I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. Now I suspect it was largely because of the lack of alternatives offered to a girl of my background in the late 1950s. “Do you want to be a teacher or a nurse?” my headmistress asked a small group of girls assembled in her office for the conversation about our future at the end of our schooling.
By then I’d already been a teacher for a number of years, at the Sunday School I’d attended all my life. Each week I looked over the story for next Sunday – Moses in the bulrushes, Joshua and the battle of Jericho, Ruth and Naomi, Daniel in the lion’s den – and spent time figuring out how to tell it and what expression work (we’d call it craft now) would accompany it. In this, my first professional creative endeavour, I had a wonderful mentor, a dour unsmiling woman who took her role very seriously and generated amazing ideas week after week. My hatred of worksheets probably began then – she never succumbed to mere colouring in. Most of her ideas had three dimensions, and I developed a lifelong admiration for her.
I also got used to delivering papers at Christian Endeavour: ruminations on bible verses, or attempts at primitive theological discourse. My shyness disappeared when I had a public role, which is why the performance aspect of teaching rarely phased me later on.
Teaching at high school
So at the end of school I went to university on a Teachers’ College scholarship. My previous experience didn’t prepare me for the torture of delivering tutorial papers to my peers and tutors (including the terrifying young Germaine Greer). But I was at ease once I was in the class room, even as a student-teacher: massively over-prepared with fully scripted lesson plans, until I finally realised they were a hindrance, and what I needed was a direction, an outline and responsiveness to whatever happened during the lesson. So I stood in front of a class of boys at Epping High and Marsden High, with energy and conviction, and was launched into my teaching career. I’ve only got one bad memory of that time: I got impatient with a lad who was being a nuisance and sent him out, without realising that in those days out meant caned. I’m still remorseful about that.
Finally I had my own classes, at Fairfield Girls High School in Sydney’s west, once the badlands, but by the early 60s working class aspirational, where parents often had dreams far beyond the capacity or desires of their daughters.
I launched myself into my first encounter with year 9 by falling off the edge of the teacher’s platform. I was never much good at classroom management, and even in those days year nine was rowdy. Not so, the day the inspector came. They behaved like angels. After he left, they said “Gee miss, that lesson was really interesting”, but they didn’t draw the obvious conclusion: if they let me teach, I taught well.
For some reason the headmistress decided that this rookie teacher with no experience of teaching and very little of the world, should become the careers adviser. I had my own office, chaotic files and a student assigned to help me. First job was putting the files in alphabetical order, so my helper set to work. She was up to T before I realised she was arranging by first names. But that wasn’t the worst of being careers adviser. I was also a kind of default counsellor, never my métier. One Friday afternoon a suicidal student handed me pills wrapped in a handkerchief and said “I’m going to take these miss.” I managed to persuade her to let me have them, took them sceptically to a pharmacist, who said they were indeed a lethal dose.
In those days, I wore bright stockings, which didn’t impress the boss. When I was invited to an important careers meeting at a bank in the city, she said to me, “I presume you won’t be wearing those tomorrow.” She apparently associated my garb with a general lack of savoir faire, and also instructed me in how to eat oysters.
This was interesting teaching. I was only a few years older than my students and full of ideas. I invited them to a Shakespeare evening at my place, where my sister, their age, joined us. I took them away for a weekend just before their final exams to a holiday shack on Jervis Bay, visiting the home, chandeliered and grand-staircased, of one student to persuade her protective Mediterranean parents to let her come with us. There the toughest girl in the class demonstrated an unexpected terror of ants.
After two years, I applied for a country posting, the only person ever to ask to go to this school. There, I added Latin to my teaching repertoire, and fashionista to my personal attributes. I introduced, so I’m led to believe, both the maxi and the mini to Temora, while I presided over the dying of classical languages in the school curriculum. For the first and last time I lived so close to my workplace that I only had to cross the oval and I was there. I had battles with the English head teacher who took exception to a harmless humorous comment in the program. I can still see his face becoming redder and redder as I, young whippersnapper, challenged his fiat.
Then there was a phone call from someone who claimed to be offering me a job in the Teacher Education Program at Macquarie University. I laughed and said “Quit fooling around”. It took Mr Dunkley some time to convince me that he was indeed the director of the TEP. Of course there was a job interview – after a sit-up overnight train trip by full moon from Temora. It was the first time I’d faced a panel: five men (my memory says they were all men) disposed around a long table with me, lonely, at the far end.
I got the job, and became an uneasy university lecturer, lacking all faith in my credentials and capacity. After all, I’d only been teaching for four years, and I not only had to teach trainee teachers and supervise their work in schools, but also to work with master teachers with five times my experience. I found again that I was good at putting together and critiquing teaching plans and programs, and that my head was fertile with teaching ideas. One document I put together about teaching effective speaking and listening was still being used years later. During the time at Macquarie, I wrote a quickly-remaindered text book, and a chapter in a book about teaching, and gave birth to my first child. I managed to continue working, and to breastfeed her, because my full-time academic load was eleven hours a week for twenty six weeks of the year, and my mother lived between my house and university.
As well as teacher education, I tutored in the school of English, mainly first year poetry, but also a ground-breaking cross-disciplinary course in children’s literature, involving the faculties of English, French, German and Psychology. This attracted mainly part-time students who were full-time teachers, so most of the tutorials were evening ones, when everyone had already expended their best energy. The academic tutorials didn’t give much scope for imagination but the teaching ones did, and creative thinking gave me huge pleasure.
A friend from university, a Marist brother teaching at St Joseph’s College, asked me to give literature tutorials to his final year students, for the women’s perspective he said. So every Thursday night I dressed in my woman’s perspective gear, and braved the sandstone grandeur of a Catholic boys’ school. They were eager, knowledgeable students. One night during a blackout, I sat around yarning, saddened by the sense of displacement the young men revealed under cover of darkness: many of them had been at boarding school since they were five. School offered little real social life, and when they went back to their vast properties in the bush, they were outsiders in the social life there. Many years later, my friend met one of the boys from that time who still remembered those evenings.
Part-time and casual teaching
When we moved to the south coast, I’d been teaching for six years at Macquarie, and ten years altogether. I resigned, and we built our house with my superannuation. But that wasn’t the end of my teaching career. I entered the edgy world of part time and casual work. I had my first experience teaching a kindergarten class and was daunted by their smallness, their innocence (“Miss, if you ring the bell, we’ll all be quiet”), and their lack of reading and writing skills.
I grew to dread the mornings, waiting for a call to come from a high school thirty minutes away to say “We need you today”. I hated the feeling of unpreparedness. I’ve never been good at trotting out a lesson. I think I learnt more than I taught in those days: a recalcitrant English student proved to be a meticulous carpenter who worked all lesson turning a leg for a table, and then discarded it because it wasn’t good enough. Catch him rewriting a sentence to make it better, or even correcting a spelling mistake! I saw discrimination against Aboriginal students, not by other students, but by the deputy principal. I discoved the difficulties of teaching children who were mates of my own kids and hanging around my place at the weekend. I found out how unsatisfactory it was not to have continuity and my own class, sometimes not even my own subject.
At the same time, I was tutoring at the Aboriginal homework centre, watching little kids developing a pride in their Aboriginality. Building up literacy skills that were somehow missed in the early years was difficult, frustrating and saddening. Some of these students went on into a golden future, but not many.
Then I moved briefly into the TAFE sector, teaching a variety of short-term courses, for women returning to work, or people setting up small businesses. Sometimes I had to put together the course plan and staff it in a week. I felt out of my depth and fraudulent – there wasn’t much of a workforce in our part of the world to return to, and small businesses tended to fold nearly as soon as they started up.
My most substantial and satisfying teaching was in a couple of courses for Aboriginal students: basic education, and then tertiary preparation. I taught history and literacy, and learnt a lot about Aboriginal history and disadvantage through stories students told about their lives. One of my treasured memories is a written correspondence with one of my students in his early twenties who had minimal literacy skills. He’d write two lines, I’d write three and so it went on till he was writing a page. He came to class after an early shift on the garbage trucks, excited by the finds of the day. He invited me to go on the truck with him and one of my great regrets is that I didn’t do it. Eventually I was running this course, and my TAFE career, along with those of a few colleagues, ended ignominiously in a sacking over poorly kept rolls. My file was marked “Never to be employed by this college again.”
High school again
At the same time my marriage was ending ingloriously, so I wasn’t as mortified by this sacking as I may have been, and as it turned out it cleared the way for my Broken Hill adventure. I applied for teaching jobs in a variety of challenging places (Wilcannia, Bourke, Walgett), and the gods gave me Broken Hill, a perfect place to discover what I really enjoyed and to stretch my post-marital wings. The huge downside was separation from my two sons.
The school had a few innovations that inspired me. My year 11 class was a mix of the lads (young men not all that keen on school) and mature age students, mainly women, who were old enough to be their mothers, and acted like it when the lads became unruly: “Don’t fool around. We didn’t finish school and we regret it.” There was also Day 6, a day when normal classes were suspended and teachers offered whatever took their fancy. For me, over my six years at Willyama, that included writing workshops, women’s studies, calligraphy, paper making, and a vaguely philosophical session called “Who am I?” For one term, when there weren’t enough takers for my offerings, I supervised “Beauty and you”, run by an unreliable beautician and totally ungroomed me.
The teaching was challenging, although it was the first time I’d had my own classrooms since I’d had my own kids, and that made a difference. The school bordered on the regen area, a strip around the town set aside for regrowth thanks to the forward-thinking efforts of Albert Morris in the 1930s. I took groups out there a few times on writing excursions (my idea) or to provide opportunities for smoking (theirs). The focus was a haiku scavenger hunt: bring back a haiku about sky, smells, colours, tiny, soft, dead, sharp. One education week, when Gabrielle Dalton was writer-in-community, we set up a stall in the shopping centre. Passers-by gave a topic to our team of writers as they went off to shop, and came back to collect the piece they’d inspired when they’d filled their trolley.
At a party, I entered into animated conversation with a young man, and in my cups, searching for conversation, said I wrote. He rang me on Monday, informed me he was principal of the School of the Air, and asked me to be writer-in-residence when he brought together isolated students for a few days on a couple of the remote stations, north of White Cliffs and west of the Adelaide road. Some of the students arrived by the family small plane, far more economical than a car over long distances on rough roads: Dad did the School of the Air run and was home in time for a day’s work. I became the Word Woman, dressed in a coat festooned with my favourite words (sanguine, obelisk, bergamot, valley, maniac, whirligig, quell) and wearing my confidence-giving beret. We wrote sprawled on the concrete path in the shade, and my photos show considerable intentness and pencil chewing. One day it was too windy outside so we retreated to a shearing shed, where my powerful voice competed with the rattling and banging of loose corrugated iron, but we managed to create a few characters out of a patchwork of words. Mind you, enthusiasm for writing lost out a bit to activities with the athletic young man conducting a cricket clinic.
A writing camp for students in the Living Desert near Broken Hill’s sculpture site, organised by the school librarian, gave me a chance to watch the performance poet Komninos at work, reading his poems and encouraging the kids into their own rap poetry as they sat amongst the sharp rocks, against the blue sky, or around the campfire under the stars.
Back to the ordinary classroom, away from all these trimmings! There are many sharp memories.
The recalcitrant lad with a truckie dad who produced a great radio program about trucking – information about the trucking life, stories, songs, all threaded on his laconic commentary. When I praised him he said defiantly, “That’s it, miss. Don’t expect anything else, ever.”
The Year 12 genius with words and black pen sketches who nearly set fire to the school during an early morning discussion on the Gothic novel. His atmospheric candles burnt down to the desk while we were focused on his explication of The castle of Otranto.
A long, extermely intelligent discussion about Shakespeare with a fifteen year old, who, in class, crawled around under the desks and caused concentration mayhem.
A Year 10 drama class (drama is not my strength) who informed me in the first lesson that they were going to give me a nervous breakdown. One day I left their class near tears on a totally unrelated matter (menopause looming? wedding anniversary?) The day after, there were flowers and cards with rhymes of apology on my desk.
A disturbance at the back of the same classroom: one of the few really unpleasant students I ever encountered laying his penis on the desk for consideration.
A vital assessible task from a Year 12 student, whose psychologist thought it would be useful to talk about her cousin’s murder. A mark out of 15, for that?
Then of course there were all those students who did as I asked, contributed to discussion, didn’t scribble on walls, read texts, handed in assignments, and learnt from my teaching. And there were all those days when I came home distraught after chaotic classes wondering what I was doing with my life.
But the greatest teaching challenge in Broken Hill was probably co-presenting a full day of teacher development to my peers and colleagues. This was a prelude to my next job.
My time as a Broken Hill high school teacher came to an end after six years, when I headed back to the coast to take up a position as a literacy consultant, covering the territory from Nowra to the NSW / Victorian border, and out beyond the Great Divide to Delegate, Bombala, Bibbenluke, Ando and Braidwood.
Once again I was beyond my level of expertise: most of my work was in primary schools, and I was a high school English teacher. But the training I received, for once, was excellent. My job was teacher training, but the boss believed in saturation so I became a consultant-in-residence, spending up to twenty days in one school, running workshops for teachers, but also working with them in their classrooms: all the pleasures of teaching, without having to manage classes.
The best times were when the teacher and I worked magically together, feeding off each and building something interesting and lasting. My nights alone in motels were spent creating teaching materials and building on the work students had done that day: word ribbons with useful conjunctions or prepositions; the longest paragraph in the world on a scroll (I’ll never forget the gasp as those 8 year olds saw what they had written unfurl from ceiling to floor); spectacular complex sentences about Antarctica where knowledge transformed grammar; letters to Santa, where precision really mattered, from kindergarten students ; a narrative about a fairy and a tiger, and the ferocious resistance of 7-year-olds to the idea of making the tiger the goodie and the fairy the villain (they won). Plenty of teachers didn’t want me anywhere near them, and blatantly dozed in staff meetings, but I like to think that at least some teaching became more effective because of my work. At least now, in my 50s, I knew a bit about pedagogy.
I had a few other great collaborative experiences during these six years. One was with the technology adviser, who set aside Fridays for consultant education. Some of the time we spent together was me learning stuff I knew I wanted to know, and some with him saying, “I reckon you might like to be able to do this.”
One was with the maths consultant who asked me to sit in on a maths class she was teaching, and suggest how she could improve maths teaching by paying attention to words as well as numbers.
But the best one was at the field studies centre in Bournda National Park, where the boss wanted to merge writing and the environment: bush, lake, marsh, sea. I roughed out possible writing challenges and then talked to Ross, who knew Bournda inside out. He became the location scout, and a superb job he did. We lived a chase sequence in the undergrowth, before writing it, me weaving my way at wriggle level with the much smaller and lither primary school kids. Then we went on a noise walk, over the crackling twig-litter, the squelchy marsh verge, the soft sandy tracks under the casuarinas by the lake and down to the sonorous ocean, writing a quite splendid communal sound poem.
Restructure loomed. A colleague had a heart attack. My contract was up for renewal. I’m frugal, and had enough money. So I retired.
I spent a year not teaching, and then set myself up as a private consultant. The agony of deciding on a price when I’d always been paid a wage! And the agony of wondering if I was worth the price I put on myself! I loved this teaching, and did some really good work when I could focus and wasn’t trying to run seven projects at once. There was a workshop over a couple of days with reluctant boy writers, incorporating computers, and using the extensive playground for inspiration. This too was a productive collaboration – luckily my collaborator knew Apple. My last hurrah in the classroom was a two-day workshop for talented writers from a number of schools, one of the best and most thorough things I ever did.
For three years after that, I wrote teaching ideas for the NSW school magazine, four sets of ideas ten times a year, well-paid until I divided dollars by hours. However, the money wasn’t the whole story. I loved coming up with new ideas, and did more professional reading in those years than I’d done since teachers’ college. I had to produce worksheets, so I stretched my brain to produce ones I could live with.
Back to university
My final teaching fling was the worst teaching experience ever. Tutor for an hour a week for a semester to Dip Ed students, literacy across the curriculum? A piece of cake. A doddle. A walk in the park! Not quite. Not at all. Oh, by the way you’ll be videconferencing the tutorial (a videoconferenced tutorial?) to two other venues. So my cosy little tutorial group is now spread over 260 kilometres and out into the unreliability of cyberspace. A sigh and the acceptance of a challenge: and such it proved to be – time spent connecting, and then reconnecting after disconnection.
But all that was possible. The lecturer wasn’t. Her background was special needs, an area covered in other courses. This one required someone to offer ways of developing literacy skills in high school subjects. So I had to tweak my tutorials away from her lectures, which most students hadn’t heard anyway because they were online, and online in these rural communities was often difficult. Then it was time for the first assignment, and I got panicky questions from students: “What exactly are we supposed to do?” The assignment was incoherent and incomprehensible. So I rewrote it, and then had to negotiate my way out of directly insulting the lecturer. By now, this one hour was chewing up most of my week. When the course ended, I sought an interview with the course overseer and expressed my concerns. She said, “OK, we’ll pay you to rewrite the course.” Once I’d done that, in consultation with one of the other tutors, she said, “How about being a guest lecturer in the course next year?” I ran, screaming refusals, into the calm of full retirement.
But it’s hard to just stop teaching. I dabbled a bit in volunteering at high school, but I wasn’t easy with what they wanted us to do, so after a deep soul-search I withdrew. Then I found a pleasant volunteer-home at the Aboriginal pre-school, where I read stories, and crawled around on the floor amongst blocks, and played with plasticine, and wrote up things I’d noticed about the kidlets, and chatted with them. This lasted till Warsaw intervened.
Now my main teaching role is talking English to two little Poles.
This is the last one in my series of selective memoirs: they’ve given me a chance to reflect on a number of things that have been important to me over a span of years, but they’ve also confused time for me a bit, by taking me away from the present.