N followed her two older sisters to Woodville High School in Adelaide. Her mother enrolled her in the Commercial stream following the common wisdom that if you can type you will always have a job. Port Adelaide Girls High would have been closer, but it had, according to her mother, a bit of a reputation, and she feared her girls would get pregnant if they went there.
Her father was a wharf labourer, which, at that time, meant no security. Men presented for work each day and were assigned to unload or load ships on a needs basis. The insecurity meant her mother worked to maintain cash flow. Her father was keen for the children to join the workforce to contribute to the family income and security. Her two older sisters left school at 14 to work and contribute.
At the end of her years of compulsion, N was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to complete secondary schooling. Her mother was able to use this as leverage to gain her father’s support for her to remain at school to do her Leaving Certificate, and then Matriculation (this was a changeover year from Leaving Honours and the new Matriculation required the completion of a minimum of five subjects). In her final year N worked between 4 and 6 pm in a Delicatessen and longer hours in school holidays to relieve the burden on her family and to contribute.
She wanted to be a Physiotherapist. She can no longer remember what inspired this ambition, but as she entered her final year she learned that only 23 students were taken into Physiotherapy training. She could not imagine she would be one of them. Entry required 6 matriculation subjects and the school only offered 5. N was part of a group of students who spoke to the principal about doing 6 subjects but the school would or could not support them. It appeared that her only option for a university education was a Teachers’ College Scholarship.
She did not expect to like teaching, so planned to get a teaching scholarship, work her three year bond then go overseas to Canada. She had a family friend who had travelled to Canada, so it was an overseas destination that felt safe and achievable. As it happens, N has travelled in many countries – but as yet has not made it to Canada!
Once she had won her Teachers’ College Scholarship, her program involved both lectures at University and at Adelaide Teachers’ College. She was counselled at Teachers’ College away from Psychology, in which she was interested, into Geography. A language was compulsory at Adelaide University at the time she entered, so she was enrolled in four teaching subjects – English, History, Geography and French. History and Biology in her final year of school were choices dictated by the limited Science and Mathematics she had been able to do as a result of her early choice of a Commercial stream and there were no prerequisites for these subjects. She had no exposure to Art, Physics or Chemistry.
University was an alien environment. She was still working 5 evenings a week and during holidays, but now in a BP Garage as a driveway attendant – the first female driveway attendant in South Australia for BP. She felt strongly the need to contribute to the family income. She lacked confidence, thinking of herself as underprepared and expecting to be less capable in academic terms than her peers. She lacked confidence to move comfortably around the university – avoiding the cafeteria and finding an isolated cubby hole in the library. She struggled with French. The school French curriculum was based on reading and writing. The university curriculum demanded she speak French. In spite of hours of extra work in the language laboratories at the university she failed French and had to repeat. Eventually, towards the end of her university course, the university rules changed and she was able to switch to Philosophy and gain her degree.
Speech education was part of the Diploma of Teaching at Adelaide Teachers’ College. Here her lecturer called her in for private lessons, asking her if she ‘came from Port Melbourne’ after hearing her speak in class. He tried to modify her Working Class speech patterns to a Middle Class pattern he found more acceptable. She used to practice at home in front of a mirror to get it right. It also, however, put her in a bind, as participation in class was a criterion for passing the Speech course. If she participated, she drew attention to her speaking patterns, if she didn’t she failed anyway.
Because of her background she elected to go to Croydon Technical High and Angle Park Technical High Schools for her practice teaching thinking she would be able to relate well to the students and be effective. She found both a nightmare as the students were so challenging. She applied for country schools at the end of her training. She wanted somewhere simple to learn the craft of teaching, having little confidence she had gained this from her training. She listed Allendale East as her first choice and was sent to Mount Gambier.
Mount Gambier High School was large. It also had a lot of young teachers, many also in their first year of teaching. She received great support from the female deputy principal who encouraged her to join the Union and to be assessed as a Senior. To her surprise, she both enjoyed teaching and was good at it. She realised later that she had very high expectations of her students, worked hard and got good results. She had, she realised, been given a home group of students the school did not expect to pass and almost all of them did well. Her expectations of herself – and her students played a significant part.
In her third year N was assessed as Senior and, somewhat to the surprise and chagrin of the Principal, was offered an appointment the next year as Social Studies Senior at Victor Harbor High. Newly appointed Seniors had to serve out a probation year, at the end of which they were inspected and assessed as fully eligible. N accepted.
At Victor Harbor the staff was established and there were few young teachers. N served out her probation year successfully before taking a year’s leave to go overseas. On her return she was appointed to Salisbury East High School, which was large enough for her to share the leadership of the History faculty with another Senior. By now she had developed an interest in Student Counselling and took an Acting position at Modbury High School before travelling again for two terms.
Her interest in student welfare led to her applying for a position at the Parks High School, working with Year 11 students at risk of dropping out. Her task was to get them work-ready and find them a job. She had 11 lessons a week with this group of students and introduced Work Education and Driver Education amongst other things. Initially the group was difficult but once she was able to organise a program of Work Education things improved and the program was successful. This took N into full-time Student Counselling at both the Parks and Port Adelaide Girls’. She feels she got bored with classroom teaching and wanted a different challenge. Counselling gave her that opportunity. From there she was appointed Deputy Principal at The Parks.
The Parks was an extremely rewarding environment. Every disadvantaged group was amply represented – refugees, a wide range of students with disabilities, Indigenous students and those in poverty (70 per cent of students were on school card). There was a lot of support. Staff were progressive and willing to try new things and to learn new ways of teaching. The whole focus was on improving outcomes for the socially disadvantaged.
Programs were developed to engage students and promote their success. In Year 10, teachers worked in teams with community workers, social workers, teacher-librarians, families and health workers to develop student confidence and team skills as well as understand appropriate behaviour.
People wanted to be part of it. Every teacher was assigned 30 minutes with their pastoral care group each day and developed programs that involved community and parent participation. Relationships underpinned the entire school program. Teachers were supported to visit students in their homes and to know the community.
N applied for other positions along the way. She was by now very confident professionally but never confident about the processes of bureaucracy, especially job applications. There were gender issues involved and her slight build was seen as a barrier to a leadership presence. She was anxious about interviews and about her appearance. She maintained high levels of fitness.
She won a position as Principal of a Girls’ High School and then as the inaugural Principal of a new, modern thrust into distance education, picking up the emerging technologies that took such delivery from Correspondence Schooling to Open Access schooling for the whole State. She thrived in this dynamic change environment. Here she was able to apply her skills to work through significant issues of both delivery and social justice. Once again, she was working with every group of disadvantage in the community, including an emerging and growing group of students with mental health issues. The same issues were emerging nationally and she was drawn into national discussion and solutions.
The growth of Information Technologies provided both challenges and opportunities and she embraced these with intelligence and practical understanding. She closed down the iconic School of the Air HF radio, with considerable community resistance, but with replacement ICT services that took remote area educational delivery to whole new levels and which have been now embraced and further extended by communities. She visited remote stations, assessed needs, fought for and achieved better deals from the Education Department. She had experiences and met people she would otherwise have never met – and is profoundly grateful and feels enriched by these experiences.
In ‘retirement’ she has taken an Acting Principal position, worked as a diagnostic review officer and as an Education Consultant completed a range of short term projects for the Education Department. N has also undertaken four overseas assignments as an Australian Business Volunteer and two short term assignments as an Indigenous Community Volunteer.
She has never regretted her choice to stay with teaching. She hopes one day to get to Canada. She did, at one stage, think of joining the Police. She thinks, had she done so, she would have ended up doing similar things to those she does now in retirement. She prefers group activities and situations that lend themselves to that. She has been actively involved in sport and still walks regularly. She is attracted to teams and her voluntary work reflects that. It also reflects her life-long commitment to, and work for, Social Justice.
From her recruitment until her retirement she was in permanent work – and she is proud and grateful. Her father would have been very pleased with that, as would her mother. Personal security is just desserts for her work and their struggle. What’s more, the community, continues to see the benefits through the contributions of many who entered the schooling system socially disadvantaged but found pathways to education and work made possible by the dogged work, over more than 50 years, of A Girl from the Port.