Another week, another funeral .. and some free advice for new teachers

As we sat in the chapel, my friend and former colleague leaned over and asked, “How’s your health? Are you feeling OK?”

Gallows humour, but it seemed apt. We’ve been to a lot of funerals this year.

We had headed back to Goulburn, which is always a bit like revisiting the scene of the crime: the site of my first official teaching post, and the place where I met, dated, and became engaged to my husband. The gentleman whose life we were honouring, Bob, had been my husband’s mentor when he was a beginning teacher. Bob had done the reading at our wedding. His widow had painted our anniversary candle, which had been made by the guy with the black humour sitting beside me. In the pew in front was my former boss, and in the one ahead of that was a couple who’d attended our wedding (keep in mind we had fewer than thirty people there – to have five of us in the same room is statistically significant), and in the row in front of that my friend and bonus-Mum who’d come with me to select my wedding dress.

The story my husband tells over and over about Bob is that when regaled with stories about Tony’s early teaching exploits, Bob would ask, “But who was learning? Them, or you?”

railway
Goulburn Railway Station in Sloane St. My Pop, a railway man, was born in Sloane St. I lived in a railway worker’s cottage, also on Sloane St.

After the service we hung out with our former colleagues, and it was easy. I miss these people. As a staff, we had been united, and those bonds remain.

Goulburn

At the club afterwards, one of my colleagues was updating me on his three sons. The eldest I had met earlier that afternoon; the youngest wasn’t there; and I was asking him where his middle child was. Many years ago, as a first year out teacher, I had taught that young man. When I say “taught,” I don’t know that I actually did. I clearly remember someone asking a question about teaching for the HSC of our Methods teacher during the Dip Ed, and she laughed and told us not to worry about it: no school would give an HSC class to a first year out.

Mine did.

Worse, they gave me Contemporary English. We had really only studied 2U and General.

Contemporary English was basically two topics. Total. So we spent six months on a topic about sport (those who know me will understand the irony), featuring David Williamson’s The Club, which is not a bad play, but it’s pretty hard to milk it for content for six months. The other text was Peter Skyzrynecki’s anthology, Joseph’s Coat, which I had studied at Uni. For a week. I think we covered almost everything in that anthology by the end of six months.

Add to that the fact that on Day 1 at that school, I had been called out of an all-staff meeting to answer an urgent call, telling me that my dearest friend from senior school had taken this own life. This Year 12 class was literally my first timetabled class in my new career. I walked in and the boys were seated on one side of the room, talking about hockey, and the girls were on the other, discussing their upcoming debutante ball. These patterns of behaviour were familiar to me, and I immediately started flashing back to my own senior years in Lithgow.

So there we were: I was consumed with grief, and my class were triggering it; I was teaching to the HSC when I was ridiculously inexperienced and arguably ill-qualified; and I was bored by the content. Add to that a class where many of the students resented being “made” to do English, and we were in for a fun time. Year 12 gave me the Amanda Woodward award that year, which was their way of calling me a prize bitch without having to utter that word on assembly. I  reckon I deserved it.

friendly
RBF

I’m not sure what they learned, but I learned a lot. In subsequent years, I would no longer be afraid of teaching HSC kids, and carved a career out of it, at Nowra Tutoring Solutions, in uni transition programs, and in HSC Marking. As much as I declared that that entire class hated me, I do recall one student (aged over 18) with whom I was actually quite close out of school, because of our shared exchange student experiences; another girl stayed after school twice a week while we lifted her literacy via free tutoring; and of course, there was my colleague’s son, who was quiet and polite, and kept himself to himself.

But then, there was Jim.

Jim was a fully-grown man, already 18,  who wanted to be out of school and on a worksite, and my recollection is that he gave me hell every lesson he was actually present. And one day after I had called him to stay back at yet another recess, I finally dropped my teacher guard and said something along the lines of, “this isn’t working – what’s your problem with me?”

So he told me.

Jim didn’t feel respected. He thought I was treating him like a child. So I thanked him for his honesty, told him I’d try to do better, and suggested a means by which he could let me know if he wasn’t happy–that didn’t involve interrupting the class. He acknowledged that he needed to show a bit more respect in the classroom, too. From then on, we treated each other quite differently, and class got easier.

(The texts didn’t get anymore interesting, though).

So that Middle Child of my colleague came in after he finished a work call, and he greeted me warmly. He updated me on his life and career. He’s polite and affable and clever, and doesn’t appear to hold any grudges against any former teachers for their cluelessness.

To any beginning teachers out there: take heart. It seems we don’t do lasting damage. And you will learn so much in those first few years, sometimes from unexpected quarters. Just do what you can to make sure the kids are learning, too.

MHS

 

 

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