A comment on his practice teaching report that he was “good with a difficult class” redirected Y from a future in hospitality to a long and successful career in education. The son of two primary school teachers, he attended high school in suburban Adelaide and wanted to attend university and leave home at the end of high school. The Teachers’ College Scholarship, unlike the Commonwealth Scholarship he also won, paid a living allowance. He was amongst the last cohort to benefit from the Teachers’ College Scholarships designed to encourage final year school students into teaching.
By the time he finished his Dip Ed, the demand for teachers was lessening and the scholarship scheme had been curtailed. Although the Education Department honoured the commitment to train, they no longer guaranteed work and no longer enforced their bond. Y had taken an extra year to finish because of an eye operation. He was offered a country placement but under no obligation to take it. He was, by this time, in a committed long-term relationship and his partner worked in the city. He therefore turned down the appointment and got work as a waiter and restaurant manager for two years.
In his final year of school Y had kept his options open by doing Maths I and II, Physics and Chemistry but he liked reading and opted for an Arts Degree in English and History, followed by a Dip Ed. His parents would have liked him to do Law or Medicine. He briefly harboured acting ambitions after getting some work as an actor in Year 12 and joining a university Footlights Club. He didn’t, however, enjoy the company of other actors at university and gave up acting. Although he had enjoyed his practice teaching, he also enjoyed his restaurant work and, still looking at a range of options, did not regard himself as having a teaching vocation. Having rejected the country teaching appointment, he made no attempt to obtain relief or contract teaching in the city, even though it would pay more than his hospitality work.
Then, out of the blue, an Education Department staffing officer rang him and offered him a six-month contract teaching Special Education at Christie’s Beach High School. The offer was based on the comment on his final practice teaching report that he was ‘good with a difficult class”.
The Special Education teacher he replaced was taking six months leave. The class was a located in a transportable off the car park – well away from the rest of the school. His supervising Senior Master told him he would not teach the students much, but should keep them happy. Fortunately, another Special Education teacher who was on study leave, came once a week, as part of his study, to work with one of the students in the class. He became a mentor and guide to Y. It was he who impressed on Y that all students, including those in this class, deserved to learn. He would say to Y, “Have you tried …?”. When he returned the next week Y would have implemented it. He drew heavily on the primary school teaching experience of his own parents, consulting them regularly. He liked the work and discovered he was good at it.
He also had one mainstream English class. The English Senior took Y under his wing and again, Y was successful. He found he was good at absorbing advice and influences.
Parents, as well as Y, could see changes in the learning of students in the Special Education Class. At the end of the six months he knew this was what he wanted to do. Nevertheless he went back to being a waiter. He did, however, at the beginning of the next year, phone the Special Education staffing officer to see if there were any vacancies. She told him she had him pencilled against three vacancies – all on public transport routes because she knew he did not drive!
He accepted the job offered – Adaptive Education and Reading teacher at Parafield Gardens High School. Unlike the Christie’s Beach job, this one was providing support within the mainstream, working alongside other teachers. Again Y spoke frequently to his own parents for advice. He also did a lot of reading. He found Margaret MacDonald Clark’s book Young Fluent Readers particularly helpful. Based on observing what it is that fluent readers do, it provided a framework for Y’s own practice. He worked on identifying what each student could already do and built on that. In contrast to the isolated transportable at Christie’s Beach, he was now working in an Open Space environment, with lots of teachers, many of them young, getting students to read as part of their mainstream education. It was highly interactive, open, connected and linked. He joined the South Australian English Teachers’ Association, did programs in the holidays and spoke at conferences. Once again, he was supported and mentored by his English Senior.
He was given two consecutive one-year contracts to Parafield Gardens. During the second of these he was made permanent – because of the scarcity of Special Education teachers. He thrived on the collaboration and team work, the shared professionalism and growing knowledge and expertise. He continued to grow in his satisfaction with the work and confirmation of his own capacity to achieve in this area.
At the end of these two years, his English Senior was seconded to run a project designed to develop accredited courses that would keep students at school beyond year 10. Dubbed 2S (for Senior Secondary), the project was developing rigorous, hands-on, assessable, community-based courses that would prepare students for work and work-related study. The project had been set up in part to respond to the needs of significant numbers of your people returning to school because they had been unable to get jobs at the end of Year 10. Y was recruited as a curriculum writer for the project.
This job exposed Y to curriculum ferment. The old Public Examinations Board was transitioning into the Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia, widening the range and scope of accredited subjects, exploring alternative assessment models and methods. The project was located at Wattle Park Teachers’ Centre – along with other projects exploring literacy, science, computing and language learning. Headed by Garth Boomer, it was opening up learning, pushing the boundaries – looking for solutions to emerging needs. There was energy, expertise and ideas. With his ‘sponge ability’, Y thrived.
The 2S project worked with a group of schools to trial courses. They submitted 31 draft courses to the newly-formed and alternative course-hungry SSABSA, expecting to have them accepted for further work. When they were accepted as submitted they had more work to do with schools to adapt, modify and support. It also opened up the world of assessment and accreditation.
However exciting this world was, Y saw his future in schools and opted to go to Thebarton Senior School as Special Education teacher. When the English Senior took six months leave, Y was appointed to act in that job. It was the first year of the wave of migration from Vietnam. The school had a high percentage of students from the older Italian and Greek migrant wave, now overlaid with Vietnamese new arrivals. The staff included some highly talented and innovative teachers and leaders, including an ex-Teachers’ Union President with performing arts expertise. Y became involved in the Union and took his curriculum development expertise into the school. He used his Senior’s role to continue the collaboration with teachers and extend school-based curriculum innovation.
The emerging demand for post-compulsory education provision for all students had begun to impact on Special Education – previously assumed to finish at Year 10. Y was asked to apply for a position to set up a Senior Special Education class in Elizabeth. At the same time, work was going on to reorganise and rationalise the schooling provision across that community. The existing Special Education provision focused mainly on creating greater independence for the students. Y took this further, introducing community-based accredited courses. It was here that he first made the connection between Special Education and poverty. He realised that had his students been at Thebarton – or at schools in more affluent areas – they would have access to more services and options.
This understanding was further developed in his next appointment – to Paralowie R-12. Here his program was community based. He – and his students – spent only half a day a week in the school. For the most part students’ learning was organised around volunteer work in the community – addressing concerns that they ‘didn’t know what a day’s work was’. Y enrolled the students in SSABSA Community Studies courses and worked with the students and community to achieve the learning outcomes. There were 12-15 students enrolled at a time. The students began recruiting others – bringing along friends who had dropped out. Most of the students were the only ones in their circle getting up in the morning and doing things. Y observed and began to address the broken connections in the kids’ lives – connections to family, to community, to the school, to work.
Most of the group could not read. They worked on a Book Week project in which the class read When the Mountain meets the Sea, prepared a video, a talk and a collage then made a presentation to a Junior Primary class. It was so successful every Junior Primary class signed up. The students became heroes – recognised and admired in the schoolyard. Y’s job was expanded to include the coordination of Work Related Practices – the first of its kind in South Australia.
The support and mentorship of the school principal at Paralowie was particularly powerful. For Y it removed all excuses. He could no longer say “They won’t let me…”! She pushed him to join state-wide committees. It was difficult, emotional work. As well as the principal, he had a colleague who caught the train with him and used the journey to help solve the problems. These collegial conversations were powerful. At the same time he continued active in the Union and professional associations. He felt like a coiled spring.
He accepted an Assistant Principal job at another local school, where a new principal was putting together a new leadership team and creating reform. Just as he thought he couldn’t get any busier, he found he could be. Just when he thought all the educational change conversations had been had, he discovered teachers who had not had the conversations and had not moved from the original assumptions of their training. He describes getting to know the community as ‘endlessly peeling onions’. His challenge was to move the community programs he had developed from Special Education to the mainstream. Working collaboratively, they had about 300 students working with the community – for example, setting up an Internet café in an aged care facility. As it began to become a whole school initiative it became divisive – some staff welcoming the direction, others objecting that it was fine for Special Education students but not for ‘ordinary’ ones.
At this point Y took some leave to help one of his children transition into school. This experience made him aware of what he was missing. He had been so focused on his work roles and commitments that he was missing his own family’s growth and development. He began to schedule time to spend more time with his daughters.
He nevertheless accepted the challenge of being appointed Assistant Principal (Students at Risk) at Norwood/Morialta High School, an amalgamation of two schools, on two campuses, one of which had been a traditional, academically-focused high school while the other had been an innovative, very contemporary school. Both had had high reputations and significant leadership. Y gathered demographic data and commissioned some work on Students at Risk. He challenged policies of holding students back from yearly progression because of behavioural issues. He looked at progression from Year 8 to Year 12, rather than from Year 11 to Year 12 or from Year 12 to University. He intervened in student exclusions, setting up conferences with parents/guardians. It was again, tough work, trying to meld the strengths of innovation on the one hand and traditional excellence on the other.
A six-month secondment to write curriculum for the Education Department turned into 3 years as the new South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE) took shape before Y again made a conscious choice to return to a school, applying for and winning a Deputy Principal’s job at Enfield High School. Ironically, this once school of choice for many Northern suburbs adolescents had suffered as schools further North – in Paralowie, Salisbury and Parafield Gardens were improved and widened in their appeal. The challenge was to develop courses and teach the 300 students the school now had, rather than the shadows of the students of former glory days. Y set about developing curriculum the students wanted to do – many of them off-campus.
While at Enfield, Y applied for and won the Principal’s job. He was able to build up a younger staff. From a 40% retention rate, the school moved to a 120% retention rate – attracting more students to courses so the Year 12 enrolment was greater than had begun in Year 8. 70% of students achieved their SACE. The school’s demographic included increasing numbers of African and Middle Eastern Australians and many young mothers. 63% of students were not being raised by their biological parents. As the SA Government introduced a number of ‘superschools’ amalgamating and reshaping R-12 schooling provision in areas with enrolment decline, Y helped to steer the school into the Roma Mitchell School, then moved to another school as principal and went through another change process before taking Long Service Leave to work on his PhD.
For Y, his original degree and Dip Ed had very little to do with teaching. It did establish teaching as an intellectual thing to do. Had circumstances been different, he could, he thinks, have been a teacher of Shakespeare and applied his mind to that. As it was, circumstances demanded he apply his mind to a different set of challenges in order to provide the students he had in front of him with the learning they deserved.
His work and thinking developed through connectedness – to ideas, to colleagues, to students, parents and communities.
Critical for him was the realisation that he was good at what he was doing and, a bit later, the realisation he had to confront poverty. He believed in educating disadvantaged students – but the discovery that he was good at it was life-changing. His encounters with leaders like Garth Boomer, Jim Dellit and Pat Thomson, enabled him to see his task as an intellectual act – and to apply his intellect to changing how those students experience education, to enabling them to learn and developing a classroom pragmatic. By engaging with ideas, and developing those ideas with others he developed an approach of read, think, do – asking all the time how to frame this in a particular context – and that those contexts were almost always underpinned by poverty.