M2 grew up in Whyalla, South Australia, loving school and everything associated with it. Her father worked at BHP. Her mother had been a teacher but, in deference to her husband, did not teach after her marriage. She did do some nursing. Both parents were supportive of education for their children but could not afford to send them to University.
For M2, therefore, there were two factors that contributed to her choice to teaching as a career, it was, first and foremost, an available pathway to a university education. As she put it “the economics worked for me’. Secondly, it was the continuation of something she loved. School was a great experience for her, she admired and liked her teachers and looked forward to continuing within the schooling community.
She took, therefore, a bonded scholarship from Year 11. She was nurtured within a strong work ethic, a member of a bright class where one of her good friends was the daughter of a primary school principal. Her favourite subject was Chemistry and she did harbour ambitions to do Pharmacy. The required University course, was, however, out of the reach of her parents’ finances.
She therefore readily accepted the teaching pathway, and moved to Adelaide to study at Adelaide University and Teachers’ College, staying for the first years at Mary Seymore Hostel and later sharing a flat with friends. She did not breeze through the course, but worked hard to complete it. At the end of her course she chose to return to her home town to begin teaching.
It was more challenging than she had expected. She quickly realised that her own schooling had been sheltered. The world had changed a little. More students were, often reluctantly, completing High School and not all of them were compliant or malleable. She was part of a cohort of young teachers newly arrived in the area and her mother became the support and nurturer of them all.
From there she moved to the Riverland before accepting a position at one of Adelaide’s outer metropolitan high schools built in the Open Plan style and catering for the growing cohort of secondary students whose parents were ambitious for their success. While it was a lot of fun, M2 found Open Space teaching difficult. She learned a lot. There were many talented, even brilliant, teachers there, and lots of ideas. She learned to be part of a team. In retrospect, she thinks that some students were overlooked and missed out through what were fairly middle-class assumptions about students and curriculum.
Promotion and interest took her back to South Australia’s Iron Triangle where she had to refocus in order to meet student needs. Her new Principal suggested she would need to relearn how to teach after the metropolitan open plan experience, and there was a core of truth in that somewhat cynical prediction. She realised there were a lot of barriers to individual student participation in a region with rising unemployment and threatened industry closures. There were teachers, including coordinators, deputies and principals, working on getting students to participate. She began to see that while excellence is undeniably the goal, getting students to participate in learning is a pre-requisite – and not easily achieved. She realised that she did not have sufficient curriculum understanding to engage the students or make the necessary changes. She set about rectifying her deficit. She was helped immeasurably by her colleagues, including the leadership team. The people she worked with were instrumental in her changing. She learned to think outside her box of assumptions, to understand that there is always a way through, but that way may involve significant change – of attitude, assumptions, curriculum and approach. She could see it working for the students.
With encouragement, from her principal as well as from her partner, she began to apply for Deputy Principal positions – not something she would have done of her own accord. She gained in confidence and went on to two long and very successful stints as Principal at large, complex and challenging high schools, driven now by a belief that all kids deserve the best education possible. These were years of significant curriculum innovation and adaptation, opening up curriculum and assessment to incorporate links with industry, community and tertiary providers. The skills and understanding required of teachers in these environments were more complex than those required by those teachers who first inspired her as a student at Whyalla High – as were the skills she had developed to lead a team of such teachers and support staff. She did not, however, waiver in her commitment to the world of schooling.
She had difficulty adapting to retirement. She missed the people and constant, daily interactions.
Had she been able to pursue a Bachelor of Pharmacy, M2 believes that the person she is now would be ashamed of the person she would probably have become. Teaching worked for her, forced her to learn – about herself, people, change and learning itself- and to change.
Being confronted by the needs of students who did not share her own sheltered background, forced her to work out what she believed, and therefore must do as a teacher. It pushed her to understand curriculum change and also to understand the importance of relationships, how to manage them, what she could let go of and what she had to preserve and fight for.
In her own words:
I worked out what I truly believed about education, what my non-negotiables were. Without that I would never have become a Principal
When I was a Principal I knew what my line in the sand was.
This process was profound.
She learned a lot from colleagues – including to not always ‘rush in fearless’ but to be more strategic and versatile in approaching challenges. It is always better to have people on side, to find a way of engaging them and meeting their needs. Finding out what people want, giving them opportunities to achieve it will often provide a pathway to achieve your own goal. This works for students, for staff, for parents and for administrators. She learned to avoid wars if she could – and when and how to fight the wars she could not avoid.
She found, too, a partner within teaching. This strengthened and supported her growth and achievement.
Teaching worked for me!