When you can no longer fight, flight is the only option. It’s hard to admit, but that was my thought process on the Thursday afternoon that I conceded defeat and walked away from my career as a teacher. My psychologist told me I’d been resisting that primal urge – the acute stress response known as “fight or flight” – for far too long. I told her that’s what teachers do.
After 15 years of primary teaching, I felt broken. Having reached a point of burnout, with my physical and mental health at risk, I decided to step away from the classroom. I was an excellent teacher and my decision to walk away was described as “a great loss”. But I couldn’t keep jumping through the unreasonable hoops. I felt morally and ethically conflicted about primary education in Australia.
Saran is six. His family is new to our small, rural town. He is embarrassed when I ask him about the Indian he speaks at home. At the Parent Teacher interview, Saran’s mother nods while I speak, nods again as the older sister translates. I’ve not yet met Saran’s dad, but Saran proudly tells me he is very very busy at their restaurant.
Jaymez – pronounced James – is seven. He should have started Kindergarten (Prep) last year. He should have been to preschool. He should attend school more often than he does. He is tightly loved by his lonely single mum who keeps him home for company.
Trudy makes me laugh. She will be six in fourteen sleeps and her confidence is delightful, she can write her name and count to one hundred and nine. She does Irish Dancing lessons and demonstrates an elaborate jig for all the students who are waiting at the bus lines. Her mum came to see me yesterday – Trudy’s folks are separating. I fill an entire page with notes; new addresses, schedules, buses. I can feel Trudy’s confidence slipping away as the ground shifts beneath her dancing feet.
Taylah (the girl) is still four; immature, too young, not ready. Her speech is awkward, babyish and she can’t make all the sounds. She looks dirty and she’s always hungry – our classroom fruit bowl is really just for her. Her mum avoids me, waits outside the school gates, doesn’t talk to other parents. I tried to call but the enrolment forms were almost blank: a digit missing from their phone number, their religion listed as catlic.
Taylor (the boy) has just turned six. His parents are going to be the proactive kind. When I first met them at Orientation last year, they asked when the P&F meetings were held. Taylor has autism and two folders of paperwork. A teacher aide is assigned to assist him. But only from nine to eleven. And not on a Friday. Funding is tight.
Selina keeps me up at night. She made a disclosure two weeks ago. I had to report it. I’ve had a meeting with someone from Family and Community Services every day this week. No wonder she is such an angry little five year old. I am angry too.
Davey has the same birthday as me. He turned six. His mum brought in lactose-free, gluten-free, nut-free, sugar-free cup cakes, trying to appease all the dietary needs. Davey vomited his straight into his school bag. Dave Senior just laughed when I told him and scruffed Davey on the head. The smell of sour milk and cow shit hangs around Dave Senior so a bit of vomit doesn’t bother him. But Dave Senior won’t talk about Davey’s aggression, tells me they don’t have a problem with it at home.
Ray is six and a half. He likes holding up the extra half finger to show me. I am not meant to, but I wrap my fingers around his and watch how Ray’s dark skin contrasts against my white pallor. He told me once he doesn’t want to be Koori anymore. I didn’t know what to do with that. Our lovely-white-once-a-fortnight-for-half-a-day school counsellor probably wouldn’t know what to do with that either. Making contact with a local elder is on my list of things to do.
I am thirty eight and tired. I’m only a third of the way through my class roll, a list that hurts my heart if I look at it too long. But I know what to do with these students. I’m an excellent teacher. I know how to bring them together, I can make a team from these disparate backgrounds. I am able to create a feeling of family and safety and security. In my classroom they know they can take risks and try new things and experience failure all the while being supported by me and by each other.
We feast on stories together, devouring Wild Things and savouring the rooftop Hippo. They come to love the taste of reading, the flavour it adds to their life. In small, bite size pieces I show them how it’s done – how they can make meaning from the words. Their eyes sparkle when they realise they can read, when they realise they can nourish themselves.
There is something about giving the gift of reading that creates trust. These little ones believe me when I tell them they are writers. We put a sign on our door:
Writers At Work.
Our room comes alive with a hushed concentration. I join them in the writing process, my texta scratching onto butcher’s paper, modelling my love of writing. I field the occasional question:
how do you spell unicorn?
does motorbike have a ‘a’ in it?
can we put ‘crocodile’ on the word wall?
We explore the world of Mathematics. Everyday we count to one hundred, by ones, by fives, by tens. We look at the hundreds chart and become pattern detectives: noticing, questioning, creating. We solve problems, putting the big number in our head with a theatrical tap and counting on with our fingers.
Watching children learn is a beautiful and extraordinary experience. Their bodies transform, reflecting inner changes. Teeth fall out. Knees scab. Hair grows. Freckles multiply. Throughout the year they grow in endless ways and I can almost see their self-esteem rising, their confidence soaring, their small bodies now empowered. Given wings.
They fall in love with learning.
It is a kind magic,
a kind of loving,
a kind of art.
It is teaching.
Just what I do.
What I did.
I just love the fact that as I was reading something that was making me very sad about a system, I just loved the descriptions. Fiona Wylie, Statewide Drive, 28th January 2016
Listen to the full interview with Fiona Wylie on Statewide Drive by clicking… here!
And hear Senator Simon Birmingham’s response by clicking… here!
Gabbie was also a guest on Richard Fidler, Conversations, February 10th 2016