"Great teachers change lives"
Photo: Ellis Parrinder
A couple of weeks ago, the Prime Minister launched a competition for people to tell the story of their favourite teacher.
My only problem was picking just one: I was a pretty odd and nerdy child, and the self esteem I got from the teachers who took an interest in me changed my life.
One of the things that all of my favourite teachers had in common was that they had high expectations of their students, and they well and truly went beyond the call of duty.
They were at their desks before school, after school, during holidays – for no other reason than a deep love of their job. They took on professional development opportunities that helped their students – like doing HSC marking or participating in curriculum development.
They treated us as intelligent young adults, opened our eyes to the world outside of our families and our school, and to our potential and how we could make a difference. They had faith in our ability to achieve whatever we set our minds to. I came from a home where my oldest brother was the first of anyone in our family to ever go to university. My parents were very supportive, but couldn’t really give me a lot of advice about what to study or career options. Having the teachers I admired to talk to made me think of possibilities for my life that I never would have considered otherwise.
Most of my teachers were feminists. I am so grateful for the belief they gave me that “girls can do anything” as the old sticker said. Most of my teachers were compassionate and showed me by lived example what kindness meant.
I had great primary school teachers. Mrs Volk taught me to look around me at the great big, interesting world we are part of. Miss Deards gave me whatever sense of humour I have. (Blame her!)
In high school I had fantastic history teachers. I learnt about great women in history, like Aspasia of Milesia, who was Pericles’ wife and influenced Athenian politics and society, or Hatshepsut, who was Egypt’s most important female pharaoh. These are women I know because of Cheryl Wotherspoon, my incredible ancient history teacher.
My English teachers were also amazing – Bronwyn Haddock taught me to read Shakespeare and poetry. I still love Gerard Manly Hopkins because of the way I was taught his poetry for the HSC. Jane Austen is my all-time favourite author, and it was Alison Cobbin who first had me read Pride and Prejudice. Because she taught it so well, it never for a single moment seemed difficult, or a chore. She opened my eyes to the humour and historical context in which the novels were written, and the way Jane Austen’s life influenced what she wrote.
Probably my all-time favourite teacher would be my art teacher, Diana Lewis. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Diana changed the way that I look at the world.
She was very strict and placed enormous expectations on her students. When I was painting or drawing, I would often think that I had finished and was quite pleased with my work. Diana would come past and say, “that’s a good start,” and then offer ideas about how to make improvements. Then, when the work really was finished, the sense of pride I felt was so much greater than if I’d just left it in the first place. She got me to achieve things in art that I never thought I was capable of.
Because she taught me art history, when I go to a gallery or a museum today, I understand what I’m looking. I get pleasure from what I see now because of what she taught me as a 16 year old.
On weekends, Diana and her husband, Paul, would hire a minibus and drive senior students to Canberra to see exhibitions at the National Gallery. When we had finished our major works, they would spend whole weekends helping us mount them, making sure every single piece was beautifully presented when it was sent away for marking. Diana would buy her own supplies for the classroom because she felt the standard-issue Department of Education paints and brushes weren’t good enough for us.
Great teachers change lives. They plant a seed in each young person that they touch. You can never tell what that seed will grow into.
Tanya Plibersek is the Member for Sydney, Minister for Health.
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To enter the competition and tell the world about your favourite teacher, go to Julia Gillard's Facebook page.