When I look back at my year, I have the most profound adoration and sympathy for my colleagues in the teaching profession. Not many people get to truly understand the depths of poverty and disadvantage as public school teachers do, but we also fill our lives with the good news- the truly inspirational stories and achievements of our young people. People who don’t teach may not fathom it, but a big comprehensive public high school is a workplace brimming with optimism.
But this year has been a challenge. For me, to walk into my Year 9 class that is as diverse as any you could possibly imagine, on the day after the Christchurch massacre, and talk about it- really talk about it- and to answer and discuss the questions of why? That was a tough day. In November, when a state of emergency was called in NSW, our school stayed open with a skeleton crew, and those of us who kept going in the yellow-grey smoke became spontaneous counselors when child after child learnt about evacuations, cried for animals and livestock at home on properties, and got messages that their homes had burnt down. And amongst it all we heard news stories that the Morrison Government was providing emergency drought funding to private schools but not public ones . I raged at that one.
This was a year where public school teachers, again and again, worked to remind the community that students with disabilities, who missed out on the early roll out of needs based funding, still didn’t have the support they needed. But there were positives too. I have one boy, who I’ll call C, who spent a lot of his childhood as an orphan in a refugee camp. He was ‘collected’ along the way by two sisters who came to Australia, where C attended his first school. At fifteen, when many boys seem to plateau academically, he went from being a student who got D’s in English, to one who ended the year at the top of my class. When I told the whole class this, they literally clapped and cheered for him, and his friend told me that this was the case in three other subjects as well. The amount of effort and growth and the determination to rise above disadvantage is real, and it’s inspirational and it happens in every single public school; these are the real rewards of teaching.
This year has also been distressing because a changed climate IS HERE. My beautiful state is burning. The rain-forests of my childhood, with all their tree-dwelling mammals and birds, were on fire for two months and I spent a large part of this year in a state of heightened distress and reactionary depression. I’m glad that the students go on strike for climate, and I wish this problem had been solved when we had the time to actually do something about it. As a teacher I had to find a creative outlet, and this year I focused on giving a creative voice to the concerns of youth. I run my annual Jetty Flash Fiction writing competition and for the final round challenge I set the genre as Cli-Fi. This writing competition, and in particular the quality of the finalists’ writing, has been a highlight of my year, not least because I got my Extension English students to co-judge with me. The winning story was set in a Venice submerged under a rising sea, and explored by a protagonist who marvels at the art and statues of human civilisation so valuable, but so lost nonetheless. Other stories included tales about genetic mutations to replace bleached coral, machines that could bring rain to the desert and post-apocalyptic visions where the world is dust, but where dogs still bring companionship. I publish the finalists’ stories each year in a book- I spend a week of my holidays being an amateur book publisher- and I love it. If I ever looked for a different career it would be in publishing. This year I held a photography competition for the front cover image. The winning photo is below, and it encapsulates the final round parameters.
For the second year I facilitated a writing competition for teachers at my school. I did this in conjunction with my creative writing elective class and the students got to give constructive feedback and be the judges of the teachers’ writing. I have a Principal who has entered the competition two years in a row, and made the finals both years. This gave the students an extra level of stress and excitement. The final writing challenge genre was Science-Fiction. The winning entry was written by a new colleague and friend, who worked as an English teacher at our school for a year. She’s off to a new school next year. The fact that people come and go, and move around in education is bittersweet, because I will miss her. Her story is a sorrowful, speculative tale that links memory loss to rising C02 levels in the atmosphere. A mother worries that her daughter will forget her. Sob. I had a student illustrate a scene from the winning story, and secretly purchased the original as a going away gift. It is below…and will be published in our class magazine early next year.
This has been a big year. I’ve grown out my grey hair in front of teenagers. I’ve been a relieving Head Teacher in a big faculty. Two years in a row I have failed at Christmas because my job is so demanding right up until the last second; this year we were literally packing up the staffroom on the last day so it could be painted over the holidays. My family have suffered on the days when I’ve come home stressed, depressed or manically elated. I have daydreamed about different careers, but when I weigh up the good against the bad, I think I’ll stick with it. I hope 2020 is a year when public school teachers get the recognition they deserve, and that we get the resources we genuinely need to address disadvantage. Hopefully in 2020 the image in the mirror is an improvement on 2019.