In 1972, I walked into a classroom for the very first time as a teacher. I was doing a Dip Ed at NSW’s Newcastle University and had been given my first prac at Raymond Terrace High School, about 25 kilometres north of Newcastle. I’ll never forget it. The English teacher who was supervising me opened the door to the staff room, pointed down the corridor and said, “Third door on the left. Off you go.” Apparently, I was going to learn “on the job”.
This was my first teaching lesson: if someone else has to help you control a class, it’s no help at all. You have to work out a way of doing it on your own. I walked into that classroom to be confronted by a sea of faces, each one of them waiting to test me. They knew I was a student teacher and didn’t have much authority in the same way kids know a “sub” doesn’t. Many subs literally throw their hands up in the air and let the class do what it likes. Which, these days, means going on their phones. Back then, it was climbing out the windows.
Teachers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are strict, others easy-going. Some yell, others are calm. Some want to be popular; others couldn’t care less. There are grumpy teachers, cheerful teachers, vague teachers, sharp teachers, ambitious teachers and teachers who have never heard of a “corporate teaching ladder”.
I don’t know whether good teachers are born or made, but I do know that not many of them will stay in the profession if they’re not passionate about what they teach, or dedicated to enriching the lives of their students.
My first full-time posting, six weeks into the 1973 school year, was to Tenterfield High School, the smallest high school in NSW at the time, about 16 kilometres from the Queensland border. Back then, Tenterfield had a population of 3000, four pubs and two registered clubs. Not dissimilar to the fictional town of Bundanyabba (the Yabba) in the movie Wake in Fright, it was different to anything I’d ever experienced. The photo on the wall of the Royal Hotel of a horse being given a drink in the front bar was a hint of things to come.
Even though I came from the country, I had only lived on farms, never in a country town. I was to learn very quickly that everyone knew each other – and their business. And I discovered that teachers weren’t held in particularly high regard.
My first class, 2E3 (year 8 English), boasted that they’d already got rid of three teachers and that I’d be the next. They treated me like the wet-behind-the-ears innocent that I was. I had no control over them. Fortunately, the maths master, Doug – about 30, bearded and with a penchant for paisley shirts and red flares (trousers, not the emergency signal) – heard the riot raging inside my weatherboard classroom one morning and came to my rescue. Afterwards, he told me no matter how far the horse had bolted, to never let go of the reins: running out of the room wasn’t an option.
Despite the fact that we taught different subjects, he’d regularly ask me, “How’re you going?” and it meant everything to me. I survived because of him.
Above all, I endeavoured to make classes relatable. We studied Don McLean’s American Pie instead of Wordsworth.
I learnt that in order to control an unruly class, you had to keep your students busy. As a result, I spent most nights preparing – to the last millisecond – the next day’s lessons. Above all, I endeavoured to make them relatable. We studied Don McLean’s American Pie instead of Wordsworth. Without abandoning spelling and grammar, I encouraged those students who weren’t great at either to put their energies into expressing themselves. I stopped covering their essays in red ink and, instead, praised them for their ideas. When they started to gain confidence, I gently suggested corrections.
I learnt that discipline requires consistency. A class respects a direction only if it applies to everyone. Students don’t understand why some are allowed to get away with inappropriate behaviour while others get into trouble for the smallest misdemeanour.
One of my colleagues in the English department, a veteran, opened my eyes to what made a good teacher. Sue (not her real name), who some ungenerous kids thought looked like a turkey, was way too preoccupied with guiding her charges to academic glory to take any notice of the “gobbling” sounds that followed her as she strode across the playground. She was her own woman and what she didn’t know about Jane Austen wasn’t worth knowing. Her passion for literature was inspiring and the seniors adored her. Many of them went on to great things.
I came to love our librarian, Joyce. Small in stature, but a colossus in her domain with a hairstyle reminiscent of a Viking helmet, her tough-as-nails exterior belied her deeply compassionate nature. Once, I rolled up to the library with my class without having made a booking. She tore strips off me in front of the kids and sent me off with my tail between my legs. At the end of the lesson, I raced up the stairs to the library and apologised. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that endured long after I’d left Tenterfield. I remember her coming along to a staged reading of David Williamson’s The Removalists, where I was performing with the students, and not batting an eyelid at the fruity language or the sight of two kids, dressed as coppers, laying into my character.
Nowadays, most experienced teachers are too weighed down by paperwork to help their younger colleagues. Today’s newcomers are every bit as keen as they were in my day, but they just don’t get the same support. There are thousands of retired teachers who’d make wonderful mentors: why don’t we re-employ them for such a role? It might just stem the tide of teachers who are abandoning the profession.
It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops. There were many times during my first year of teaching that I felt like a complete loser.
Coaching the school football team at Tenterfield was also a game-changer. I’d pack the ones who lived out of town into my VW and drive them home after training because it was the only way they could get home. We talked: I got to know them and they got to know me.
I also threw myself into the fray, when teaching them how to tackle. I tackled the star of the team and he tackled me, which won me respect – as well as bruises. These days, the dreaded Risk Assessment Form would make such close engagement impossible, just as many years later, it would prevent me from transporting my cricket team at Sydney’s Newtown High School of the Performing Arts to games in my Kombi.
At Tenterfield, I learnt that my students lived very different lives to mine. I discovered that one 14-year-old – let’s call her Zara – got up early, washed and dressed her younger siblings, fed them, packed their lunches and walked them to school, all before 8am when she had to get herself to school, a journey of 16 kilometres. I finally understood why she was so testing in class. School was her downtime; she was here to relax before “work” began again when she got home.
The more time I spent in the classroom, the more I dropped the teacher facade and became … myself. I discarded my conservative white Pelaco for a mauve body-shirt and wide purple tie. Purple flares replaced my beige slacks. I learnt that kids see right through you if you pretend to be something you’re not.
Years later, I stopped being a senior examiner for HSC drama when it was decided we should dress like “professionals” and wear suits and ties, or, for the women, modest dresses and blouses. I felt more like a detective than a teacher.
Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops in those early days. One day, driving home after school, I waved at a group of students who were hanging out at the milk bar. One of them immediately flipped me the bird. I was shattered. I remember I went home and climbed into bed for a couple of hours. There were many, many times during my first year of teaching, in particular, that I felt like a complete loser.
However, because Tenterfield High was such a small school and a good percentage of the equally small staff had been there for years, there were opportunities available to a young teacher like me that wouldn’t have been in a bigger school. I played water polo and basketball with the kids, I was cast as Pharaoh in a school production of Joseph And the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and became the union rep because, well, I was the only one to put up my hand.
Consequently, I experienced the impact the union had on the profession directly – by reducing class sizes, for example. I came to appreciate that it wanted to improve conditions for teachers and students alike: we weren’t the “commos” the media liked to portray us as. At a rally many years later, I was struck by the number of middle-aged women marching for better conditions for teachers. They were just dedicated, not radical.
I gained respect, became trusted. I was given positions of responsibility. I learnt to treat my students as human beings, not to talk down to them or try to curry favour by using nicknames in a misguided effort to be the “popular teacher”. I learnt that students don’t want to be your friend, they want to know where they stand. And I learnt to be patient. Today, I still encourage all my drama students to sit in a circle. I do this so everyone can hear and see everyone else. They pretend they hate it, especially the year 12s, but I wait until everyone is in a circle before I begin the lesson. I’ve learnt to be patient. If it takes 10 minutes, it takes 10 minutes. It’s always worth it in the end.
I’m still teaching – for the simple reason that I love it. I love seeing the smiles on students’ faces in the corridors as they rush past me. And I love the trust they place in me, which I hope I deserve. It’s a wonderful profession and I’ve loved (nearly) every moment of my 50 years as a teacher.