Murrihy