Schools Not just another brick in the wall: teaching at a disadvantaged school

Brendan J Murray. Photo: Supplied

Teacher Brendan James Murray’s chronicles a year at a disadvantaged beachside school in his latest book, The School, a narrative nonfiction that reveals the real deal behind today’s teenagers.

When asked whether he’s a teacher who writes or a writer who teaches, Brendan James Murray says that he is very much both – and feels as though the two roles feed into each other well. 

Brendan studied professional writing as well as teaching. This is his eleventh year at Rosebud Secondary College, and he is in that small coterie of teachers who work at the very school they attended growing up. His latest book, The School, is narrative nonfiction; the characters are composites of people he has known, and it chronicles a year in the life of a school not unlike his own.

“I’m trying to give readers an insight into what young people are really like. Teachers get a sense of what an entire generation is like. Some people might have an experience with one teenager and get a negative view, but when you actually see what young people are like right now, it’s really positive.”

He also hopes readers will come away with a stronger picture of how the inequities of broader society manifest in schools. “There is insufficient interest in ensuring our most disadvantaged children are getting what they need.”

One of the big changes since he was a student is the invention of social media, which he has taken to with ease. “It’s an opportunity for role-modelling. Everything I write, any kid can pick up – you can’t change the settings of a book to ‘private’ – so I think about what I put in there and how to say it.”

On the uptake of new technology, Brendan sees difficulties. As well as the issue of addiction, young people are “increasingly operating in a world where it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not true. Our job is to equip them with these skills.”

Technology also means that teachers are much more contactable than they used to be. “It’s so easy when it’s just an email, and you expect a teacher to just be on their email at any time.” 

“These are the most competent, capable people. They are so understanding of young people. We’re lucky to have them in our profession.”

Brendan is lucid on the subject of teacher burnout, becoming a media spokesperson on the issue, including a recent appearance on current affairs program The Project. While teaching used to be about content, he says, now it’s also “almost a social-work role” – something he enjoys, but which adds to the challenges.

“Schools and unis need to do a better job of supporting and training teachers. They need to better equip new teachers with the actual skills they need to deal with difficult behaviours, creating situations where the new teacher has room to grow, rather than dumping them and leaving them to it.”

Some tired and ill-informed ideas about teaching still exist, including the old cliché: If you can’t do, teach. “It’s not just that it’s offensive, it’s also untrue.” Brendan says he is surrounded by “extraordinary” teachers, who are empathetic, committed, take their work seriously and really care about their students. “It all matters,” he says.

“These are the most competent, capable people. They are so understanding of young people. We’re lucky to have them in our profession.”

Brendan also has a clear sense of the many facets of schooling that generally fly beneath the radar. “It’s the hidden curriculum: role models; incidental conversations; students talking to us at lunchtime; relationships that create for kids a safe and happy space. That’s not in a curriculum document. It’s not assessed by NAPLAN.”

This is no small thing, and he brings this passion to his own teaching. “It’s an amazing privilege. The opportunities you have every day; the difference you can make. When I’m tired and exhausted and overworked, that gives me energy.”

While teachers need support within the school, the profession also deserves respect – a message Brendan is finding opportunities to share with the public. “Everyone in the community can play a role in that. If you want schools to be filled with good teachers, don’t wait till you have that one small bad experience and get vocal. Get to know the teachers, talk to them, and thank them.”

The School by Brendan James Murray

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