The extra mile

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02 February 2021

Michelle Ayres

Transition – Year 5, Soapy Bore Homeland Learning Centre, Northern Territory

Michelle Ayres’ working day begins at 8am in the remote Utopia homelands in the centre of the Northern Territory. Her first duty is to sort food supplies for the day ahead, then she drives a bus
30 kilometres to her classroom. She provides basic hygiene support, including face washing (trachoma, a bacterial infection that affects the eyes, is a serious issue in the region) and teeth brushing before schoolwork begins around 9.15am.

Ayres teaches Transition to Year 5 students at the Soapy Bore Homeland Learning Centre (HLC), one of four HLC’s in the Arlparra School’s large geographical area. Between 16 and 20 students meet her at the school and up to another four students from a community 20 kilometres away are dropped off by a second bus. HLC teachers are often required to collect students from multiple communities on their way to school.

“There are some incredibly challenging things and some very rewarding things about teaching out here,” she says. “Education is a culturally different thing for the people in these communities and we are mindful of the different values of a Western education system.

“Culture and family come first, and school comes after anything that is going on in the community such as a funeral, a family occasion, or a sporting event. We understand and respect that and find ways to work with the community.”

For Ayres, who took on a six-month contract at Arlparra at the start of 2016, it has been the opportunity to positively affect the lives of her students, and the support of her fellow teachers, that have made her stay for almost five years.

“One of the biggest highlights for me is being able to take a child who has no background in literacy and teach them to read. It happens incrementally, and slower than in most classrooms because of all the other challenges that surround us,” she says.

Ayres trained at James Cook University in Townsville and was working in an out-of-school-hours program before a friend encouraged her to take on the contract.

“I came out here as a general primary graduate, but I have developed a real passion for areas such as early childhood literacy, phonics and targeting reading difficulties,” she says. “It is extremely rewarding to find a program that works and to see that it can work multiple times over multiple schools.

“I have really felt welcomed by the communities out here and I have formed good relationships with the local people and the other teaching staff,” she says. Ayres has also taken on a role as a Barkly region councillor for the AEU’s NT branch.

“It is quite unusual to be living around 12 other teachers in a remote place and we have formed strong friendships. We are only 250 kilometres from Alice Springs, but that is close enough to go into town semi-regularly on a weekend.”

Teaching days are Monday to Thursday to help manage the travelling, the long days and allow time for meetings, non-contact hours and school maintenance. Fridays are allocated to administrative tasks.

Brad Hannay

Year 5 – Year 12, Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre, South Australia

Brad Hannay says he and his fellow teachers at Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre in the northern suburbs of Adelaide are never certain what challenges the next day will bring.

“We don’t usually find out who is in our class (and what learning issues they might have) until 8.20am,” he says. “We could have any number of new students come in overnight and then the next week we could get whole new group of students; this does make it difficult to plan.”

Hannay is a former home economics teacher who “saw the opportunity to make a difference” when he joined the school as a maths teacher seven years ago.

The Goldsborough Road campus has a maximum capacity of 48 students, but there is also a flexi-centre campus with around 40 attendees. Students are aged between 10 and 18 – boys are segregated into age brackets of 10-14 and 15-18 but girls, due to their lower numbers, are taught across all ages.

Hannay teaches a class of six girls, with the support of two youth workers who are effectively wardens. The day-to-day challenges are many – from teaching a Year 5 student to tell the time, to helping a Year 11 student with subject research because she is prohibited from using the internet – but he says the biggest rewards is “seeing the kids achieve at things they would not normally be doing, because they wouldn’t even be at school”.

“Ninety per cent of our students have some sort of learning disability. It might be a learning difficulty that has stopped them going to school, such as undiagnosed autism, or a mental health issue that has gotten them into trouble,” he says.

“These kids have all basically said, ‘school can’t help me, I’m not going’. A lot them have just been denied opportunities to learn.”

Students are assessed on entry to the centre and lessons are tailored to their specific needs. Hannay says that although the end goal is to get them out of detention, the ones who gain the most from the education opportunities are “the long-term kids”.

“If they are only here for a short time – a month or two – they might learn to tell the time, which they couldn’t do before they arrived, and that’s a win. But when some of the long-term kids achieve the completion of a research project or pass Year 11, which they would never have done on the outside, it’s incredible,” he says.

“That is not just my point of view, that is how every teacher here feels. We have an amazing staff at this school. I have never worked in an environment where everyone is so supportive of each other.

“In mainstream schools teachers have to fit in, but here if a student comes to school and says, ‘I’m really not in a maths mood, do you mind if I do my English?’, I’m not going to say, ‘No’. If they are learning and being productive, if their education is progressing, then we encourage that,” he says.

“As a mainstream teacher coming into this environment that has been one of the biggest challenges. It’s about learning to be flexible so that you can give the students what they need.”

Melissa Handley

Year 7 – Year 12, Jacaranda Place School, Queensland

Melissa Handley says Jacaranda Place in Queensland’s Brisbane-based Prince Charles Hospital is already attracting interest from national and international education organisations just six months after opening.

“Education and teachers have been in hospitals for a long time, that is nothing new … what is different in our setting is the way education and health are working together as one team,” she says.

The service is the first of its kind in Australia and offers extended treatment and education for students with severe and complex mental health conditions. It has places for 22 secondary school students, 10 of whom live in the area and participate in a day program, and another 12 who are in residential care.

Students may have had “a range of challenging and unhelpful behaviours that have negatively affected their schooling”, Handley says. The teaching program aims to help them re-engage in school and, where possible, reconnect with education pathways.

“We work closely with the health team and have the common goal of seeing the young person re-engage with society on a path that is appropriate for them. So, while the health professionals focus on their specialties and we focus on delivering education, the crucial element is the way we work together to provide one integrated service centred on the student,” she says.

Handley grew up in Cairns and attended the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Her first teaching role was in the rural area of Roma and she later taught at The Gap State High School in Brisbane. Handley trained as an English and drama teacher but, because of her rural experience, has taught other subject areas.

For Handley, the biggest highlight of the teaching program at Jacaranda Place is being able to concentrate intensively on the specific goals of each student. “We are able to take the time to look at the long game for so many of these students who were previously disengaged and had not attended school for a long period,” she says.

“We build connections and relationships with each student and work with them to find the best learning pathway to suit their short-term and long-term goals. We then use a highly differentiated approach to teach the curriculum, drawing on techniques and supports that work for each student. It is a unique model.”

Handley says many secondary students could benefit from the added support and relationship building offered at Jacaranda.

“Since starting work at Jacaranda Place this year, I can’t help but look back over my teaching career and think of various students whom I have come in contact with over the years who could have benefited from such a place as this,” she says.

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Summer 2020