And so a year has past…

Everyone warned me that the first year of fulltime teaching was completely crazy. I took this advice to heart and thought I was prepared for whatever was headed my way.What I forgot to take into account was that nothing ever happens in isolation. Throw into the mix other random life related, let alone new location related, stuff and you’ve got a pretty crazy mix.

The year, I think, has been a successful one. No student has died under my watch, although there have been a few injuries, and a couple may have even learnt something. The more I think about it the more I realise that teaching is, at its heart, a performance. Teachers perform all day long -trying to engage and inspire students, trying to make them see the world in a different way. This is what of course what we like to think we are doing but the purpose of our our complicated tap routine if often just to get students to remember to bring back their notes the next day. Nevertheless it is still a performance and it still requires energy.

Critical reflection is something that was drummed into us at uni -in fact there were whole assignments where we had to demonstrate our ability to undertake reflection as well as analyse its importance. Whilst the term ‘reflection’ was used so often it became one of those jingoistic words my classmates and I bandied around ironically, it does make sense: by reflecting on your lessons and what worked and what didn’t you can learn and grow and improve things for next time.
Whilst it’s great in theory, there isn’t time to sit down on a daily basis and dissect the components of each and every lesson and analyse how they could be improved, so you’re left with a 5 minute stocktake between classes or whilst making a cup of tea and hope that the mental note you make to yourself about never trying that activity with Year 7 after lunch again, stays with you for longer than it takes the kettle to boil.

Without realising it, I’ve actually taken some of this professional advice and applied it to my life in general. Most school holidays I’ve ended up back in Sydney for a few days at least and not only has it provided me with a wonderful city fix, but it’s also provided me the opportunity to reflect on what’s happened over the past few months when I’ve caught up with friends. It’s been a really interesting exercise trying to sum events up into a few short sentences for discussion over a quick cup of coffee, or extrapolate that ultra distilled version into something more conversational, without straying into the domain of philosophical ramblings, for dissection over a boozy meal. The perspective that a bit of geographical and psychological distance has provided has, I think, helped me to maintain at least the appearance of sanity.

On the personal side –I won’t say private because if I’ve learnt one thing it is that nothing is ever private in a town this size; you can’t sneeze without half the town knowing about it 10 minutes later–I’ve had a few wins: I’ve managed to collect a menagerie of animals and managed to keep the dog from eating at least some of the chooks. I think I’ve done a relatively good job of treading the line between involvement with the community and maintaining some sort of privacy, which I think is half the battle for young teachers in small country towns. Dog obedience classes, involvement with the local theatre group as well as netball training and Parent Teacher nights has meant that a trip to the supermarket or post office cannot be conducted in under half an hour as there are plenty of people with whom you need to stop and chat. It’s such a simple thing but it does make you feel that much more connected.

There are plenty of things about 2014 that didn’t quite work out or that I need to improve. Of the five classes I am teaching in 2015 two of them will have the same content as last. Having stumbled my way through it last year I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to get to work on fine tuning the content and generally knowing where I’m going! I also have my first HSC class this year, perhaps one of my most frustrating and challenging classes, but a good lesson with these guys feels like ten times the accomplishment of a good lesson with anyone else.
Four days into the new year and thirty days left of school holidays, things are looking pretty bright.

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Technology in the classroom

I’m not an avid acolyte of technology in the classroom. I suppose I’ve been bitten one too many times with its self combustion and my comparatively Luddite (for my generation at least) command of the beast means that I’m left floundering and somewhat cranky. When it works, makes life easier and clearer for the students then I’m all for it, but I’m often sceptical of technology just being used for the sake of it.
Which brings me to the opposite end of the spectrum: the current situation in my classroom. Last year was the end of the DIgital Education Revolution scheme, or DER, a government scheme which saw laptops rolled out to public school students in Year 9. As the students progressed through the system they kept their laptops, so currently students in Years 10, 11 and 12 all have laptops and those in Year 9 and below don’t. This makes things particularly fun in my Stage 5 class (combined class of Years 9 and 10 done due to the small size of our school) as only half the kids have access to laptops.
Things are further complicated by the state of the laptops that are in use. Perhaps understandably, given the huge number of public schools in the country, the laptops that were issued weren’t at the higher end of the price spectrum. Consequently two to three years later, particularly when you consider the beating they get from students, most are only in a semi functioning condition. It is not uncommon to see half your class occupied repeatedly restarting their computers (often through no choice of their own as their computer initiates the loop of it’s own accord) or flipping the things over to pull out the battery pack in the hope that a miraculous event will occur. This doesn’t even include those that have no charge. The laptop that I have been issued with has temperamental keys: the backspace and space bar keys work only infrequently, often choosing instead to replace their usual function with a mixture of brackets, enters or array of other letters. I have been promised a new one but finding the time to go and pick it up if proving to be very difficult.
What makes the situation even more frustrating is the comparison to the private school I worked in last year. They had a Bring Your Own Device program which was supported by an entire IT department which the kids could visit when they were having problems, often getting a ‘loaner’ until the problem was fixed. ThIs department was also responsible for the maintenance of the technology in the classrooms and any problems were fixed swiftly. The school had also chosen to go with the simple projection only the whiteboard rather than the temperamental smart board which in my experience neverflipping work! This system appears to be a perfect solution as there are so many fewer parts to go wrong. On the flip side we have one IT guy who works part time and whilst he should be sainted for the number of resurrections he performs on a daily basis, is fighting a losing battle.
I could go on forever….the desktop computers available in the library and staff rooms below in the Jurassic period and are a constant source of frustration for students and staff alike, the other go to IT guy is the Deputy Principal who has a million and one things to do, all of them more urgent than trouble shooting why my personal laptop is existing being connected to the school network, and to top it all off, a number of students don’t have access to computers, let along printers, at home!
ICT is a major feature of the curriculum. Apart from driving me to distraction in a preparation sense, how on earth can I use it in class in an effective way without sacrificing our limited time to performing the laptop ‘flip’?
Here endeth the rant.

Netball

6:30pm and the sun is still beating down

6:30pm and the sun is still beating down

One of the most hilarious things I’ve been doing since I arrived is join netball training. I think I must be one of he only girls who grew up in Australia who never stepped on a netball court growing up, so this turn up in events is hilarious on a number of fronts.

I was a bit of a gym junkie in Sydney. I got up three, although I often aimed for four, mornings a week at 5:15 and went to my local gym to take part in a class of one sort or another. I’d been doing this for about four years and whilst the exercise and release or endorphins was a the primary reason it became just as much of a social occasion. The ‘regulars’ were from a variety of backgrounds and age groups but the shared camaraderie of getting up before the rest of the city and physically annihilating yourself with alarming regularity was comforting. Needless to say there is no gym down here so a different form of exercise needed to be found. I tried going for a run a couple of mornings a week but I soon confirmed a long held believe –my body is not built for running. It’s like a hippo trying to master the agility and speed of a cheetah on dry land. In its own environment a hippo is a majestic and speedy creature, but its stubby legs and bodily proportions don’t lend themsevles to the same majesty on dry land.

I knew that sporting clubs in country towns, but it wasn’t until I had been asked which sport I played in the second phrase of every single conversation I had that it actual hit home. There are a variety of sports on offer around here but footy (of the AFL variety) and netball definitely rule the roost. Despite the fact that I’ve never played from a social point of view, it makes sense. So for the past three weeks I’ve been attending pre season training twice a week. It of course involves a number of girls I teach and unfortunately also includes running. Nothing makes me long for the sanitised air-conditioning of the Mosman gym (when it was actually working) more than half an hour of running around an AFL oval, which by the way are ridiculously large, in the heat and dust. I think I actually burnt my throat the other day!
This week the netballs came out, as did the interval training. A liberal dash of pain was added to the hilarity. To compound things further there are tryouts this week. I’m sure I would be more of a liability than an asset on the court but I have a feeling that there may be some pressure to take part.

School

The wildlife I saw on that kayaking trip that the whole town now knows about...

The wildlife I saw on that kayaking trip that the whole town now knows about…

Time is doing funny things at the moment. This is my third week at school which it makes it about six weeks in the country. I feel like an old hand who arrived yesterday. I’m sure it will take me months to figure out the quirks of the school and the general bureaucracy, and heavens knows how long it will take me to figure out the quirks of my students, but I do feel as though I’m getting into a bit of a routine. There are about 180 students at the school and by my calculation I have approximately half of them in my various classes so I’m getting to know everyone quite quickly.

After months of Department bureaucracy and the anticipation of meeting the students it was lovely to get in front of the class and start teaching. The buzz from interacting with the kids and getting into the content made me remember why I decided to get into teaching. Three weeks in and I’m starting to feel a little like the kindergarten child who has just realised that school is something that happens every day of the week. The novelty has gone. That doesn’t mean that I’m not enjoying it, just that it’s not shiny and new anymore.

One thing I’m having difficulty getting used to is the fact that everyone knows what you are doing. A number of times over the past week I’ve been chatting to someone and mentioned that I’ve just moved here and I’m met with a ‘oh so you’re the new teacher!’

Seeing students out of school is also something that feels very strange. All my teaching pracs, internships and casual work were in other towns or in suburbs on the other side of town so I never even thought about seeing students outside of school. There was one occasion last year where I stopped off at a shop in a couple of suburbs away from school on my way home and ran into a year 7 boy I had just taught in Period 6. His jaw literally hit the ground as he realised that I existed outside of school. The kids here definitely don’t suffer from that delusion. You can’t go down to the shops without being served by one of the students at the supermarket or café or just bumping into them on the footpath. In class the other day the subject of where I was living came up. Half the class knew where I lived and the other half figured it out in about two seconds. Just as I was recovering from that another of the kids piped up that he knew I had gone kayaking with another of the teachers on the weekend! None of them were trying to be malicious or put me on edge, they were just being enthusiastic and trying to get to know me and I’d been warned that they would. It still took me a minute to realise that I didn’t need to be paranoid and they weren’t stalking me. It’s hard not to know where all your teachers live in a town this size.

Driving …and the other two fingered salute

I quite like driving. Even driving in Sydney traffic, on the odd occasion when the roads don’t resemble a car park, can be enjoyable. Driving in the suburbs or semi rural areas with nice scenery can actually be quite lovely. However in this part of the world roads look like this:

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or like this:

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or even this:

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Never before has an hour and a half gone on and on and on and on when driving on these roads. For the most part the roads are in an okay condition and there is hardly another car in sight (a novelty when you’re from Sydney) but they are straight, flat and the scenery is rather repetitive. Not a hill in sight. A dead tree by the side of the road is a welcome change in the landscape. I thought that it might just be me that had this problem but the locals that I’ve spoken with share my pain. The way around the boredom I’ve been told is the short cut. I have discovered that there are 4 or 5 different ways of getting to most towns and everyone of course disagrees on which is the best/most effective shortcut. Most of these routes are championed because they actually cut time off the journey but some of them are proffered purely for the variation in scenery. You hit a jackpot when you cover both criteria. Most of the short cuts involve a section of unsealed road which is an adventure in itself. People are more than happy to offer their suggested route, and two alternatives, so I have resolved to get a short cut from a local before heading anywhere.

The friendliness of the country folk extend to their courtesy on the road. On my initial visit to the town last year I didn’t realise that the bridge was single lane. I was happily heading across until my brain computed that the difference between the width of the bridge and the width of the 4WD heading towards me was not sufficient, even for my small car, for me to continue on my merry way. Some reversing was involved but all I received was a rather bemused look from the other driver. A more regular example of the courtesy is the acknowledgement of oncoming drivers by raising two fingers of your right hand from the steering wheel as you pass them. It took me awhile to tune into this but now I have, I love it. There is something quite exhilarating about acknowledging a complete stranger on the road just because they are there and having them return the greeting.

For the seasoned professionals the finger movement is very slight, almost non existent, so I’m pretty sure that the exuberance with which I now undertake this ritual belies my ‘city slicker’ status but it makes me feel as though I’m one step closer to getting the hang of this country thing

 

Country Life

Australia Day on the Murray

A heat wave. What an introduction to country life. The sound of tyres transversing melting bitumen was the enduring memory of my first day. Thankfully the temperature dropped below 40°C for about a week but we’re back to pushing 40 today and the forecast shows no let up. Thankfully it’s a dry heat and I have air conditioning.

One of the many things I have to get used to is the fact that we are a border town. When I try and explain my location to Sydney siders the Murray River (border between NSW and VIC) is a handy geographical marker. When I say on the Murray, I literally mean, on the Murray. The main street is essentially one sided as the other side IS the River (see photo).

Like Albury-Wodonga we have our very own counterpart on the other side of the bridge and although even smaller than us (500 to our 1500), they are the closest town to us by far. The relationship between the two towns is an intense version of that between the states. For the most part that fact that we are in fact two different states doesn’t really seem to register, but when it does it can be quite fierce. The amalgamation of  the footy (AFL) and netball clubs a number of years ago seems to be a case in point. However what it does show is the pointlessness of State Government. We are in NSW, I work for the NSW Department of Education, we have a NSW postcode and it is the NSW Police in town BUT we have a Victorian telephone area code, get Victorian TV stations, and follow AFL. It would make much more sense for our towns to pool resources and share services but although we share a lot of things, there are still a number of things -council services, education, police etc – that have to be separate because of the different State Governments.

On the subject of Victorian area codes I’ve made a few new friends calling numbers I regularly called from Sydney forgetting that I now need to put 02 (the NSW area code) in front of things. It actually took me awhile to figure out that was the problem!