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.






October AUE Column

In the old days, school canteens sold big cream buns spurting ruby-red jam and kids used to stuff long white bread rolls with Twisties or chips for lunch.

Mum made my lunch every night before school right up until I finished HSC.  But I did get 50cents every Friday to buy my lunch at the canteen and boy, did I knock myself out on those cream buns.

It’s not healthy, smart or PC for schools to sell junk food these days but some things, like heartbreak and wanting to fit in, never change.

I first got dumped in Year 8.

When did he do it?’ asked my best friend in Science Period 4.

‘Lunch time’, I said.

‘Spewin,’ she said.

I was an arty-surfie-type, although such nomenclatures weren’t always straightforward. Sometimes the mean, cool girls were just clever, unhappy girls in-hiding, and girls like me into drama and International Women’s Day were the ones binge drinking on weekends and fooling around with boys. There was dope too, but I preferred the Styvos I’d occasionally steal from Mum.

The second time I got dumped it broke my adolescent heart into so many miserable shards; I’m still trying to recover the pieces. He was a ‘skatie’, the asphalt equivalent of a ‘surfie’, and his 16-year-old insouciance was confusing.

Before social networking, texting, sexting, on-line porn and mandatory bike helmets, Livin’ in the 70s was just an outer suburb of Melbourne, not a hyper-connected global village like today.

When Elvis died and Gough was sacked, our mobiles didn’t tell us, we had to wait until we got home from school to hear about it.

We girls hitched up our uniforms and converted loose, grey school jumpers into tiny tight cardies. If we went out – I wasn’t allowed after dark but sometimes I escaped – we wore high-waist flares, cork-wedgies and halter necks. We wore op shop dresses and sandals called Treads.

School-life-conflict was dealt with in the girls ‘dunnies’, and where you hung out at recess or sat on the tram going home, signaled your place in the pecking order.

Adolescence was, and still is for the most part, sadly, a world of stark and unforgiving binaries: you’re in or out, hot or not, smart or struggling, sporty or nerdy, etc.


By Form 5 we knew that a third of us would leave school to get a job or go to the local tech and only the rich kids went to private schools. Today heaps of my leftie middle-aged mates are sending their kids to private schools and this touchy hypocrisy has replaced religion as the no-go-zone conversation subject at dinner parties.

Last weekend while wondering around a small regional Victorian town, I spotted a tray of those magnificent cream buns in the window of an old-fashioned kind of cake shop. I stopped and stared and salivated.

If there hadn’t been a Back in 5 mins sign on the door, I would have succumbed to politically incorrect nostalgia for sure.






Bring your family down to Treasury Gardens , Melbourne, at 12.30 Sat 25 May to send a strong message of community support for Gonski. There will be plenty of activities for the kids – jumping castles, face-painting, balloons, and more, as well as food, music and a few speakers including  Daniel Andrews, Meredith Peace and Andy Griffiths! And I am MC on the day.

Andy Griffiths Gives A Gonski!
Andy Griffiths Gives A Gonski!

This community rally is a great opportunity to show the Premier just how much support for Gonski there is in the Victorian community.

Gonski would deliver an additional $4 billion to Victorian schools, and these extra funds would go where they are needed most. This could mean smaller class sizes, more literacy and numeracy teachers, and most importantly, greater individual attention for students.

You can find out more about Gonski at
Please help spread the word to friends, colleagues and family about this important community event.

Before and After Baillieu

It’s the atmosphere that’s changed.

Since Baillieu’s 300 million dollar slashes to TAFE, it’s the cultural shift that gets to me most. My colleagues and I have had to invent a little joke to alleviate the palpable fall in morale. “So are you talking before or after Baillieu?” “Did you read that book before or after Baillieu?” “Yeah, she’s started seeing a shrink after Baillieu.” You get the idea.

I’ve taught in a Professional Writing and Editing course for six years. All of us permanents are part-time because before Baillieu it was appreciated that as so-called “practicing experts in our field” we actually needed time outside work to practice what we preach.

These days, and after Baillieu, we are so inundated by the ever-increasing adminsitrivia, accountability paper work and extra preparation (for subjects we have never taught before but now have to, because it’s cheaper than employing expert sessionals), that doing any freelance work to maintain professional credibility is almost impossible.

Before Baillieu, poor people with a dream in their heart and a few bucks and a health care card in their pocket could access our course. Post Baillieu, it aint so easy. Fees have skyrocketed and competition from greedy short-sighted unis with uncapped spaces means our cohort has shrivelled.

Before Baillieu, a 40-year-old who wanted to return to the workforce or change jobs, and needed to retrain or brush up, could. After Baillieu, if this some person had already acquired a qualification higher than a Certificate 4 in anything from floristry to fitness, she will be up for a fortune.

It’s crazy. It’s a travesty. It’s miserable.

Still, it’s the students who keep you going. Even when you’re feeling angry and tired about the compromised course delivery and cuts to staffing, it’s the students who keep you hanging in there. Few of them harbour illusions of grandeur or dreams of being rich and famous. But all of them want to learn how to write well and to a professional standard.

Anywhere you look, there’s been a writer at work. Everything you read on a tram or on a sign, in a brochure or in a real estate window has used a writer. Well, maybe not a real estate window.

We teach people to respond expertly to a job brief — any job brief. What could be more vocationally relevant than that?

Before Baillieu, I looked passable in a swimsuit. After Baillieu, there have been interminable farewell morning teas. Teachers are great cooks too.