Keeping the Kids on the Straight & Narrow


When I was at high school I didn’t know any lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or sexually fluid people. It’s not as if we weren’t wrestling with confounding and emerging sexual identities; it was just that back in the 70s, we knew little to nothing of such things.


I mean we knew, but we didn’t know. There was always the intimation or suggestion of sexual difference but other than a smattering of miserable and misfired pejoratives, we had no educationally sanctioned language or learning to help us understand or speak about differing sexual orientations.


We didn’t have anti-bullying policies or education like most schools do today. We didn’t have much in the way of self-development or emotional intelligence programs. Sex Ed was a tittering cacophony of boring anatomical cross-sections and euphemisms.


Today, most of us understand something of the real pressures faced by LGBTI students, who are currently the targets of an ideologically-driven campaign against who they are, and against the anti-bullying programs that have been set up to protect them.


Back then, we didn’t have anything like Safe Schools Coalition running programs that educated students about sexual and gender diversity, and educated staff about policies to promote inclusion and safety. Some of us came out of the system seemingly unscathed; others were not so fortunate.


Adolescents are often given bad press. They are self-focused and selfish. Their hormones are in overdrive and their brains are under renovation. They have no respect, common sense or empathy. The boys are smelly, the girls are judgmental and we adults just have to help them and put up with them while they endure this pimply, sexually charged, competitive and excruciatingly self-conscious stage of their lives.


But adolescents are not all like this. Adolescents are as diverse and dynamic as our sexualities. I love them. I have taught them for years. I own one. He is annoying and messy, forgetful and volatile, potty mouthed, screen addicted, funny, sweet, vulnerable, rude, embarrassed by his parents and by his own emerging self-ness.


In his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Daniel J. Siegel writes:

“The adolescent period of life is in reality the one with the most power for           courage and creativity. Life is on fire when we hit our teens. And these    changes are not something to avoid or just get through, but to encourage … [There is a] need to focus on the positive essence of this period of life for       adolescents and for adults.”


Last week I picked my Year 8 son up from school – something I avoid doing because I’m meant to making him more independent – and in the car he says apropos nothing:

“You know that Grant is bisexual and that Ally and Lisa are together, as in girlfriend and girlfriend?’

“No I didn’t know that,” I said, trying to keep my eyes on the road.

“And Jason’s a kind of girly boy.”

“Oh, okay. And what about you?” I ask him.

“Oh I am sooo heterosexual because I sooo like girls. But most of my friends are all other kinds of other stuff. Could you change the station, this music is boring?”

(first published in March AEU mag)




AUE Column February

Rage against the machine

My Year 8 son doesn’t know why he has to go to school. ‘All we do is sit around all day and do boring stuff. Why?’

In a recent article in the Griffith Review, ‘Teaching Australia’, GJ Stroud writes of having to flee his vocation. ‘I was burnt out because successive Australian governments – both left and right – have locked Australian education into the original model of schooling first established during the industrial revolution learn-to-work model, now complete with ongoing mandatory assessment of our student’s likely productivity and economic potential.’

What do I say to my son? Tell him that he has to go to school because we all have to do things we don’t particularly like in life? Shall I say that I understand school can be hard, but it will get better? Or perhaps, that I liked school so why doesn’t he? (But then, I was one of those irritatingly gregarious kids so into drama that school for me was a holiday away from the stress of home.)

Sometimes when I’m teaching I think – no wonder kids are so tired and disconsolate at the end of the day. School can be so regimented and prescriptive, so madly standardised and vocationally-orientated. So disproportionately about knowledge rather than imagination. Our fundamental school structure is still so stuck in the industrial revolution model that no amount of iPads and co-curriculum activities can change it. All work and too little play makes kids reluctant to go every day.

‘Teaching – good teaching,’ writes GL Stroud, ‘is both a science and an art.’ Plenty of our teachers are artists and scientists but it’s getting tougher for them to keep it up.

I am a casual relief teacher these days, so I can fly in and fly out, all energy, engagement and novelty, no long-term commitment. I’m like a mistress – the students only get me at my prettiest. It’s far tougher to maintain the long haul, day-in, day-out teaching load, and remain inspiring. And with this burgeoning culture of standards and accountability, it’s just getting tougher.

There are, of course, incredible educators out there who find ways to maintain their zest and energy; but sometimes I get the sense that it’s in spite of the system, not because of it. For me, what Gonski funding represents is hope – for the students, yes, but for the teachers as well. Already we’re hearing stories of how, in places where Gonski funding is actually getting to schools, it’s resulting in happier, calmer students who are finally getting the one-on-one tuition they need. And it’s helping boost the morale of teachers who feel like the system is finally supporting them to bring about the kinds of heartbreakingly wonderful learning moments that spurred them into the profession in the first place.

Stroud again: ‘Quality teaching isn’t borne of tiered ‘professional standards’. It cannot be reduced to a formula or discrete parts. It cannot be compartmentalised into boxes and ‘checked off’.’

So what do I say to my son? I tell him that I understand how he feels.