Friday, 12 September 2014

Standing on their shoulders

It happens in schools sometimes. Decisions get made from high up.

Year 7 White, Year 7 Red, Year 7 Blue, Year 7 Gold and Year 7 Green  were all meant to get their year level camp in 1979, my first year of high school. Someone decided that for that year it wasn’t happening. The camp had happened for as long as people in the school could remember and it was reinstated in 1980. All the way up to my final year of school, there was a Year 7 camp. Just not in our year.  

It has filtered down some 33 years afterwards that my homeroom teacher in that year, Mr. Thompson wasn’t happy about the decision. He didn’t show his disappointment to his students. I’ve worked in schools and can tell you that he was utterly professional about the whole thing.

Mr Charles Thompson (we called him Chuck) was a great teacher. If you are of a certain age, you will understand that he could pass as the twin of Gabe Cotter, the star of the hit 1970’s TV series about a teacher in the Bronx, Welcome Back Cotter. He had the afro’, the flares. He was in his second year out of teachers college. Our classroom door was always the first open. There was Chuck at his desk each morning with his cup of coffee, doing corrections. A group of us would just stand around his desk and talk about nothing in particular. He was great to be around. We could joke with him and when the bell went he would teach using quizzes, stories – Chuck made learning fun.

 A few weeks after the camp had been called off, Chuck spoke to the class and said, “If we are going to do this, it’s all in or it’s not on.” And so student by student, a permission note came from home and the camp was on – just for 7 Green at De La Salle College. We also had to keep it quiet from the other classes. I understand now that Chuck had arranged with the principal, permission to have a weekend camp... not in school time and at no cost to the school. Chuck made it happen on his time. Here we are, your blogger is sitting on the floor there on the left (they forgot to name me and the other fella in the school annual - Blue & Gold).

I remember that camp so clearly, cooking damper in hot coals, walking through the Dandenong ranges and stopping for a swim at the Monbulk pool, sleeping in tents Chuck had got a hold of. As time went on and I became an adult, I appreciated the effort and commitment Chuck had shown to us.

‘Effort and Commitment’ was the theme of a presentation I was asked to give at a school I run the Time & Space programs for – Yea High School. They have a special assembly each semester and award the students who have shown, you guessed it, effort and commitment in some aspect of school life. Pennants are given out to the students in the Yea Shire Hall and their parents and grandparents are invited to the celebration.

I told the gathering about Chuck and was delighted to pass on that in the two years I have been working for Yea High School; it has been evident that there are teachers like Chuck in their staff community.

There’s Phil Wischer, the art teacher. I’ve got to know Phil and on the day of the presentation, he brought in a painting he had done. It is inspired by Wilson’s Promontory – a mountain and seascape. The picture has a rope ladder falling from the sky and in near invisible writing, he has written a verse of Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. I said to the students – how cool is it that your art teacher is an artist? Phil is coordinating the school musical production as well. I understand his main motivation is that he wants the kids to experience that feeling of being part of something bigger than them – that’s what Phil remembers about the times when he was a student in his school productions.

Then there’s Nicole Gillingham. We run the Time & Space evenings in the building she teaches in at Yea High School. Without fail, every time I go in to set up after school has finished, Nicole is there tutoring a student in maths. One-on-one, carefully explaining the problem and I know as I walk past, that she will explain it again and again, in different ways until the student understands. She is so patient. When I have visited the school during the day, I have seen her at a little makeshift desk outside the staffroom, helping a student during lunchtime.

Sandy Reddan the ‘food-tech’ teacher always arrives before the Time & Space nights with a basket of muffins (always two flavours), scones and jam and Cream and even some Anzac biscuits – all freshly baked. Sandy simply doesn’t have to do this but she does. One morning after I arrived back in Melbourne late the night before from the 90 minute drive from Yea High School, my wife saw a carton of eggs on our kitchen bench.

“Where did you get those”, she asked?

“Oh Sandy told me her chickens were going crazy and she had stacks of eggs left over, so she gave these to me”. We had some for breakfast – those eggs seemed to have so much more flavour than the ones you get from the supermarket.

Yea High School deceptively contains a humble set of buildings. There are champions of ‘effort and commitment’ inside those walls, inspiring the kids.

I asked the students and the mums and dads and grandparents to close their eyes and take thirty seconds to consider the person, the teacher who made a difference in their life.

So here’s an invitation to you to do that now. Look away from this story... close your eyes for 30 seconds and try to picture that teacher whose shoulders you stand on because of their effort and commitment.  

Could you picture them? Great, I’ve got a suggested action for you in just a moment.

With respect to Chuck - I’ve actually written about him before – and when I did, I made the suggestion to reach out to that teacher (if they were still around) and simply say ‘thanks’. I wrote Chuck a letter. As it came to pass, I did a session at my old school for the staff late last year. Chuck was in the audience and I told the story of his effort and commitment for 7 Green in 1979. Chuck was beaming. A colleague of his recently told me he was really chuffed. It took me over 30 years to say thank you.

So you guessed it. If you know your teacher is still around. Drop them a line. You might be the person who makes every ‘effort and commitment’ act your teacher gave, across a career, seem completely worthwhile.

If the teacher is not around anymore, in the next 24 hours – tell someone important to you why your teacher inspired you.


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