L2 was a conscientious, high achieving student in a State High School in what, at the time, was a new suburb of Melbourne. Her teachers were mostly young graduates who moved on quickly, providing energy and enthusiasm, but little continuity. There was no tradition of university entry at the school. Very few students stayed on to Year 12 and 5 or 6 of those might proceed to University. No career counselling was provided, beyond that casually given by individual teachers – “You’re good at school – you should become a teacher”.
Her father was ambivalent about the usefulness of a university education, but her mother encouraged her and she applied for and was accepted into Arts/Law at Melbourne University on a Commonwealth Scholarship.
She had also been offered a Teaching Scholarship. The notification told her to attend a meeting at Melbourne Teachers’ College, which she did, wearing casual clothes. The male presenter at the meeting singled her out, commenting to the assembled group: “We don’t expect anyone to turn up looking like that!”. He also warned the potential teachers “You’re not here to get pregnant”.
She began Law.
She did not, however, stay long. She was the only woman in the course. She knew no-one and was made to feel an outsider. Her cohort were largely from Law families. They had a Law dress-code and connections in the Law fraternity that would secure their placement as articled clerks. It was made clear to her that as a woman with no Law connections she would never find a position. Her boyfriend, in the meantime, was studying at Monash University and having an interesting and enjoyable time. She was also short of money. She decided therefore to teach, reactivated her teaching scholarship and transferred to Monash to do an Arts degree and Diploma in Education. Her father, worried about having to repay her bond should she default, would not sign the papers.
Her mother signed.
L2 thrived. Education faculty members were engaged, enthusiastic, encouraging radical ideas and social change. She studied Politics. She found her Dip Ed year fantastic, feeding her growing interest in teaching.
On graduation she was appointed to a school near Frankston. It was surrounded by a wire fence and the day she started every window in the school was broken. There were 35 new teachers, 5 from the USA. All were under 30. The new principal arrived and left after a week. It took 6 months for a replacement to be appointed. In the meantime, the staff held meetings to work out how to best teach their clientele. A significant number of them were children of British migrants employed to work at a local factory which closed as they arrived. School-resisters themselves, the parents had hoped for a better and easier life – and found more unemployment.
The staff tapped into a Commonwealth Government Supplementary Grants program, aligned themselves with other innovative schools, set up weekend out-of school programs, school holiday programs, meal programs and new curriculum units. The focus was on keeping kids at school, finding courses and programs that would keep them engaged and participating. L2 established one program at a local farm, enabling students to cover their whole curriculum in the placement. It was designed – and worked – for the most hardened students, in trouble with the law, glue-sniffing, entrenched avoiders, some at risk of dying. They were not all success stories, but many were, and she still sees some of them.
The seven years she was there were exciting, demanding and exhilarating – learning to work with others to make a difference.
Throughout those years she and her colleagues supported the Monash Teacher Training program by sponsoring student teachers and supporting practicums. She was active in the Social Studies Teachers’ Association, writing units of work which the Association published and distributed to other teachers. She did some part-time work at the local Regional Education Office and was an examiner for Higher School Certificate Politics. Other teachers at the school were similarly engaged with their subject associations, community and cross-school collaboration.
A school inspector suggested that she become a Social Studies/Politics consultant, to help other teachers. This took her to part-time work at Monash University. She also began a Masters degree. She was elected as a rep to the Teachers’ Union and went to work for the Union as an industrial advocate.
What motivated her through these career changes was a sense of social justice, of wanting to improve the education of disadvantaged kids, seeing opportunities and following them. The Teachers’ Union was active in curriculum reform, trying to break the stranglehold of the Universities on the VCE and provide alternative pathways for students. She moved between the Union, the State Board of Education and the Curriculum Branch of the Victorian Education Department, building networks inside and outside education and bringing people together to achieve the changes. The leadership of Bill Hannon was inspiring. The curriculum broadened significantly.
L2 describes her younger self as a ‘goody-goody’, trying to do the right thing. She had completed the coursework for her Masters and was trying to fit in the thesis work, but realised in the end that the work she was doing was far more important than her Masters work.
The emerging changes were, of course, not universally accepted, and there were tensions within both bureaucracies and government. As the priorities of government changed from social justice to accountability and the approach to a more corporate one, L2, seeing the work she loved disappearing and many of her colleagues retrenched, took an opportunity to move into national curriculum work.
As a result of Commonwealth funding guidelines, and growing collaboration of State Education Ministers, a number of projects and organisations were established with funding contributed by all States, Territories and the Commonwealth, using a contribution formula based on population. In many instances, New Zealand was also a contributing partner. Although there were many arguments about priorities, this was collaborative work requiring the skills L2 had built and honed through her career to date. She was a good match, and the work fitted her curriculum interest and expertise. Although she took a salary cut, the work fitted her drive to achieve change and improve curriculum and schooling.
L2 worked in this national education arena for more than 20 years, managing projects and programs that underpinned the emergence of a national curriculum and national teaching standards, including large-scale curriculum resource development and procurement initiatives. She retired from full time work as Chief Executive of a national education organisation.
Her career was driven by equity issues. It began with the need to provide better schooling options for kids whose parents were largely unemployed and whose socio-economic status condemned them to poverty because there were so few pathways or options for them to access jobs. Even as she worked on this issue, it became evident that limited options for girls’ education produced similar disadvantage. Soon the urban-rural divide and the barriers for students of non-English speaking background emerged. The challenge was enormous – but worth taking up, and there was momentum. The importance of the work was a driver and a reward.
Law, as she experienced it in her first year at University, seemed so arid and boring in comparison. She would never, she believes, have got her Articles as a girl with no family connection or cultural capital in Law. She could not, she reflects, have punched her way through that.
Teaching was so exciting and open to change. There was a will and energy to do better for the cohort of students needing to stay longer at school – and to provide the nation with workers and citizens who could take Australia into a productive, diverse and technology-rich future. There was analysis, experimentation and freedom to innovate, including opportunities to collaborate with industry, community and a variety of experts. The innovation produced new pathways, new resources, new learning.
She does not regret the lost Masters’.