A pre-service teacher I follow on Twitter, @JessOttewell, tagged me into a meme she posted the other day. Normally I don’t pay these sorts of things much notice, but I enjoyed reading Jess’s responses to the 11 questions given to her, and I’m procrastinating, so here goes. Thanks for including me, Jess!

Question 1. When did you first realise you wanted to become an educator?

In hindsight, it looks like I was always preparing to be a teacher. I used to play “school” with my little sister, and I would act as the teacher and draw “worksheets” for her to complete to learn her alphabet. Not great pedagogy!

As I grew up there were plenty of things I wanted to do. I wanted to be a lawyer, then an architect, and then a doctor (of medicine). I applied to the University of Newcastle’s undergraduate medicine program and did quite well on the Undergraduate Medicine Admissions Test and in the interview, but my OP let me down. I enrolled in Science here at the University of Queensland instead, and loved studying psychology and human neurophysiology. At the end of my degree I realised that nobody would want to listen to a 20 year old psychologist, and probably nor should they (I know that this is ageism, but do think about it; some life experience would be valuable for providing quality counselling, don’t you think?). So in my last semester I enrolled in a teaching practicum course and a linguistics course, thinking perhaps I’d teach Biology and Physics for a few years.

Well.

The practicum coordinator here at UQ accidentally sent me to a primary school (despite there being no primary education program at UQ at the time).

I had an absolute ball. The kids were delightful, joyous and grumpy and active and playful. They loved learning and gobbled up every lesson the teacher gave. Each afternoon of my prac we would lie down on the floor (it was a Year 1 class) and listen to stories that the teacher read, and that eventually I read to them too. That’s when I knew. I finished my Science degree and enrolled at QUT to complete a two year Graduate Bachelor of Education (Primary).

2. What inspires you as an educator?

I’m not sure about the word “inspiring”. I mean, I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty over the holidays and I found that inspiring. Small moments, pieces of fiction, fragments of conversations, quotes, all sorts of things can be inspiring, but inspiration can be short-lived, can be exhausted, consumed, rejected…

So, given that disclaimer, two things “inspire” me: the children (and now adults) that I teach, and the wonderful ideas that I am teaching. Watching and hearing the moment when someone learns something new, when they incorporate it into their existing ideas and it changes them, and they grow almost physically as a result… whether it’s an “aha!” moment or a more gentle awakening, that moment is always rewarding. It’s harder to catch with the pre-service teachers that I have the privilege of teaching now than it is with the primary school children I used to teach, but it’s still just as thrilling. Education is empowering, and knowing that my students are being empowered to improve their lives, their future and that of their families or future students is a wonderful feeling.

The amazing ideas that I am teaching, the how to think, to reason, to argue, to make good decisions and solve problems, are also “inspiring”. I am an experienced primary teacher and I like to think that makes me good at teaching the essentials of many subjects, from the arts to technology, but teaching science, the nature of science and how and why science works to help us make decisions and solve problems is particularly exciting. I do miss teaching all the other subjects too, though. I miss integrating the ideas and showing how the fabric of our lives is woven from history and place, from language and technologies, as well as from scientific laws and events.

3. What is your main plan for 2014?

Finish this damn PhD!!

4. What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?

I actually have no idea. I’m pretty sure I’ll still be doing something vaguely to do with teaching or with science or with both, but I actually have no plans. I could be running a bed and breakfast, or own a bookshop. I think this comes from moving around so much as a kid; I learned not to make long-term predictions about where I might be studying or working or teaching.

Some tell me that this lack of “vision” is a bad thing. But I’m not so sure. Life’s twists and turns have had many opportunities and I am very, very lucky.

5. How do you unwind?

I run, and I read. With my study, I don’t read nearly as much as I used to; I don’t have time and I find that at the end of the day my brain is full and can’t handle any unfamiliar texts, so I find myself reading the comforting stories of Harry Potter, or Discworld novels, rather than new novels or texts. I would like more time and brain space to read. Running helps; it gives me space to solve problems and innovate in my head. I’m relatively new to running, or indeed any physical exertion whatsoever, so the rush of endorphins it gives me are still novel and exciting, too.

6. How do you spend your holidays?

When I was teaching children I didn’t really get many of these. I spent most holidays either attending conferences or other professional development, or planning for the next term’s lessons and assessment. Over the summer I usually had a couple of weeks after the exhaustion broke.

Now I am lucky in that my timetable is flexible and I can – sort of – within reason – with enough funds – take holidays at any time. I can’t really take more holidays than “normal” people though. I still have classes to plan and a PhD to finish…

This past holiday Aaron and I drove up the coast of Queensland and back down via Carnarvon Gorge (which is quite far inland) over two weeks and it was wonderful. I read a lot, didn’t check my emails once, enjoyed the view, swam, ran, walked, climbed, explored and laughed.

7. Do you spend anytime overseas? If so how long for, and what for?

I moved a lot as a kid; four international moves before I turned fifteen. So luckily, I’d done a lot of exploring of the three countries I lived in: New Zealand, Australia and Canada, as well as parts of the United States. My sister is married to an Englishman so I’ve also been to England a few times. But other than a trip to Vietnam and Hong Kong, most of my true exploring of other countries has been with my partner Aaron. We’ve been to Japan, London, Paris, all over Spain, and in a few months we’re going to Greece! My favourite place to visit has been Spain, which is truly beautiful and full of a fascinating history and art and music and passionate expression of all kinds… and oh the food!

8. What was one of your best experiences in education?

As a student or a teacher? I think you’re asking about my experiences as a student.

As a student, I attended six schools during my primary and secondary years (all that moving). I remember very, very fondly the primary school I attended the longest, John Purchase Public School in Sydney, Australia. Most of my favourite childhood memories are there or are with the friends I attended JPPS with. I remember all of my teachers, each of whom was wonderful to me, and particularly my grade 5 teacher Mr Oakes, who apparently convinced my parents that I was smart, rather than weird. (Not that they had any issue with me being weird.) He gave me The Hobbit to read, and I had an excellent time in his class, as his lessons were both challenging and rewarding.

As for high school, I spent a year and a half at Bell High School in Ottawa, Canada, and every single morning from the second day onwards I woke up with the alarm, leapt out of bed, and chased down the day. I met some magnificent friends (some of whom I’m still in contact with – hi guys!), said “funky” a lot, learned, acted, sang, played clarinet, laughed, danced, learned to be a Blackjack dealer, was a backstage make-up artist, sat on the school council and athletics council (me? athletics???), played Magic the Gathering, refused to type on an electric typewriter, played card games in the cafeteria, etc, etc, etc. In retrospect I can’t believe how many thrilling experiences I had there, especially given that the teachers and school provided so many more. My music teachers, Mr Stanutz and Mrs Ward (who I’m also still in contact with), ensured that the arts programs were very much alive, despite a union work-to-rule action that was applied preventing teachers from conducting extracurricular activities during my entire attendance at the school. Kudos to them.

9. What was one of your worst experiences in education?

When we returned to Australia, to the Gold Coast in January 1997, the state high school I went to placed me in a grade according to my chronological age, rather than what I had come from in Canada. In Ottawa I’d been in an accelerated program that had me attending year 11 classes, and it was halfway through my academic year 10 that we had left. But this state high school placed me at the beginning of year 10.

Two weeks later I was given a battery of end-of-year-10 tests and then promoted to Year 11, but socially, my year was ruined: the year 10 kids saw me as a year 11 student, and the year 11s as a year 10. I had few friends and they were not very good to me.

Either the bureaucracy of the system or the arrogance of the school (or both) were responsible for this mess-around. Thankfully, there was an excellent guidance counsellor, and a lovely set of teachers, all of whom who helped me through. I made better, more appropriate friends in year 12 and had a great final year at high school.

10. What teacher do you remember to be inspiring? How did they inspire their students?

I think the better question would be who of my teachers, or which of my classes, did I value the most, and why.

I adored Mr Oakes, Mrs Ward, and Mr Stanutz who I’ve already mentioned. Another music teacher, Mrs Gaugin, showed us the movie Amadeus in about the fourth grade (we must have skipped some of the more inappropriate bits), promoting my love of classical music and particularly Mozart! Mrs Gaugin, Mrs Denny, Mr Stanutz and Mrs Ward were my music teachers throughout primary and high school. They gave to me a lasting love of music, appreciation for musical technology, and an ability to identify and recognise patterns; my music teachers and lessons taught me to work with others in synchronicity and to thrill in those moments when large groups work together, and the most important lesson that practice really does lead to an improvement in ability.

In science, Skippy (Mr Des Brisay) and Mr Bailey at Bell are both responsible for igniting my love of science and the scientific method. Skippy challenged us to think in new ways about social problems that were personally relevant as well as those that were not. Mr Bailey let us play. Our practicals, which were quite regular, had a purpose and demonstrated the biological concepts he needed them to, but he also let us ask other questions and explore them, sometimes spontaneously changing the lesson entirely to suit our inquiry. Mr McCabe, who was actually the teacher of the other physics class at my school on the Gold Coast, tried to do the same. 

All of the teachers I’ve mentioned performed their roles with good humour, empathy, patience and all the while kept their high expectations of me as their student. I am a better person because of them. I value the classes they taught me, as well as the role models they were to me.

11. What teacher do you remember to be uninspiring? How did they do this?

I was pretty lucky; most of my teachers were good. With the exception of three months of school when I was 4 years old, I only attended state schools, and I had wonderful teachers all the way. There are two exceptions. At Bell High School, I remember distinctly the moment when a (female) physics teacher laughed at my aspiration to become a lawyer. She wasn’t my teacher but she overhead my conversation with others. She said girls didn’t make good lawyers. What the hell??

In middle school in Ottawa, my year 8 Design and Technology teacher showed us videos of people slicing off fingers, etc, with the equipment we would be using. That “inspired” me to secretly complete all my projects without using any of the equipment by doing them at home. Worse, though, he was also my maths teacher. He put me in the middle ability group. The high ability group was only boys. He said girls couldn’t do maths well enough to be in the high ability group. I sat in maths and drew stars over and over again on pieces of paper to drive him nuts. I refused to do anything else. He probably thought I was crazy. Meanwhile, at home, a tutor took me through the year 8 maths curriculum over two months. I aced every maths exam and really, really tried my best to piss him off.

At my state high school here in Australia, my very-close-to-retirement biology teacher sat at the desk and read the textbook to us while we did worksheets at our desks. I think we did four practicals in the two years I was in his class. It had been my favourite subject at Bell, and if I hadn’t had the same subject taught so wonderfully by Mr Bailey before I sat in the these classes on the Gold Coast, I probably would have learned to hate biology.

I can’t change any of the experiences I had at school, good or bad, and I wouldn’t want to either (except maybe for my year 8 maths teacher). For the most part, I loved school. I loved – and still love – learning new things, exploring new places, changing my mind, and trying new things. Thanks to a great family and excellent teachers, I had plenty of opportunities to do all this and more. But it’s worth remembering that not every moment of my life, your life, or the lives of our students, is supposed to be poignant and memorable. Our brains just couldn’t handle it if it was! One bad moment leads only to a better one later on, and one incredible experience will be followed by a forgettable one. Give your students opportunities to learn and explore, and don’t sweat it if there’s one bad day or you make a mistake. There’s always tomorrow…

Thanks for asking these 11 questions, Jess. It was good to remember, reflect, and smile.

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