Schools Postcard from French Island

Teacher Anita Harding with one of her young charges. Photo: Supplied.

For teacher ANITA HARDING, an eight-week teaching gig became the adventure of a lifetime.

The call came in one night while I was spending the weekend at a friend’s house: “Would you be interested in an eight-week teaching block, starting Monday?” After working for almost a year as a CRT at far too many different schools across the Mornington Peninsula, I practically screamed “Yes!” down the phone, deafening the lady from the agency.

I began my teaching career in NSW, working five days in a single school, getting paid at a casual rate. However, my husband’s work with the military meant an interstate move every two years, so I never felt I could commit to anything more than short-term work here and there. The offer of spending the last eight weeks of the school year at a ‘small country school’ sounded just perfect to me. Little did I know this small school, made to sound so warm and cosy, was the start of what I can only describe as teaching bootcamp and the rollercoaster ride of a lifetime!

I arrived at Stony Point on Monday morning, ready to catch the ferry to my first day at Perseverence Primary School. The ferry left at 7.50 am sharp and I was still not entirely sure if I was going to be seasick or not. It was there I first met Sharon, the school’s ES worker, and together we travelled the 15-minute trip over Western Port Bay on a boat I would describe as a much bigger and slightly fancier dinghy.

We arrived at Tankerton Jetty on French Island, where Sharon led the way through the jetty’s dirt carpark to the school car and drove the 6km dirt road to school with nothing in sight except paddocks and cows. Lots of cows. I honestly don’t remember much else of that day, because I felt as if I had just entered a strange land where everything was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

Students help prepare a new garden bed during a school working bee. Photo: Supplied.

I spent the next few weeks getting to know the kids and, with much help from Sharon, begin a process that I came to call ‘learning island’. Even though French Island is geographically so close to Melbourne, it is somehow so removed, like a different world. The island is completely off the grid, for one thing, which means private properties are responsible for generating their own electricity by solar power and generators, and water supply from rainwater tanks. The school is no exception to this.

One of my first ‘learning island’ lessons was the cloudy day we arrived at work to find no power to run the school. After exhausting my very limited technical knowledge, I enlisted the help of a lifesaver parent, who asked if I had ordered fuel for the generator, to which I replied: “Generators need fuel?” In my city-girl mind, generators just, well, generated. I thought that was their job; it’s right there in the word itself. Almost two years later and we haven’t run out of power since. Lesson one learnt.

Managing the curriculum for a class that’s P-6 is something I found very difficult to begin with. While it’s still not an easy feat, I am becoming a more talented juggler of multiple ages and stages in the one room. With the entire school’s population well under that of a single class size in most Australian public schools, it is easier to plan, teach and assess all the students on an individual basis, rather than according to their respective year levels. This is a huge advantage for the students, because I can easily extend them when they achieve particular outcomes, rather than having to wait until the following year level and corresponding curriculum.

I’ve certainly had a lot of unusual situations thrown at me while working in this very unique school –  from koalas ambling across the school oval to tiger snakes circling the classroom.

That’s not to say this can’t be done in a typical mainstream class, but the small numbers definitely provide a clear platform to teach to individual needs. The downside is my term and weekly planner has to incorporate every child’s learning outcomes, multiplying my planning time by the number of students I have.

Teaching can be challenging at the best of times – and my job on the island is definitely no exception. My amazing principal spoke with me early on, telling me that if I could handle this, there’s nothing I couldn’t do. I’ve certainly had a lot of unusual situations thrown at me while working in this very unique school –  from koalas ambling across the school oval and interrupting cricket matches, to school lockdowns due to tiger snakes circling the classroom, to sleeping on the classroom floor overnight because of wild weather and ferry cancellations. Like I said, teaching bootcamp. But I’ve loved every minute and learned more over these past two years than I could ever have imagined possible.

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