From the age of 10, W said she wanted to be a teacher; a primary school teacher. Her home at St Peters in Adelaide had a garage with huge panels that acted as a blackboard and there she would play at being a teacher with younger children serving as her pupils.
When she was at high school an elderly friend of her family asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. When she answered “a primary teacher” he asked her why and suggested she should be a secondary teacher. That got her thinking.
Her Italian migrant parents had not had university education, but were literate. Education mattered and was valued in her family. Her mother had aspired to university and told the story of a family friend in her grandfather’s generation who became a professor and yet her grandfather had been the brighter of the two throughout their schooling. The fact that W wanted to be a teacher was given great importance by her parents and regarded as a high status choice. She was supported to the maximum level – not in material terms (such as coaching) but in terms of values and valuing.
Study came easily to her. She was an A student, in the top 3 in exams. She loved language from the beginning and studied French and German as well as English. At home she spoke only Italian – her mother insisting on teaching her daughters both their Italian dialect and standard Italian. She was the only ‘’migrant” girl in her class at school. In retrospect, she recalls some discrimination, but at the time she saw things as ‘normal’. She was aware of having a ‘different’ family background. She remembers an incident where at lunchtime a friend commented in a group “My parents can’t stand Italians”. W walked away. This is her only recollection of discrimination.
Advisors at Adelaide University told her she should not do three languages (English, French, German) – that the program would be too ‘literary’, but it was what she loved and was good at, so she went ahead. She had been offered both a Teachers’ College Scholarship and a Commonwealth Scholarship. Wary of the bonding requirement of the Teachers’ College Scholarship, she accepted the Commonwealth – then ended up going into teacher anyway.
While studying, she had an evening job teaching English to migrants and also, twice a week, a morning job teaching French to a small group of wealthy women. She enjoyed the work, which she approached intuitively. It provided the foundation for experimentation.
Her first degree was in French Language and Literature. At home she spoke exclusively Italian. At the end of her degree she did a Diploma in Education, completing her practice teaching at Loreto College and Henley Beach High School. At Loreto she taught Years 8, 9 and 10 French – and since the Year 12 teacher fell ill during this time, she taught the Year 12 Matriculation class for six weeks.
She applied to the Education Department for a teaching position and was appointed to Enfield High School. This was not quite the supportive environment of her previous part time jobs. She was assigned Years 8 and 9 French only. 50% of her students were from single parent families. The parent of one student was a jeweller. All other parents were “unskilled” or blue-collar workers. She had never encountered such disadvantage. In this environment she really learnt to teach. It was as if teaching were in her blood. She found she could just do it. The environment and especially the children she worked with prompted her to start thinking about learning. Teaching, she realised, was not enough. She began to learn about learning.
Within three years she was assessed for promotion. She had spent a month in Noumea strengthening her French followed by two months in Paris and Montpellier. She then won a French Government Scholarship to live and teach in France for a year.
On her return, the Principal Education Officer (PEO) for Languages other than English drew her attention to a job advertisement in the Education Gazette. It was a half-time position for an Adviser in Italian. She applied for, and won it.
This gave her a ‘panoramic view’. She was made a member of the Public Examinations Board as a bilingual assessor. Her capability in French, Italian and German enabled her to make the comparisons necessary to set a common standard across the examination of those languages.
She had two offers of Language Senior positions and accepted Enfield where the languages offering was being expanded to include Italian and Greek. Students in Year 8 chose one language out of 5. Again, she was approached by the PEO in Languages, this time to join a committee to develop Languages policy. She also remained on the Public Examinations Board as it evolved into the Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia and the South Australian Certificate of Education. These experiences again widened her perspective and gave her access to a policy environment. Her advisory work gave her insights into staff development.
She resisted pressure to work full-time out of school, but after eight years at Enfield High School she gave into the pressure and accepted a full-time appointment to work on a Project of National Significance, the Australian Language Learning (ALL) Project. This put her into the National Languages space. It also gave her the opportunity to speak on a regular basis with the South Australian Curriculum Director (at that time Garth Boomer). The ALL Project held to the principle of a language in addition to English for every child – a principle to which W still holds.
Eventually, and again, somewhat reluctantly, W accepted the role of Director of the project. This took her out of the South Australian Education Department fully into the national arena, answerable not to South Australia, but to the national collective. She was developing a ‘living, breathing national curriculum’ in languages – a task of great importance to her at that time. She had eight years of leave from the South Australian Education Department to complete this work.
From this role she was invited to go to Hong Kong on a Hong Kong Bank Fellowship at the Institute for Language in Education to redesign the primary and secondary curriculum. She was, she says, ‘absolutely frightened beyond belief’. This further honed her negotiation skills. She also learned about the interpretation of meaning within and across languages and cultures in education.
Everything she had strived for in her career came down to a question of how meaning translates across cultures and across languages. She realised that all the bridging she had done in her life – as the interpreter for her parents, as the moderator of ‘equivalences’ of language performance and assessment, as a curriculum developer – was also fundamental to learning. Learning itself is an act of interpretation of meanings. Her work has been grounded in the understanding that both the act of communication and the act of teaching and learning requires more than transacting information; it requires interpretation – an understanding of what others mean, of what and how they understand.
In Hong Kong she questioned constantly, whether she was imposing her own values on another culture, or set of cultures, and struggled to reach a balance that reflected local aspirations and values. The Hong Kong authorities were sufficiently satisfied to ask her to stay longer – but she chose to return to Australia.
By now, however, W had been away from the South Australian Education Department for 10 years. She could not extend that further and had to decide whether to return or seek a different path. She had a right of return and the staffing officer offered her a position at the level of a secondary principal. That would be the safest option. She was also offered, unexpectedly, positions without tenure, at both Sydney University and the University of South Australia. She chose a two-year contract at the University of South Australia.
She has been there for 22 years, through a period of great change – which suited her at the time. Although she had to do a lot of administrative work, was head of the school for a number of years, established a research centre and applied for and managed numerous projects and grants. It gave her, she believes, the space to think. She was able to think things through and take a philosophical stance. Some of this was down to the leadership of Denise Bradley, who got, W believes, the right balance between research, administration and teaching.
Although her approach and research is all within the sphere of education she has remained firmly within the domain of languages and applied linguistics. She feels that, from a base within languages and applied linguistics, she has been able to maintain a humanistic conception of learning notwithstanding the force of economic rationalism. Education, she believes, is a humanistic endeavour and she has been able to return to a philosophical way of viewing education. Her work reasserts the goals of language as communicating meaning which she now sees as having been a life-long project for her – an openness to constructing and striving for meaning, asking the question of why an individual student made the particular connection that they did and therefore coming to understand that child’s particular meanings. Unless we delve into the meanings that students and teachers make individually, how, she asks, can we affect change? Once you begin to attend to meaning and you see learning as an interpretation and exchange of meanings, you cannot but attend to people. The starting point is the child interpreting and enacting meaning.
She is interested in the emerging research connecting hermeneutics to education. Her own connection point is linguistic and interpretive.
From her study of French she realised that you can be talking to someone without realising what is in each other’s mind. Her reading of French and German philosophy confirmed different ways of seeing the world and the importance of what motivates people. The literature of Southern Italy, with its connection to migration and the migrant experience, further raised for her issues of equity and interpretation. Her Hong Kong experience led to introspection and an exploration of interpretation in a culture that was different from her own ‘western’ enculturation.
W is now writing and researching around the propositions that the way people interpret language mediates the exchange of meaning and values and that this process underpins all education, particularly where language and culture come into play in contexts of diversity.
Hers, she thinks, is a story of great privilege – in the opportunities she has had to bring her to this point. Her major regret is that it took her so long to see the connecting thread across all her experience and work. On the one hand she is grateful for the gradual incremental growth in her opportunities and world view, expanding from very local experience to national and international thinking and connectivity. On the other, she would like to have seen the connecting threads earlier, connecting, for example, French literature with applied linguistics and education in diversity and having the confidence in her own voice earlier. In the 1980s she objected to elements of Multiculturalism policy. Now she can articulate why. She could, she thinks, have been even more productive had she made the connections earlier.
Her current work is focusing on working with teachers in studies of language learning. She remembers some of her first students and the way they learned and made meaning as she rubbed shoulders with them, seeing them on their own terms, people working together, interpreting, exchanging, probing meanings to reach understanding of the matter at hand, and importantly, of each other.
That, for W, is the joy.