Tag Archives: ybc

Leaving the school, again

A few days ago, I hinted on Twitter I am leaving Yule Brook College at the end of this year. It’s the end of four years of not just teaching here but four years of daily think about the place and its people.

As one of the most memorable teaching posts and workplaces I have been a part of, the experiences from YBC will stay with me strongly and shape my professional and my personal self forever. Working in a flagship Big Picture school, expanding my teaching qualifications and repertoire to now include Design & Technology, envisioning and starting in many ways a trailblazing makerspace on a shoestring budget and turning it into well functioning, well received (by students and staff) space, finding and securing funding for this and a similar STEM-related initiative makes the highlights reel. But, as always, I have been far more interested in the people I have worked with and their stories, the goodwill, the resilience, the struggles, without the (self)promotional BS for this and that.

For the large part of my teaching career, I have worked in low socio-economic areas like the community YBC serves. Here and elsewhere, I have seen kids overcome incredible odds, succeed and flourish academically and socially. I have also seen the sad spiral into misery, often from misery, (too) many times.

I have grown so tired, yes here at YBC too and elsewhere, of motivational posters and one-line messages, inevitably aimed at individual, glossing over the structural causes of misery these kids have had no say in it. I am equally tired of the corrosive low expectations, yes here at YBC and elsewhere, inevitably aimed at entire groups (‘this class’…), populations (‘these people, this postcode’…) that trap the individuals who are capable of alternatives far healthier than those on offer, some of them generational.

To me, good answers lie not in the binary of “personal grit” or utopian “equal society” but somewhere in between. Our job as educators is to help students make choices and have the resources to build the former (I dislike the word grit though) but not ignoring, glossing over, dismissing the energy and opportunity-sapping chances of the latter. At all times, we ought to figure out and modulate our responses and consider the potential costs of those responses to the student, ourselves and the broader community.

We need to do this to the best of our professional ability and knowledge. These we can only expand by reading, engaging, thinking and honest critique, not just moaning about it on one side and clapping to rather than pointing out the emperor’s new clothes on the other. This is the hard work, not the paperwork.

Over the past couple of years, I put my heart and soul in building the makerspace at YBC. I did that not because of my deep passion for STEM which seems to be all the rage last few years. Yeah, sure, I do like making and design, kids figuring the usefulness of sometimes the most rudimentary numeracy and literacy. But that’s almost a necessary by-product of something else.

I did it to provide opportunities for students, to create an oasis of abundance my friend Ira Socol speaks of and many of YBC may not enjoy. A pocket perhaps of abundance of opportunities, of the kinds kids in leafier suburbs of this town would take for granted. Abundance of something that values learning, is socially positive, doesn’t stratify you and/or ‘confirm you’re dumb’ (student words, not mine) every time you stuff something up. A place you can try things that maybe ‘cost a bit’ (student words again, because $50 of acrylic plastic she used up in making her design here would be going towards keeping the lights on at home). Simple – but profound stuff.  

Next year, my journey across the educational landscape takes me in a new direction. I have accepted a position as a Teaching and Learning Coach for the Graduate Teacher Induction Programme with the Department of Education of Western Australia. After a period of initial training, I will be helping out new graduates across Perth metro and the entire state of Western Australia (very, very large one at that) survive and thrive in their first steps in the workforce. GTIP is a unique programme and I am very fortunate and excited to have secured this position. Those of you who have come across myself, my work and thoughts over the past couple of decades will probably know I could talk about bloody teaching and education all day. So, look out for my travel reflections next year.

As for my dear colleagues at YBC – we have become lifelong friends. The tougher and longer we stuck at it, the more it makes us bond beyond the shifting job titles now and the future. Plenty of that at YBC where I am sure will always return as a good friend.


I don’t really ‘play guitar’. OK, I know about 15 chords that make me able to rustily strum through a rock’n’roll list but I only grab it a few times a year. My favourite guitar time however is when I do the ‘Wave Hill strike’ lesson with Year 10s, learning about the struggle for Indigenous rights in Australia. We learn about it through Paul Kelly’s classic ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow‘ and the amazing story behind it.

I’ve done this for a few years now and it’s a highlight. Today, I even had my Principal serendipitiously sitting with us during it. We watched, sang, laughed, pondered, discussed … visceral stuff, not a worksheet or a website. Great lesson. But that’s not the main story here.

From Little Things Big Things Grow
From Little Things Big Things Grow

The story are the guitars I brought in today. They were a hit. During advisory time, I found that a couple of my students fancy themselves with a few small riffs. I couldn’t get the guitars out of their hands.

Next period, I left the guitars out, played as kids filed in. A couple of quiet Year 8 girls grabbed them and we played Stand By Me before moving on. Layer of students uncovered, new connections made. Laughter. Genuine enjoyment of music, of trying too, by all.

Then my Year 9 class came in. The ‘bottom’ kids who are ‘not academic’, the self-proclaimed ‘dumb class’. They are learning about something that interests them about Australia’s home front during World War 1. And yes, there’s a few strummers in there too. A kid who has struggled all along (with both the content and playing guitar) pipes up and says he wants to stay in class during the break and look up World War 1 songs. Part of me says ‘yeah right’, a part of me dreams …

I leave the class during long break and allow a few kids to stay in and play. I also leave my laptop in (not deliberately). When I get back, I find my laptop on a student desk, clearly used. I dread a bit. Then I find this was searched for:

Please notice the search item. This was during the break and I was nowhere near. These guys were clearly ready to learn, to figure out, to give it a go. I could trust them, probably learn from them too.

It made my day. It made my week. It makes relationships go. And that makes education go. But you have to “Give [kids] a Chance” … you know that one? 😉

Bye Mister


Last period. Hot. Humid. First part of the lesson falls apart completely, no calming down here. ‘Journal writing’ later? Yeah, right. Plan … P?

“15 minutes to see who can keep a piece of paper in the air the longest? Must let go, cannot touch or be supported by anything, launch with two feet on the ground.”

15 minutes of making mayhem, not one child uninterested, withdrawn. Great atmosphere, humour. Clever designs, different approaches to the problem. After that, 15 minutes of launching and friendly, funny argy bargy whose was in the air the longest. The mighty mess all cleaned up in five.

We have a teen who sits on the couch, always quiet, withdrawn, “no good at anything Sir, it’s all luck” lack of belief in any of his abilities, poor attendance record and diagnosed with things he … certainly ISN’T displaying now! He tests, he shows, he smiles, he tries and … comes second, close to the winner and far from number three. Leaves beaming, “Bye Mister”.

Think we have some material to work with there as far as sense of agency, internal locus of control, self-esteem and desire to be included, doing things that are valued? Yeah, we’ll get to the literacy and curriculum thing, for sure.

Yes, he might be in a complete heap tomorrow, no guarantee. All small steps, small steps. Or as the motto of our school goes: “One student at a time.”

PS One of my ‘aspirations’ this year is to briefly recount these little gems (and flops!) that happen in a place called school. I do so publicly not for admiration nor criticism (believe me, I am NOT a good teacher in many a mind based on this) but to simply add to the rich tapestry of understanding of what is it that teachers do. Because the moment you can ‘define it’ – it changes. And I like that in all its messiness.

What is your fish tank?


I have a tank in my class. No, two tanks actually. Fish tanks, metre and a bit long each. I found them sitting lonely and empty as I started my work at my new school.

Took the tanks into my class. Asked a few boys who, I have been warned and confirmed, can ‘be a handful’ to fill both one third with sand. Done, with gusto.  ‘My weakest’ (ah, the labels…) student shows me the best way to empty the crate of sand into the tank without spilling sand. Brilliant, smart, effective.

I produce a bag of toy soldiers, four mini armies in different colours. The glass tanks come alive. Forts, dugouts, trenches are built. Number of boys in different classes just ‘want to play a bit’ with the soldiers. ‘Work and play” take-turn system is born on the go. No walkouts, dramas or inappropriate behaviour when playing with the soldiers. Sharing is turned on.

Strategy to avoid ‘doing work’ ie writing most of these boys aren’t good at? Possibly. Enjoyment from being able to play with toys as something the kid may not have had much in the past? Likely, even more.


“Play with the soldiers, go for it, 20 minutes. Set a battle scene and then describe it. Tell, write down who is fighting who. What is the commander of the red guys saying to his troops? Take a photo and describe the view of the machine-gunner at the back. What about the guy with the grenade launcher? What do you think he wrote to his family last night, before the battle? Think you can do something like that?”


You can’t ‘box’ teaching. It’s too beautiful, too frustrating, too dynamic and complex to do so. Why I teach. Or as one of my favourite authors Arundhati Roy would say

“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”

Teachers, or not, we all have our ‘fish tanks’. What is yours?