When I was in my teens, I knew I never wanted to be a teacher. My father was a teacher, many of my uncles were teachers, my cousins were teachers, there were teachers everywhere I looked. I knew with the certainty of teenagehood that the last profession on Earth I would ever enter would be teaching.
When I was 22, I finished a graduate diploma in teaching.
I knew with absolute certainty that I would never teach small children. That was ridiculously hard work. All the same preparation as teaching older children and adults, with a lot less communication. I knew I would never be cut out for that. I needed to be in a classroom where I could communicate with my students easily.
Did I mention that my teaching qualifications were in E.S.L.? That’s English as a Second Language. Where you teach English to people who don’t speak it as a first language. My first practicum was with a class predominantly from Vietnam, some of whom had been in the country a total of two weeks, had never spoken English before, and weren’t literate in their own language.
Still, at least they were in their late teens. Some of them were much older, but had lied about their age, so that they could access free full time public education (I didn’t give them away — they were the envoys for their families, the mediators between family and English speaking world). I would stand on top of tables, or hide under them to demonstrate prepositions, I created a treasure map for them of the city, with key landmarks of relevance to their lives (banks, social security offices, post offices, food joints, grocery stores which stocked Asian foods) that they had to figure out in English by asking directions from people on the street. And hardly anybody got lost. We used a lot of flash cards and illustrations too. You see where I’m going here? For those of you who’ve ever spent time around small children, does this sound at all familiar?
By the time I was in my mid 20s, I was pretty confident of my skills. I knew, however, knew with an unshakeable surety that I wasn’t equipped to teach indigenous students, because I really didn’t have a grasp of all the issues that would impinge on their learning. I really didn’t know the enormous diversity of their lives, I didn’t appreciate how hard a struggle education itself would be for some of those students. I would never be able to teach them the way they deserved.
So naturally, in keeping with the rest of my work life, my first full time job was at a university working at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies, teaching indigenous students in a university bridging course designed to transition them into tertiary studies, from wherever they had left their education.
These were adult learners, ranging in age from 16, to in their late 50s. They came from an incredible diversity of backgrounds and experiences. Some lived in the city, some in the country, some in places so remote that they could have been from entirely different universes. Some had relatives who were prominent activists, professors, educators, doctors, professionals. Others had relatives who had the deepest connection to their land and culture, could speak 5 or 6 languages, but were illiterate in any language. One gentle, sweet man was a Vietnam vet who’d lost two fingers in a POW camp. Another fiery spirit had come to university to delay a ritual initiation that involved a lot of pain, sharp stones, and no anaesthetic. There were women in the course who were fleeing domestic violence, for whom sheltered accommodation might have to be hastily arranged at the last minute. There were women who were models and actors, just waiting for a break. There were men who were athletes and sportsmen, who had to squeeze studies in between gruelling training regimes.
They had stories, songs, humour, and loving generosity of spirit that embraced me, welcomed me, and held me to account.
I learned more from them, than I could have in a life time, and I’m immensely grateful to them all. And I fell in love with teaching because of them. They made me work harder, and think more creatively about how to approach education, how to make it applicable to the individual, than I have ever worked in my life. They also made me think harder about issues of equity and access than I had ever had to in my privileged middle class migrant life.
By the time I was in my late 20s, I was convinced that I had found my field, despite the near burn-out of working under such high stress, being in such an intense cultural environment all the time. I loved what I did. I reconfirmed that I never wanted to teach small children.
Then at 30, I had my first child. And at 32, my second.
Still, I knew that I wouldn’t get involved with their education. After all, that’s what the teachers at school were for.
Did I mention that by the age of 2, the eldest was showing signs of giftedness? And that at 7 and 5 years of age, we had confirmed that both kids were in the highly gifted range? And that schools were probably never going to be able to cater fully for them.
We put them into a small private school, in part because the Kindergarten teacher spotted the eldest’s giftedness and suggested a grade skip. We figured that if she spotted that in him, the staff at this school could differentiate their curriculum, and there were probably other kids like him there. They could, and there were.
Eventually (about the time the eldest was in grade 3) the school stopped working for them. We found another school, but decided to give them a break in between.
So, in a masterful stroke of irony, I homeschooled my two small children.