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Let's thank those with big hearts working to shape little minds


The poet William Butler Yeats said teaching was not about filling a pail but lighting a fire. Many of us have had the benefit of that spark, writes Madonna King

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Vietnamese-born Australian author, actor and comedian Anh Do is also a magician with a paint brush in his hand, able to draw us in with a story on canvas.

Life wasn’t always that grand, though, and after his family fled to Australia as refugees, surviving five days in a leaky fishing boat, school should have been a safe haven.

But in year 8, his school did something he has since described as “weird’’. It decided that half of his class would take drama lessons and that the other half had no potential at all. He was slotted into that second category.

Then one day, Mrs Borny, the school’s English teacher, decided to start her own drama class. And, in Anh Do’s words, “suddenly this bunch of rejects felt like the lucky ones, the ones taught by the secret drama teacher.’’ One day, she told Anh that he was a very talented story teller. That’s all. “She has no idea how far that one line of encouragement would take me,’’ Anh Do wrote.

One line, delivered by a teacher, that opened a door to an extraordinary life.

Anh Do’s story is chronicled in Teachers, edited by Robert Macklin and published by University of New South Wales Press Ltd many years ago. But over and over, I’m drawn back to it, when the role of teachers is maligned and reduced to issues around pay and morale and contract positions and resources.

They are symptoms, not a cause; consequences of a society that now sees education as a factory, spitting out children who think the same and act the same and follow a path a guidance officer – or parent – has encouraged before they can think for themselves.

Anh Do’s story shows how teachers can lift the ceiling on a student’s potential, opening closed minds and unlocking a door that circumstance and disadvantage has slammed shut.

Author Mem Fox had a teacher who taught literature like gossip. Former Justice of the High Court The Hon Ian Callinan, AC, had a Brisbane teacher who “did not accept pre-ordination of futures’’, and who raised children “beyond their expectations’’. A fierce mind, former High Court Michael Kirby, AC, “just didn’t get the hang’’ of Maths; at least until Sydney teacher Mr Jim Coroneos turned up at his school.

Often the lesson isn’t related to the curriculum that is now jam-packed with prescribed content. For comedian Julian Morrow it was “an enthusiastic sense of possibility’’. For political Tanya Plibersek it was a teacher whose sense of humour enveloped her, at the age of 12.

All of our children have that teacher who has cleared the path to a more colourful future. So have we. Sometimes we are lucky to have more than one.

Earlier this year, I celebrated the 90th birthday of Brother Mick Bible, my year 10 school principal. Around the table were other students he had, in different decades, and in different cities.

Wayne Bennett, AM, still uses lessons he learnt, from Brother Bible in Warwick, in coaching rugby league teams. So does Dr Peter Steer, as chief executive of the Mater Group. And UQ adjunct professor Iyla Davies OAM.

At a celebration of World Teachers’ Day this week, I told a few hundred educators about the role of my year 11 Maths teacher, who changed my life in a way no-one else had; convincing me to look beyond the farming fields of Dalby to attend university.

Since then, teachers have sent me examples of how their young lives had been enriched by an educator in their own schooling.

Stories galore of teachers who have an ability to encourage curiosity and wonder, to stretch minds like elastic bands around ponytails.

Our own children have those stories too. In a recent research project, I asked those who had left school what drew them back for alumni events, for example.

It wasn’t friends, because they’d kept in touch with those they cherished. It was a particular teacher, often in the last couple of years of schooling, who they wanted to catch up with, or acknowledge, or thank.

Isn’t that the value of a good teacher? And why wouldn’t we value a role like that, in the same way we value a GP who might address our physical health or a lawyer we trust to draw up a will, or ensure our home purchase is safe?

Today, in classes all over Queensland a teacher is lifting a ceiling on a child’s potential or providing tough love in a bid to encourage a student down another track.

Tomorrow, they will be adult contributors to our communities – local, state, national and global.

That’s the role of a teacher; a role we should acknowledge with respect and pay and resources and everything else.

But perhaps it can start with a ‘thank you’.

Thank you.

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