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More than reading, writing and arithmetic

My son is in his final year at primary school. He is a solid, average student. He isn’t the highest achiever in his class and has had some intensive academic support at school to keep him in the middle.

His local public school is not as well resourced as the expensive private schools, but I have been quietly impressed with what he has been learning and the support he received throughout his time there.

He came home in grade 3 with a love of reading. He talked endlessly about Captain Cook and his exploration of Australia. And I started to see his developing interest in history.

In grade 4, it was all about the First Fleet. But it was also the year he began playing Pokemon cards properly with his friends. We talked more about the different types of Pokemon and the strategy behind some moves. I knew just enough to keep the conversation going, but there were times I had no idea what he was talking about.

It started getting interesting in grade 5. His teacher opened his eyes to the impact of colonisation. We talked about the Black Wars in Tasmania and what it meant to have a home taken away from you.

This year he came home talking about Federation and the politics behind the system we now have in Australia. Then, one day, we discussed the impact of stereotypes.

It started simply enough. All I did was ask him what he learned at school that day.

“We learned about stereotypes and how wrong they can be,” he responded.

“Really?” I was intrigued.

“Yes. I am Australian and I have never once said put another shrimp on the barbie. It’s prawns people. PRAWNS! We DON’T ride kangaroos to school. Not everyone wears thongs and fires up the barbie all the time. And there is no such thing as drop bears!”

It was the first time I heard my son openly identify himself as Australian. It was also the first time I saw him explore what it meant to be Australian. These ideas didn’t come from me or his father.

I began to wonder about his teacher.

Who was this person helping my son to define what it meant to be part of this country? Who was this person helping him to explore his identity?

Turns out she is Canadian. Her name is Catherine Cross. And teaching runs in her family.

Her father was a teacher so she grew up in “an environment of marking, lesson planning, summers off and constant discovery”. She has wanted to be a teacher since she was young, and I cannot be more thankful.

Ms Cross came to my son’s school on a teacher exchange.

“I am very lucky that my school board in Canada, the Alberta Teachers’ Association, provides the opportunity for teachers to participate in work exchanges around the world. I applied for an exchange to Australia for a year of intense personal and professional development,” she explains.

“I could have been placed anywhere in the country, according to my teaching assignment and qualifications. A teacher at T’s school also applied for an exchange through the NSW Department of Education and since our teaching assignments corresponded and we both agreed to the other terms of the exchange, we were matched and set up to switch lives!”

Ms Cross is here for one full year. January 2018 to December 2018. I ask if there was something that surprised her about Australia and her first impressions of the place.

“This exchange experience was actually not my first time to Australia — I came here about 10 years ago and travelled all over the country for six months, so I already had a bit of an idea about the country and culture,” she says.

“It is a significantly different experience to be working and living here rather than backpacking around — I feel that I have gained a much deeper insight into the fabric of Australian culture by living here and my interactions with my students, neighbours, and colleagues.

“My first impressions of Australia — and Sydney in particular — are that people here work very hard and instil the values of hard work, perseverance and dedication in themselves and their children. Australians also know how to relax and have fun and I think the motto work hard, play hard rings true here.”

Her response was surprising. I always thought we were known for our easy going attitude. Our “she’ll be right, mate” and “no worries”.

Ms Cross goes on to explain part of the History curriculum in grade 6 deals with Australian identity.

“We had some excellent conversations in class on the topic of what it means to be Australian. There were many stereotypes that were brought up — everyone in Australia is a surfer, for example — and we dug a bit deeper into why those stereotypes exist and if those stereotypes are part of the students’ identity as Australians.”

I did none of this when I was going through school. At my private school, it was all about personal excellence. Of striving to get the right answers and performing well. This broader understanding of the world wasn’t shaped or tested until I was much older.

For Ms Cross, the students at T’s school could not be more different from her students in Canada.

“The students here are high academically achieving, well rounded, focused and studious. I was shocked by the calibre and variety of extra-curricular opportunities that many of my students participate in before, during and after school.

“My students in Canada have higher academic and behavioural needs. At home, a big part of my teaching day is classroom management and creating activities to keep students engaged and working.

“My teaching style and philosophy focus a lot on class discussions, presenting the students with a variety of information, and encouraging them to think critically and form their own opinions on a topic.

“Though I have had to adapt and adjust my teaching style quite a bit here, I have tried to stay true to my philosophy and integrate lots of open discussion within the class. The students at this age are constantly thinking about the world around them and it is fascinating to bring that reality into the classroom to hear their thoughts and feelings about their world.”

I would love to see Ms Cross’s class in action. My son has been the beneficiary of her teaching style and philosophy. I have seen a blossoming of ideas about the world and a willingness to help others. Maybe it’s him. Maybe that is a natural part of growing up. Or maybe it’s also her questions in class.

“What I appreciate most about teaching is the joy and wonder students have for learning. Their thirst for knowledge and discovery is insatiable and I love seeing the passion in them when they find something that interests them and they run with it,” says Ms Cross.

“I believe that a big part of my job is broadening their horizons and showing them unique and interesting things about the world. That enthusiasm and joy of discovery are very rewarding and infectious for me.

“I hope that kids will learn to be kind, well-rounded, critical thinkers and lifelong learners. There is absolutely more to education than the basics.

“There is so much to discover about the world that we live in and we are so privileged to have the opportunities that we do. My hope as a teacher is that I ignite a spark of passion in my students; a passion to grow, discover, investigate, and learn for a lifetime.”

I am thankful for Ms Cross and the thousands of teachers out there who do their best to help our children discover the world around them. To help shape their character as well as encourage them to be lifelong learners.

Our family went to Canberra recently. We took a tour of Parliament House and spent time at the gift shop afterwards. Of all the things our son could have chosen, T picked this.

It is a badge of the Australian flag and the flag of Aboriginal Australia — the flag of Australia’s first peoples. He is almost 12 years old, but he already understands the significance of acknowledging that flag. I try to think back to what I understood at 12. It wasn’t this. I test him to see if he’d change his mind, encouraging him to see the soft toys instead. But he doesn’t budge.

“I want to put it on my school hat,” he says. “Next to the Canadian flag Ms Cross gave me.”

Featured image by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

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August 2018
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