Diane Bassett joined the union when she started teaching in 1972. “In those days you signed up to the Department with your training. I did the diploma of teaching, primary, from 1969, and started in 1972 at Westgarth Primary School. In 1977, I got study leave and did a graduate diploma in special education.”
Diane taught Prep for five years and loved it. “The majority of students were from a non-English-speaking background, and many hadn’t been to preschool. I had a couple of students with an intellectual disability, and I asked a more experienced teacher for advice. The teacher said, ‘Just put her in the sandpit; she’ll never learn’, and I thought, there has to be a better answer than that! So that inspired me, wanting answers for those students who were struggling to learn.”
Diane is now the principal of Hume Valley School (formerly Broadmeadows Special School), a special school catering for students aged 5 to 18 with mild intellectual disabilities – around 380 students across three campuses. She has been there since the 1970s, and the school’s principal since 2003, but she well remembers those early days at Westgarth Primary, with 43 students in each class.
“With no ES staff, it was quite a complex role. One interesting PD we did was a three-day course where they taught all classes in Greek, so it put the teachers in the position of seeing the difficulties students would face in a classroom where they didn’t understand the language. You realised that when they were talking, the students were sometimes trying to help one another interpret what’s being said.”
At Hume Valley School, they offer the same curriculum as mainstream schools, adapted for their students’ needs. “We do a lot of adaptation and modification of our teaching and learning for our individual students. Some come with complex needs, some medical, and complex behaviour challenges. A lot of our work is around positive behaviours support.
“In the ‘good old days’ it was just you in a classroom with 43 students, whereas now we build each other’s capacity and support each other.”
“Some of our students have complex needs that impact on their capacity to engage and learn successfully and maintain their wellbeing. There’s a lot of support provided to families, so often it’s working with families so they can advocate for their son or daughter.”
Many of Diane’s students are from families newly arrived in Australia. “We link them to community organisations and advocacy groups. Mackillop Family Services have their Early Help Family Service co-located at our school, offering support with housing and so on.”
The school has a stable staffing profile, with a low turnover, and staff are encouraged to do special education training. It is a supportive environment because they need to work together, Diane says.
Some arrive with special education qualifications, and some have a primary or secondary background and undertake their qualifications while teaching. “It gives them the theoretical knowledge and understanding about the impact of the disability on the child to learn.”
Across the years, Diane has taken part in numerous union campaigns resulting in significant changes. She recalls some of the battles. “Men’s and women’s salaries differed at the same level. We didn’t have ES personnel. We didn’t have time release – we just covered for each other.
“There was no capacity for planning meetings; that was done outside school hours. We didn’t have specialists – you taught every subject. You had a black and white TV for one half-hour show of Play School per week and that was our only downtime. There was no technology then.”
On the plus side, Diane was given full-time paid study leave for 12 months to do the special education graduate diploma.
“It’s a shame the community doesn’t see the contribution staff make on a daily basis, over and above.”
At Hume Valley School, they now try to maintain a maximum of 12 students per class. “And now we also have ES, therapy staff, wellbeing staff. In the ‘good old days’ it was just you in a classroom with 43 students, whereas now we build each other’s capacity and support each other.”
Diane talks fondly about the collegiate interaction that is part of school life. “It was once very much you in your classroom and that’s where you stayed for the year. Now there’s so much more networking in and across special education schools and community organisations.”
She remembers a time of chalk and talk, and no photocopiers. “Technology has jumped in leaps and bounds but it’s also increased the workload.”
Community perceptions of teaching is still one of the hardest aspects of the job, she says. “You continually hear people say, ‘9 to 3.30 and all these holidays’ – but they don’t see the planning and assessment and documentation and compliance, and it’s a shame they don’t see the contribution staff make on a daily basis, over and above.”
Ultimately, Diane embraces the opportunity to make a difference. “There are so many complexities to the role so it’s always interesting. And of course the most important thing is the kids.”
AND ANOTHER THING…
The most important things I take into the classroom every day are… a positive attitude and commitment to my students.
The most important things to leave at home are… personal issues.
The best advice I ever received was… all students have the capacity to learn and deserve you doing your very best for them.
My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be… embrace the opportunities and the challenges, and never stop learning and striving to do your best.
My favourite teacher at school was… the one who inspired my curiosity and love of learning in science.
The people I admire most are… those who are committed to and innovative in education.
The music or book that changed my life was… Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which raised my consciousness of racism and social issues.
In my other life, I… am a very busy mother and grandmother.
If I met the education minister, I’d tell them… continue to support us, particularly with increased funding, and to promote the quality of the work undertaken by professionals in the public education system.