Classroom: North Ryde Primary School Museum
More Teacher’s Memoirs
Sometimes The Top Is A Long Way Away
My transfer from primary to secondary teaching was done through what were called GA classes. The abbreviation stood for General Activity. It referred to a changed curriculum less challenging than the normal secondary one. I came from a country primary school to a Sydney boys’ high school to teach at this level.
On my first day one of the boys said to me: “Gee Sir you must be a dumb teacher coming to teach us.”
This teaching task was seen as at the primary level. No degree was needed, only the primary teaching certificate. The students in this class were seen as below the necessary ability level to cope with secondary studies. Most of them were merely lingering until they reached fifteen, the age for leaving school.
Every classroom is a challenge. You have to get to know your pupils and walk with them down new pathways. I found these boys had little self respect and needed support in a number of ways. A very different class from any of my previous ones.
Practical learning was an important part of that syllabus – social skills, survival skills, craft activities and rudimentary law were all part of my lesson notes. We role played job interviews, emergency behaviour in accidents, safety first in the street, tidiness and waste disposal.
Our spelling lists oozed practicality: danger, poison, wrong way, beware of the dog, emergency, halt, no trespassing, keep out, police. We concentrated on the Dolch Sight Word List, the important list of frequently used words, plus cloze tests to improve reading.
A real challenge with these boys was the need for self respect. The careers advisor was a help. With his support we talked a lot about the future. After I left the school I met one of the boys and he told me he had a job as a panel beater. He was very pleased with himself and he certainly got praise from me.
I felt comfortable with this class. We shared enthusiasms in a supportive climate. I was to have two years at the first school and another year with a GA class at a second high school. I transferred to the English/History staff there after completing my part time degree studies.
That second class was so different from the first. I did not feel welcome. The climate was hostility from the very first. It took me a long time to develop a degree of harmony. I remember one boy because of his red hair as well as his behaviour. He mocked me to his peers quite often: “He’s trying to teach us what we know already.”
I remember the Apology Form I had printed. Each miscreant signed a statement apologising for a particular behaviour on a particular day. The alternative to signing was a punitive visit to the headmaster, so the signatures were willingly given.
I am sure the boys thought they were indulging an idiosyncratic fool. But the point was a dossier soon developed with evidence in writing of misbehaviour. This was handy in times of big upheaval when you needed evidence. One of the pupils in that class was later suspended. That was quite a while after I left them. The boys in those two GA classes have stayed in my mind down the years. We learned from each other.
A Teacher Never Walks Alone
Here now I recall some individuals. When you reach old age, society in its present form tends to isolate you. This is partly why you recall friends from the past – in particular for me pupils or students whose lives I was involved in.
Rex was in the first class I ever taught: 4th Class in a Sydney boys primary school, enrolment 44. Rex was thirteen years old in a class whose average age was nine or ten.
He was a big lad, a simple soul who loved to tell stories. He could only scribble when writing in his books, except for one word: parallel. I swear it’s true. That word would appear from time to time amidst the scribble.
Rex was important in that class, some of whom were quite clever. It was his job to fill the ink wells, give out books and other learning material, clean the blackboard and tell stories.
Those stories were unforgettable. There was never any plot. Just a series of sensational events something like this: There was a big truck went boom and a policeman came an aeroplane flew cockadoodloo went the rooster a big shark ate him.
Rex’s stories came to be rewards for good behaviour of the rest of the class. “ Sir can we have one of Rex’s stories?” Rex gloried in sensational events. The more excited he made the class, the happier he was.
Bill was a pupil in the same school. I didn’t teach him, but he was in the cricket and soccer teams I coached. Sixty years later he noticed my name on one of my internet posts and contacted me. We had lunch together a number of times until he died.
That life story became a joy for me. He still had a book I gave him all those years before on how to play soccer. He had become a teacher and had risen through the ranks. He had also become president of the primary schools sporting association and had gone on to play soccer at quite a high level, being a team mate of the distinguished Australian player Johnny Warren in a grand final.
A very special person he was. It was such an honour to be involved in that life.
Carolyn was a single mother when I taught her in Gateway, a university equity program. This one-semester course was designed to give students the skills and awareness to enter university. She enrolled to help her deal with family matters after trouble with finance and a former spouse. Life was very hard for that family. Her dream was to gain the power of being a lawyer to deal with a disastrous family situation. She succeeded and got into law. To the best of my knowledge she is now a practising lawyer.
I taught essay writing in the Gateway program. Teaching such people is an amazing experience. You journey together towards an understanding of life itself. Learning to analyse social problems and responding with valid and reliable essays is one of the great ways of growing. Graduates of that program outperformed all other undergraduate groups at that university.
Peter was another graduate of the Gateway program. He was a musician, leader of a band with a risqué name I’ll not repeat here.
The band was very popular and performed regularly in Sydney and neighbouring areas.
After Gateway, Peter entered university and got an honours degree in Fine Arts. He then continued with PhD studies. He remained a good friend of Gateway, sharing his successful assignments with me, his former teacher, so that I could show other Gateway students how studies continue.
Peter’s death was a great sadness for me. It was a great privilege to be a part of his life.
There is another message I want to leave here. If you are like me and don’t get into university first time but are still keen, look for mature age entry and remember there is real strength in that lifetime experience you have had before your studies begin.
Daryan was a Kurdish boy I taught in Year 12 at a Sydney high school. He wrote me a beautiful poem. It was so good I thought he had only quoted it. No, he assured me it was his work.
It described with sadness his fate. He had lived in four countries including Australia. He said that to that time of writing not one of the countries had felt like home.
I taught him English for the HSC and he passed. A lovely person. I think Iraq was his place of birth. I am so glad he didn’t come to Australia by boat. Then his fate would have been indefinite detention and I might never have met him.
Matija was a Serbian boy in my Year 10 history class at a Sydney high school. I taught them the story of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Serb Gavrilo Princip to trigger the disaster of World War I.
Matija came to me some time after the lesson with the story that some of his friends were giving him a hard time over the cause of World War I. My story was that there are usually heroes and villains on every side in war.
Gavrilo, I explained without condoning his deeds, was only a young man who believed he was justified in doing what he did. I explained this happens constantly in war, on both sides. I pointed out that the many deaths of the war, involving so many young men especially, might have been prevented if older men had been wiser.
This Serbian boy was a sensitive person. He was genuinely upset by the situation, He was a lesson for me; the first time I had been forced to consider that history story from the other side (Serbian).
Here I end my discussion of specific people. It is a comfort to think back on these friends. One of the reasons as a teacher you are never alone.