When asked to first sit down and share my thoughts on teaching at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, having come from the United Kingdom, my initial reaction was a sense of great pride. However, my mind swiftly conjured images of one of P. G. Wodehouse’s quintessentially English butlers being far too polite and not having the foggiest of ideas of what to say or do. Over the weekend, I pondered this, but only managed a long list of pedagogical jargon from the UK such as ‘spacing’, ‘interleaving’, ‘retrieval practice’, ‘data-drops’ and ‘curriculum coherence’. Next to Girls Grammar, I had simply written ‘trust’, ‘time’ and ‘thank-yous’, perhaps evoking Scott Morrison’s COVID-19 strategy: ‘Test, Trace and Trap’. However, I think that ‘trust’, ‘time’ and ‘thank-yous’ appropriately reflect my initial experiences of teaching in Australia.
To set some context, I have worked in two schools in the United Kingdom, both quite different. My first school out of teacher training was one affiliated with my university, situated in an idyllic English village between Cambridge and London. My second school was situated in an inner suburb of London. There were amazingly more than sixty languages spoken by the pupils and it was wonderfully multicultural—you would walk through the corridor hearing Arabic, Punjabi, Somali, and the occasional English twang.
Fast forward to Australia and a wonderfully unencumbered sense of trust. On the first day of Term 1 at Girls Grammar, I recall walking around campus and being completely dumbfounded that girls were on their phones or devices. In the UK, we had a zero-tolerance policy that any phone should be confiscated and held until a parent or guardian came to collect it. The girls here would find this policy archaic, irrelevant, perhaps even an impingement on their human rights, and rightly so, because they are trusted. They are trusted by staff and trusted by their peers, and it is through this trust that they are able flourish. This is epitomised in the recent weeks, when the girls have been trusted to work remotely and in doing do so are prospering as independent learners. I have found that trust permeates everything at BGGS. Middle leaders are trusted to run their Faculties and in return craft curriculums that are rich in substantive and disciplinary knowledge that evoke wonder in the girls.
With trust, I have also found time. Time in teaching is the cup of the carpenter in Indiana Jones ‘Holy Grail. In the UK, I taught twelve classes from Year 7 through to Year 13, I was responsible for the development of trainee teachers, I had two weekly meetings with the Deputy Head Teacher to discuss data and I taught the identical hours to what I do now at Girls Grammar. I would try to read every evening but never made it to the bottom of the page without falling asleep. I have found that teachers work just as hard in Australia, but their time is spent on perhaps more personal jobs that have a direct impact of the pupils they teach. Moreover, time is afforded to individual classes. I have five classes at Girls Grammar and I see them twice as much as my classes in the UK. Consequently, you are able to delve into the detail of the Siege of Leningrad or explore the ridiculousness of the events of the October Revolution because there is not the looming, Sauron-like eye (queue Mordor music) that is Ofsted (government body responsible for inspecting schools in the UK) and the relentless accountability that accompanies it. Time is also awarded to the girls, but they seem to fervidly go about filling it with a wonderfully dizzying amount of co-curricular activities and an awe-inspiring commitment to their studies.
Lastly, the thing that has resonated with me most profoundly in Australia is the girls’ gratitude, or their ‘thank yous’. Without fail, at the end of each lesson I am met with a chorus of ‘thank yous’ that ring out in my direction. I still have not quite acclimatised to this and it still catches me by surprise, but each time it engenders a delightful warmth and brings a smile to my face. In much the same way of not quite growing accustomed to ending my sentences with the word ‘but’ or ‘aye, but’, which I find delightfully baffling, I hope that I remain slightly startled by a wave of ‘thank yous,’ as it is always very welcome surprise and crystallises, for me, my early experiences of teaching at Girls Grammar. It is infectious and impossible to not be grateful in return.