Seeds of change


20 June 2023

The first in a series on New Educators, we follow four teachers around the country throughout the year as they take on new roles and responsibilities and share their challenges, hopes and joys of teaching in our mighty public schools.

Alex Leon, Teacher, Mount Stromlo High School, ACT

A passion to teach

Alex Leon didn’t know she wanted to be a teacher until she began working in a high school drama department.

She had graduated with a Bachelor of Acting, Screen and Stage, determined to be an actor. But, after giving acting a go, she realised she wasn’t passionate about continuing.

After helping out at a school, enjoying the job and working with teenagers, she realised she wanted to be a drama teacher, so she returned to university to complete a master’s degree in teaching in 2021.

She is a proud Worimi (Forster-Tuncurry) and Lardil (Mornington Island) woman, and says an “Indigenous Perspectives” unit was her favourite subject during her degree. “I’ve grown up predominantly in white society, so the unit taught me a lot about myself and my culture. It’s liberated me,” she says.

Leon is now teaching out-of-field at Mount Stromlo High School in the Australian Capital Territory, teaching Years 7 and 8 humanities and social sciences, plus wellbeing and health awareness classes.

“I have 160 students across my classes, so keeping an eye on each student’s understanding is really hard, with some still operating at Years 3 or 4. Sometimes, I don’t realise they’re falling behind until I do a formative assessment,” Leon says.

Addressing that gap is a priority in her learning plan. As a quick indicator of student engagement, Leon uses the “thumbometer”, where students raise their thumbs if they follow the lesson. Those who don’t, receive extra attention.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students make up about 4 per cent of Mount Stromlo’s enrolment of 850. About 20 per cent of students are from a non-English speaking background. Leon has found creative ways to share her experience with all students and builds on a platform of empathy.

She uses a blank sheet of paper to deliver a powerful analogy about the historical, and at times current, treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“I hold up a fresh sheet and tell my students I’m going to damage it. Then, I try to smooth it out. I ask my students, ‘Is it the same?’. They’ll say, ‘No, Miss, it has creases’. And I’ll explain that’s how Australian Indigenous people feel.”

Leon says the activity helps build empathy among her students. She follows it with an Acknowledgement of Country.

Cultural considerations

Leon has grown into a leadership role at Mount Stromlo. After asking to join the cultural integrity team, she was invited to lead it. The team has since surveyed teachers twice about their understanding and challenges with cultural issues.

“The data showed that teachers were afraid of saying and doing the wrong thing, which is why they don’t step into the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural perspective area.”

So, Leon has curated a folder of resources on a shared drive for teachers to work through at their own pace. She has also presented at staff meetings and makes herself available to peers who are keen to chat about the topic. She admits being the only Aboriginal-identified woman on staff can be “taxing”.

Taking care of her own health and wellbeing has also become a priority.

“Last year was a rollercoaster and was overwhelming at the start. I’d been trying to reinvent the wheel and figure out where I fit in, but I learned to step back and not spend so many after-school hours on work.”

Soon, she’ll tackle a half-marathon and is looking to buy a house with her partner.

“As teachers, we must find the time for a good self-care routine, and I’m big on having my own mob to support me.”

Leon is a member of the AEU’s Yalukit Yulendj Committee, which makes recommendations on various reports and campaigns and will make the referendum to enshrine a First Nations Voice in the Constitution a major focus this year.

“But I won’t push my own agenda in my classes,” she says.

“I’m here to help my students develop and vocalise their own thoughts and feelings in a safe space,” Leon says.

Kelsey Hawthorn, Teacher, Marsden State High School, QLD

Steps to success

Kelsey Hawthorn’s sliding doors moment to a teaching career came after a casual comment from her father.

He walked past her as she was using a whiteboard in the living room to study, told her she was doing a good job and suggested she become a teacher.

Hawthorn took it as a sign and started a teaching degree at Queensland University of Technology. But it was when she was on a practicum and volunteering as a tutor for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literacy and numeracy support program at Marsden State High School in Brisbane that she realised she was “actually good at this”.

At the time, Marsden was recruiting, so Hawthorn put her hand up and was offered a position.

She graduated in 2017 and has mostly been a senior home economics and junior history teacher at Marsden. The school has 220 teachers and more than 3600 students enrolled in Year 7 to 12 this year and is the largest public high school in the state.

Leadership role “humbling”

A stint in a leadership role at Marsden as a subject coordinator was “humbling”, says Hawthorn, although she later chose to step down. “Due to the heavy workload, COVID-19 and personal health issues, it was more important for me to focus on classroom teaching and building rapport with colleagues, and I’ve been taking advice from strong women in leadership,” she says. “I had to recognise my right to disconnect and not stretch myself too thin.”

Expectation setting

For each new class, Hawthorn works with students to develop and agree on a classroom contract covering expectations.

Four-in-10 Marsden students are from a non-English speaking background and for Hawthorn that has meant a focus on building relationships that respect and acknowledge their backgrounds.

Since 2020, she’s also been a Queensland Teachers Union (QTU) representative, which has given her “more confidence, understanding, communication and leadership skills”.

This term, Hawthorn is looking forward to teaching baking to her Year 10 food technology students.

“We’ll look at a different type of baked good each week. I’m embedding sustainability and food solutions, and I think they’re really going to engage with it as they design, make, and complete a sensory evaluation to explain their choices.”

Hawthorn says she’s a little sad not to be teaching history this year. “Ancient history is my absolute favourite. I love being able to draw parallels between ancient civilisations, their cultures and
what we know now, and to see how those religion and country borders influence who we are today.”

Jake Freeman-Duffy, Assistant principal, St Mary’s North Public School, NSW

Talk the talk

When Jake Freeman-Duffy first walked into his new school and saw a welcome sign in Dharug language, he knew it was the place for him.

Now, Freeman-Duffy is starting his fourth term as an assistant principal at St Mary’s North Public School in Western Sydney. He’s a proud Gumbaynggirr man whose mob are based in Macksville on the New South Wales mid-north coast.

“Being an Aboriginal teacher myself, I really wanted to work for a school with a low socio-economic status and a high Aboriginal population that really embodies the values of Aboriginal education,” he says.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students represent about one third of the school’s population of 360.

Freeman-Duffy began casual teaching while he was completing his degree in late 2014. He gained full proficiency in 2016 while working at Wauchope Primary School on the New South Wales mid-north coast.

He had always been keen to lead a team and in 2020 completed an educational leadership and management certificate, which opened his eyes to transformational leadership.

While Freeman-Duffy has now settled into his new leadership role at St Mary’s North, he recalls the early days as being a “bit scary because you’re trying to establish yourself and learn how things are done in a new school”.

“Straight off the bat, my team was asking me questions around the curriculum and assessment, and I hadn’t even looked at that stage’s scope and sequence yet. And, in my first week, I had to sort out an attendance matter when I didn’t know who the student was or their attendance record. I had to make a call right then and there and explain my decision,” he says.

“Now, my goal is to develop my team members to be better leaders than I am.”

Pay it forward

Freeman-Duffy spent 2021 as a project officer for the NSW Teachers Federation.

“My job was to visit schools and chat to members, particularly beginning teachers to let them know about the union’s support and conferences.”

He continues to give presentations on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, wellbeing, welfare, and classroom behaviour management at the federation’s courses and conferences.

“Some schools have a negative behaviour policy, so I ask teachers how would you feel if your name was on a staffroom whiteboard if you did something wrong? You don’t need to embarrass students.”

He also taps into new teachers’ reluctance to ask “those hard questions” about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education.

“The most surprising question is ‘What’s the appropriate language to use?’. I tell teachers to feel comfortable saying ‘deadly’ [awesome] or ‘gammin’ [to pretend]. Take ownership of the words. Your students will appreciate you’re speaking Aboriginal English.”

At St Marys North, he’s been running the BroSpeak program for senior boys, occasionally organising an Elder or other visitor to “have a yarn with the boys”.

“We meet weekly for two hours so they can learn about their culture, relationships, self-esteem and what it means to be a young Aboriginal male in today’s culture.”

Whether he’s teaching or leading, Freeman-Duffy says the “work doesn’t stop”. But he makes time for a gym session each morning.

“It clears my mind for the day and sets me up so I can easily switch between tasks.”

That, and jotting down his tasks in the analogue notebook that’s always handy, helps ensure Freeman-Duffy walks through the school gate with confidence each day.

Elora Ghea, Teacher , Ulverstone Secondary College, TAS

Supportive relationships

Elora Ghea credits “intense support” from colleagues and advisers for helping her to survive, and thrive, in her first three years of teaching.

On her first day as a teacher, one of her students was sitting outside the classroom, refusing to move. He had taken a couple of classroom chairs to put his feet up outside. “It took a lot of convincing to get one off him because I had a full class and needed that chair,” she says.

Ghea says her first few weeks at Ulverstone Secondary College in north-west Tasmania were “full of powerplays” as students tested her. She’s learned to set firm boundaries otherwise, “letting one behaviour slide one day and then jumping on it the next, makes students uncomfortable”.

The behavioural issues were a bit of a shock for Ghea. In her former career she was often a guest presenter at schools.

It made teaching look easy, she says. “As a presenter, I could walk in and have students following my every word because I was new. But a lot of the strategies I used as a presenter weren't effective as a teacher.” At Ulverstone, she quickly realised that “whatever impression I made would affect me for the whole year”.

Third career

Ghea did not have teaching in her sights when she finished secondary school. A career as a science journalist was top of her list but, after completing a science and communication degree, she struggled to find work in the field.

“After I graduated, I didn’t find it very interesting reporting on all the other current affairs such as courts and the budget. Science journalism is such a niche.”

She worked as an intern at community and ABC radio stations and tried to report science news, but ultimately it wasn’t enough for her.

Ghea is enjoying her third career teaching science and media production. She loves that she is also a “counsellor, ringmaster, comedian, mediator, cheerleader, salesperson and detective”.

“Some days, I am teaching all seven periods and rushing to pack up now-cooled Bunsen burners or dissected sheep hearts in my lunch break. On others, I am record-keeping for high jump at the athletics carnival, or taking kids to the beach to look at fossils. I love all of the different hats I wear.”

This year will see Ghea take on more responsibility as a mentor to beginning teachers.

“I’ll get to be that person who goes into their classroom, watch them teaching and support them through that. With teaching, it’s hard to be proud of yourself as you’ll always reflect on a lesson and think about how to improve it. We make hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions a day. It's hard for teachers to recognise everything that's going right.”

She’ll impress upon beginning teachers the need to build relationships with staff and students, especially “those really tricky students”.

She’s become more conscious and confident in her ability to make school a “safe and predictable place” for all students, including those who have experienced trauma.

“Each year, parts of teaching become a bit more second nature,” she says. “I’m more efficient, missing fewer deadlines or tasks, and building confidence.”

In December, Ghea opted to be one of three AEU Tasmania representatives at her school. “I’m exploring what being a union rep this year will be like. It’s a member-led union, so I should be part of it. Everyone has a right to quality education and our work conditions are student learning conditions,” she says.

By Margaret Paton

This article was originally published In The Australian Educator, Autumn 2023