Education has held my hand my whole life.
My parents, both university-educated, moved to Australia from Yugoslavia with their young children, on the basis of their skills. Arriving with identity documents (just) and a bag each, on flights paid for by donations, they built their lives up to the life I lead now through relentless hard work and learning, aided by their background of education.
Raised in a family like this, where education was upheld as a saviour, I adored learning. Attending school was a continually positive experience, where epiphany followed epiphany, where I felt my teachers were the bearers of the truths of life, and where school would lead to University, which would in turn lead to work that could provide fruit in the fridge, Nesquick, and bread with grains in it.
Coming to the end of my second year as a Teach For Australia Associate, my biggest learning from this year is an overwhelming sinking in of the understanding of some of my students’ backgrounds.
This is something I have been conscious of since the very beginning, from readings during Initial Intensive, to tens of conversations with diverse students. However, it had often come from a place of wanting to be sensitive, to not exclude – not from a place of deep understanding or empathy.
Many of our students come from families where education has been anything but saviour. For many in our community, education has been the place of overt oppression, the place where bullying occurs, where discomfort and a lack of safety prevails, where a sense of lack of control and understanding is law.
Some of my students’ parents and grandparents were taunted at school, felt consistently unsuccessful at school, or left prematurely because school did not meet their needs. Many are products of a school system that failed them.
For me, now, it makes sense that some of these students come to school with distrust, with a pre-emptive sense of failure, and a certain volatility; I now understand better than ever, and will continue to learn, that this is sometimes what fuels the refusal to begin work or the nick-off-to-lunch before a detention.
When many students come from these backgrounds, the concept of unconditional positive regard, taught through Teach For Australia and other proponents of therapeutic education becomes pivotal: it is sometimes a shock for students to feel cared for at school. Overt care is extremely powerful in the building of a relationship prepared for learning.
This, as contrasted with my background, may come as a surprise for those who have also felt the support and empowering nature of education as an abstract idea that is your mentor even when its face wears whiskers, stern wrinkles and an overbearing voice.
As the year draws to a close, and as expectations, nerves, and even anxiety run with thoughts as to the upcoming year for new teachers, regrets, learning and advice are often the topic of conversation.
At our school, we have been collaborating with new Teach For Australia Associates who, moving into schools next year, are enthusiastic for advice from other teachers.
Although far from expert, my piece of advice for a new Associate in the staffroom over final morning tea this morning was to love his students and enjoy their company, as for me, this has been the foundation of beginning to teach them.