Thursday, June 23, 2011

Carlton to Wangaratta

We came here to Wangaratta, Dear Jude and I, in 1982, having decided that it would be better to raise kids in the "country" and that the city was not the place to do it. I had spent my early career years - 9 of them - teaching at Princes Hill High School (PHHS in North Carlton, Melbourne Australia). I did not wish to transfer to another inner city school, so when a vacancy was advertised at Wangaratta for a Legal Studies teacher, Dear Jude and I looked at each other with shining, excited faces and popped in an application.

Yippeeeee! We snagged it! We had been married the year before and were living in short-term digs rented from a friend of the Molloy family in Kew and were all set for a transfer up north.

PHHS was an innovative school in terms of curriculum and student welfare and I had had a wonderful introduction to teaching in this exciting learning environment. We were led to believe that the student population comprised over 60% of students whose parents were first arrivals from a multitude of countries. Many students arrived 'straight off the boat' and had little in the way of English skills. Of the remaining 40% or so, half of these students lived in single parent and low income families and the remainder were the offspring of local intelligentsia devoted to public school education. The operation of the school proceeded on largely democratic lines and the young staff population was dedicated to progressive education. Opinions were listened to carefully, ideas sifted for chaff and grain ideas and the best of these were implemented. Above all, though, everyone's ideas were valued.

Now I KNEW that Wangaratta was going to be conservative, but I wasn't prepared for the climate of the school culture that I walked into on that day in early 1983 full of zest and vigour for the task ahead of me. It didn't take long to discover that the school culture hadn't changed since my own days as a student at Macleod High School. It was as though a huge perspex lid had been clamped over the school in 1961 (my first year at MHS), and that NOT ONE THING had changed inside that rarefied atmosphere despite all the major events that had bedeviled the universe since then. Not the Vietnam War, not the assassination of JFK, not the election and sacking of Gough Whitlam, not major overhauling of the Victorian Education system. NOTHING!

Got an opinion, Young Rose? Keep it to yourself. We like to hear opinions, but only if you hold the rank at least Senior Teacher, but even then only if you have been at the school since 1961. And do not even THINK of applying for a position of responsibility within the school (such as assistant to the Year 9 coordinator) until you have been with us for 5 years. Curriculum innovation? What's 'curriculum innovation'? As long as you can keep your class quiet, we don't really care what happens inside your room. Do what you like.

School uniform at WHS was enforced rigidly and it became apparent that this was the foundation of all of the Discipline Policy. Whereas the staff at PHHS had passed a motion in its Staff Association that teachers '... would no longer enforce the wearing of school uniform' (and as a result uniform had been abandoned around 1986). It seemed to work like this at WHS: We will make students wear the uniform and shall treat any breach as if World War III had broken out. Odd sock? Hair a bit long? Desert boots? - OFF WITH THAT STUDENT'S HEAD! No need to worry about higher order problems with students such as talking back to students and other forms of insubordination, head the problem off at the pass. Focus on uniform, the rest will follow. And it did!

As with any other group of colleagues, I had my pals, and some very good and close ones as well. But they were all, in the main, very very conservative. Here's an example: Many of my fellow staff members were smokers. In most, if not all, of my years at WHS I moved a motion in the Staff Association for a ban on smoking in the staff room. This motion failed to win a majority of votes on every single occasion!

School Prefects, school song, house songs, school fetes (held on school days), uniform, the lot. I found it hugely disconcerting to find myself back in the 1960s. What had I DONE? It wasn't just the school, it was the whole town. Where was the richness of the ever-present migrant population of Carlton? It seemed to me that the most recent wave of migrants to Wangaratta was the Scots in the 1860s. Where were the John Lacorcias? Where was Tullio? Where was George Katsakis? With their heavy Italian/Chinese/Turkish/Greek accents?

Of course there were the advantages. PHHS occupied probably the smallest patch of dirt within the whole of the Victorian Education Department - no more than 3/4 of an acre. WHS, on the other hand was probably one of the biggest, with almost 2 acres for its students to frolic on at lunch and recess times. One could concentrate on ways of keeping one's class quiet, rather than wondering how things could be improved curriculum- and learning-wise. I had become quite adept at riot-control at PHHS, but now I had classes of kids who were LISTENING to what I had to say! I had to learn how to TEACH these people! I had to begin my teacher training ALL OVER AGAIN!

It must be said that things are quite different at WHS nowadays. A succession of latter-day principals (including Dear Jude) have pried the perspex lid off the school and the refreshing winds of educational change have been allowed to waft through the system and allowed change to take its course. It is not an easy task creating a vibrant, effective, exciting learning environment and the struggle continues. Moving to a system of merit as a basis for influence and promotion (and away from a system based on staff seniority) is but one of the many changes that have been wrought at the school. WHS is moving ahead, as PHHS is, no doubt. Without me and on their own.

I was reminded of the splashing hand in the bucket and how the water gets back to its own level when the hand is removed when I returned to WHS some years after I left for a visit. I spoke to a group of the 'old stagers' over in a corner of the staff room and asked them if anyone had missed me since my departure. "Don't you teach here any more?", queried one of the chaps ...

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