Why become a teacher? part two – my story

Some people can pinpoint a single incident or person that answers this question – for me I need to tell a story as I came to my moral purpose quite late.

I went as a young 5-year-old to Corpus Christi, a Catholic Primary School in Glenroy, from 1960 to 1966. Glenroy in those days was changing from earlier days where fairly wealthy people built large homesteads to an expanding and fairly tough neighbourhood. My father built our house in the late 1950’s at the same time the Housing Commission of Victoria developed large areas of Glenroy North (about 1,700 housing commission homes for disadvantaged families). One resident of the housing commission homes in that era Leo Wilson wrote about some of the tough times back then when mums had to knit school jumpers and boys only had one pair of shoes that dads fixed on a Sunday afternoon.

Leo recalled the milkman delivering milk in his horse and cart – one of my brothers when he was 12 or so years old got a job helping deliver milk from the local dairy early in the morning.

I recall being called a “Mick”, which was a term used to slur Catholics, by the kids from the local state school just before you were punched in the guts. This happen regularly and I got to be a good runner in those days yelling “proddy dogs” back to them (a slur term for Protestants). The golden rule was never to caught walking home alone.

It wasn’t all bad for on holidays we would all build billy carts in our court and spend weeks racing and modifying them (the ball bearing wheels made a sound as you pushed quite fast along the concrete paths).

Friday afternoon’s at school were enjoyable particularly if you made the school football side. We proudly wore our red and yellow footy jumpers for the afternoon (we were like peacocks strutting around the school yard many years before John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever) and were coached by the parish priest Fr Poulsen.

Many years later in one of my university post-graduate courses I was challenged to reflect on my morale purpose. It was then that I recalled some of my woundings during my primary years.

I was made to read a reader (I know an oxymoron) in year one titled John and Betty by the nun that taught our grade. We were all scared of this nun for if we left out a word from the text or worse still couldn’t sound it out we were smacked on our hands. It was known years afterwards as the “smack and say” method of instruction. This seemed at odds with me for I enjoyed reading in bed (not “See John jump” text).

However it was two experiences in grade 6 that really stood out:

There were about 50 of us in my year 6 class with the desks in rows crammed from the back wall up to the platform where the teacher sat. We all faced the blackboard which usually contained the days work written out by Mrs Hassett, our teacher. Relief from this rigid learning was in the school yard or so I thought! It was during one lunch time where a bully named Shane stole my footy. Feeling somewhat scared of him I still gave chase. I did say I was fast – well I caught up to him only to be punched a few times with students yelling fight. The nun on yard duty dragged us both up to the principal to be strapped on the hand. I also had my prefect badge removed and felt angry at the injustice as he continued to snigger at me for weeks afterwards. He seemed quite accustomed to being strapped but I wasn’t and the pain never quite left me.

Corporal punishment was not banned in Victorian government schools for another 30 years as I was sadly to learn as a young teacher.

This incident was quickly followed by another far worse wounding of the heart. I had taken the year 7 entrance exam to gain entry to my father’s old school, Parade. The results were delivered to the school and the year 6 teacher stood at the front of the class and announced that I had failed to gain entry and I felt humiliated. Not content with that she soon afterwards walked down the narrow aisle between the rows of desks and stopped in front of me and pronounced that I really shouldn’t bother to sit any more entrance exams as I wasn’t smart enough and would only disappoint my parents even further. I remember hiding for hours after school too humiliated to tell my parents that I hadn’t got in.

Well I ended up going on to St Josephs in Pascoe Vale and in the hustle and bustle shelved those memories for many years.

It seemed to me as a young and then experienced teacher and later principal that we should learn to listen and understand one another forming trustworthy relationships and that our emotions played a significant role in learning. Yes there were some times I kept students in at lunch to complete their work (I thought that a natural consequence of not working hard enough during learning time) but I was never tempted to hurt someone to achieve my and much later I was to understand “our” goals. My imperatives were to have students as partners in learning, to use our emotional intelligence in forming trusting relationships and become assessment literate so that learning was an informed process not a judgemental one.

I never forgot the pleasures of “play time in the school yard” and still kick the footy with the kids in the yard.

I think the ideas of restorative justice / relational learning came easily to me rather than the crime and punishment dichotomy and similarly DataWise which uses the power of data to inform both teaching and learning.

The more I hear these stories the more I find the answers to this question quite personal yet strangely similar.