A teacher’s life

Yesterday, it was 40 degrees inside the sheds they call portable classrooms. It’s nearly as sticky today, a cloudy airless Thursday. The kids have tried to help by propping open the broken windows with plastic chairs, but they can create a current only by fanning themselves languidly with exercise books. As he bends over his geography assignment, one boy complains, to no one in particular: “These working conditions are atrocious!”
His teacher, Kay Peddle, grins and congratulates him on his expanding vocabulary. She finds this classroom better than several of the portables that make up YALE, the Young Adult Learning Environment at Deer Park Secondary College. This room at least has enough tables and chairs, even if they are battered. Peddle isn’t fussed by the carpet, spattered with mysterious little balls of grit and the blackened remains of ancient chewy. “The cleaning budget was cut again at the end of last year,” she says matter-of-factly.

This is the voice she uses through most of her working day: calm, firm and sensible. She doesn’t get distracted or distressed; she just gets on with it. It’s the only way you could get through this kind of day, day after day. Her ready sense of humor doesn’t go astray either.

Peddle’s heavy teaching load includes biology, geography, science and food technology, and she is also head of the senior school at Deer Park. She manages the 330 students in years 10, 11 and 12. She is forever on the move; between 8.15am and 4pm on this day, she sits down for a total of 15 minutes. Her lunch is grabbed in five. Every class and every break between classes is interrupted several times by students and teachers with queries about books, timetables, class changes, family problems, homework. Like a mother with toddlers, she constantly has young things tugging at her.

Deer Park Secondary could politely be called a “challenging” workplace. An outer-western suburb, Deer Park used to be an industrial wasteland until the industries shrank or died, stranding many locals – 38 per cent of whom come from non-English speaking backgrounds – without jobs. Half of the students in the middle and upper school come from families on income support.

Some face hurdles that make success at school as big a triumph as climbing Everest. When Peddle and her colleagues talk about a struggling student, the discussion often veers to problems at home: dad dumping the family and returning to his homeland, or the teenager, desperate to complete her studies, who has to do all the family cooking and housework since one parent died and the other became disabled.

Peddle’s job is part teacher, part administrator, part social worker and part clerk. When she began at Deer Park nine years ago, there were 80 staff to 990 students; now there are 47 for 680 kids. In well-endowed schools, clerical staff handle most of the keying into computer databases required for VCE students’ details. Peddle has been spending up to eight hours a week pounding the keyboards herself. There is one advantage: the spartan portable that she shares with three other staff has been given an air-conditioner to keep the computer cool.

Peddle came straight to Deer Park from teacher training and found it a bit of a shock after her years at a Catholic college in the country. “I was surprised by the attitude of some of the students,” she says. “They weren’t too fussed about whether they got things done or not, if you know what I mean. The school was there for them, but they weren’t interested in getting much benefit from it. They don’t always complete their homework, they don’t bring stuff to class.” She attributes this to the area’s high unemployment, double the national rate; many see no point in schooling. She tries to deal with it by structuring lessons in ways that will grab their attention.

Her first lesson after lunch is a food technology “prac” where the kids are to bake banana teacake. Seven have not done their written homework, most have lost their recipe sheets and only two remembered to bring cake containers to take their booty home. Peddle makes no comment and concentrates on ushering them out of hubbub – an exercise that must be repeated every time they move from one place or activity to another – and into mixing batter.

At the end of the class, she tells one boy to wipe down his bench properly. He slams a cupboard door and throws his arms in the air: “But I done it already! Look at that! Look at that!” She stares him down and repeats the instruction. He spends a few moments skylarking with a tea-towel in a show of manly defiance, then complies.

Primitive views of manliness, a dark strand in the multicultural weave, make for some tricky moments at Deer Park. Some male students fiercely resent rebuke from female teachers.

This day, as Peddle finally unwraps her sandwich 10 minutes before the end of lunchtime, there is a deep male roar from the yard, followed by a girl screaming “F— off!” Three teachers race out together, Peddle arriving on the scene with her arm raised like a policeman signalling “Stop”. What sounded like a riot turns out to have been only a group of boys jeering at a passing teacher.

Peddle teaches every period today. After school, she is tied up until 6pm with meetings and administration. Then she takes two hours’ work home; it is the only time she has for preparation and correction of her classroom work. Her life revolves around the school. She plays basketball once a week but found that she had to give away aerobics as she was just too tired: “By 9.30, I collapse.” It’s just as well she is single, she says, as a teacher with small children would find it hard to do it all.

What makes it worthwhile? Two things, she says; the other teachers, who are highly committed and really look after each other – she got lots of offers of help when she was short-staffed last year – and the relationships she can develop with the kids. Oh, and the school’s new paint job: “It’s amazing how much it’s lifted morale.” (The rest of the school has recently been refurbished in cheery colors with a Government grant. The VCE portables were not done up because they might be taken away.)

Peddle genuinely loves her work. She says she has always known she wanted to be a teacher. “I really enjoy being in the classroom with the kids. It’s all about the rapport you develop with them. And that’s one thing about them, you can develop a rapport. I had a year 12 ring me yesterday to say thanks for all the help with last year; I’d spent a lot of time with her and she did get into the course she wanted. Particularly with the year 12s, at the end of the year, you can see that you’ve made a difference.”
IT IS a golden sunny morning and the senior students at St Leonard’s College, Brighton, gather on a shady lawn for their class photos. They are encircled by marks of privilege: to the left the swimming pool, to the right the tennis courts and indoor sports centre, behind them the graceful Victorian mansion that houses their music school.

The school’s head of science, Merrin Evergreen, moves along the row of students on hair-and-earring inspection. “You’re as bad as a mother,” says one girl. “Worse,” says Evergreen. When she comes to the male teacher at the end of the line, she pats his beard approvingly and they both laugh.

Evergreen is a bit of a free spirit. Today she is wearing a mediaeval-style purple dress with a laced bodice and floaty skirt. Her year 9 students call her Lady Evergreen. They are still getting used to the surname, which she chose to symbolise her new life after her divorce last year.

A lot of her teaching reflects this refusal to live in a conformist box. Today, her year 12 biology class arrives with their homework – making models of cells. Most have done it in the kitchen: one has made a chocolate cake with frosting for membrane and bubble-gum strips for flagella; another has used a string of arrowroot biscuits to represent a neurone, with icing for the myelin. She exclaims in delight over their inventiveness. Beside her grows a pile of their written holiday homework, columns of observations and analysis. That will go home with her tonight.

Evergreen’s working day starts with a staff meeting at 8.30am. She teaches 25 out of 35 periods, but her “free” time is filled with other responsibilities such as assemblies, supervision of private studies or administration work for the heads of a science network that she coordinates.

As a year 11 group tutor, she is also responsible for the pastoral care of students. “They’re nice kids. A lot aren’t from wealthy backgrounds; many have two parents working to put them through. They want to achieve.”
Evergreen is also responsible for overseeing the school’s science curriculum, including its implementation in two secondary school certificates, the VCE and the International Baccalaureate. There are meetings most nights after school, and she rarely leaves before 6pm.

In the evenings, Evergreen cooks dinner with her 10-year-old daughter – “We sit down at the little table because the big table always has schoolwork all over it” – and they watch TV together before starting their homework at 7. Evergreen spends a couple of hours preparing, correcting and reading magazines such as New Scientist to keep up with what’s happening in her field. Then she studies for her master’s degree, sometimes until 1am. She has also recently co-authored two science texts, Science Quest I and II.

Does she ever have time to read a novel? “Sometimes I read from 1 to 3am. Mostly futuristic romance.” She would like to be able to say that she uses her gym membership, but she’s too short on time and energy. Even her holidays are not her own. She spent part of the summer break familiarising herself with one of the new laptop computers and printers her students are using this year. She leases the computer she uses at her own expense.

While there has always been pressure to get academic results at St Leonard’s, Evergreen says the last decade has also seen an increased emphasis on helping develop students in a wider sense: emotionally, creatively, spiritually. Everyone is expected to help with cross-curricula enterprises such as the annual school play (Evergreen does the make-up). Today, Evergreen spends most of her lunch hour giving grade one children from the junior school a taste of experimentation in the science labs.

The school is her village. Her daughter is educated there and she counts many of the staff as her friends. There is little time for socialising outside, and on the day of her divorce last year, it was her work friends who comforted her, leaving single roses on her desk and chocolate frogs in her pigeonhole. “We really watch out for each other,” she says. “The students see that we care for one another and they start to model that behavior. It makes for a really nice atmosphere in the classrooms.”

Is there a downside? “What I don’t like about it, and what I do like about it, so that it’s a difficult one, is that the school becomes your whole life. I wish there was more financial recognition for that. You see people in other careers where they work 9 to 5 who might earn $50,000. It’s lovely to be vocationally oriented and to love what you do, but as a single mum looking for a mortgage, I’m beginning to realise it is an undervalued job.

“At the same time you don’t mind that it takes up your life because it’s such an important job, shaping other people’s lives.”

JEANETTE Fraser is giving the kids a run through the gum trees before lessons start; it will be too hot later on. She lines them up in rows: “Grade six, take off!” A big boy begins lolloping. “Grade five!” Two boys. She works her way down to grade one, two little girls and three boys. The preppie is away today.

This is Bonnie Doon Primary School, where Fraser teaches all 16 students in one room. You can tell that Bonnie Doon primary is clinging to the edge of oblivion by its architecture. The name conjures up visions of charming old red brick; the reality is a couple of flat-roofed, mushroom-colored portables – one a classroom and office, the other the dunnies – that could be moved anywhere, any time. If the school’s enrolment falls to 11, Fraser will be out of here. Two similar schools, at nearby Merton and Yarck, have already gone. “We take it year by year,” Fraser says philosophically.

She likes this posting better than any of the others she’s had in the past 20 years. It was a bit of a shock at first. When she arrived here three years ago, Fraser had 24 students in seven grades. Some of them were little tearaways and Fraser had formal help only one morning a week. “I don’t know how I survived it,” she says. Even now, there are times when she is confident that she’s thoroughly prepared the classroom work for the day, only to find that she’s forgotten one grade level: “I’ve become very used to doing things on the spot.”
But the current crop are easy kids. Under Kennett Government guidelines, Fraser’s now entitled to much more help, sharing the load with another teacher most days. Fridays, for example, someone else comes in to do the extras – physical education, languages, art – and Fraser can get on with preparation and paperwork.

In many ways, her school is like an extended family. The big kids help the little kids. Small girls coming to ask Fraser for help drape their arms affectionately across her shoulders. Big boys doing particularly well (or particularly badly) get great smacking kisses on the forehead from Fraser, who grins at their discomfort with a mother’s relish. “‘Chocolate’s not in the dictionary!” calls out one boy. “It’s kisses if I find it,” she retorts. “You’d better keep looking.”

Later, Fraser says that the relationship between teacher and students in a small school like this is more intense: “You get the same ones back year after year and you do get close.” The children are closer to each other, too: “They fight like family fight. It isn’t a huge discipline problem; it’s more like brothers and sisters. Mostly they look after one another and get on wonderfully, but other days they’re at one another and niggly, and you spend all day sorting out their little arguments.”
It’s that long-term intimacy that Fraser enjoys most about Bonnie Doon Primary. She knows her students. “Little schools are more wonderful than people think they are. In bigger schools, sometimes you don’t meet the parents till halfway through the year, when you suddenly realise that the kid comes from a background with all these problems. Here, the parents are always coming in for a chat.”
Bonnie Doon’s isolation, on a bare stretch of the Maroondah Highway about 20 kilometres from Mansfield, makes her life harder in some ways and easier in others. To do a course on computers in the classroom last year, Fraser had to drive 45 minutes each way to Benalla for a two-hour class every Wednesday night for nine weeks. “But it’s easier in one sense: there’s not as much to do, because if you want to do anything (out of the ordinary), you have to drive so far that, in the end, you decide not to do it.”
It’s not a rich school but Fraser feels well supported by the local community. On Fridays they carpool to take the kids to swimming lessons, 20 minutes’ drive away. At the end of each school day, parents arrive to clean the classroom and toilets. They want to save the cleaning budget to help with student excursions: it’s $20 per child for a bus ride to Melbourne.

As Fraser farewells the children at the end of this day, a boy mentions that a black snake was spotted in the school grounds at lunchtime. Fraser listens with interest but no alarm; this is the country, after all. “Mostly we have tiger snakes around here,” she says, musing. “At Merrijig (primary school), tiger snakes are very common. They just ring up the pub and say ‘Can you send someone down here with a stick?”‘ Life as a country teacher has its moments.

First published in The Age.