Schools Women just wanna have fundamental rights

Enrolling at Burwood Teachers College in 1967, Robyn Young’s cohort was the last group to complete their training in two years – after that, teaching became a three-year degree.

Even with seven years out on family leave, 50-plus years is a lot of time spent in classrooms. Robyn, who has been an assistant principal, an acting principal, and a classroom teacher, well remembers her first year in the job. It was at Sale Primary School, in the very school she attended herself, as a child – and some of her teachers were still there.

“I was 19, I had Grade 5, and there were about 42 students. There were two Grade 5 classes, and we shared a packet of markers and you had to take back what remained if you needed anything new, and trade it! It was very strict, and the kids were expected to do what they were told to do.”

This strictness applied to the teachers, too. “We had inspectors who came in once a year to check your work program or order of work. They’d ask the kids some questions and you hoped to goodness they could answer them.

“My feedback once, I remember, was that the borders on my chalkboard needed improvements! You got marks for how decorative your work program was. Say your topic was Autumn – you had to have a coloured-in program, all handwritten. You’d spend hours decorating these things. You had to have scenes on the chalkboard. You’d spend hours doing an Autumn tree.”

“If a teacher told you to do something, you did it. Things are more open now. Kids express their opinions and views now.”

Robyn as a young teacher at Nambrok Primary School. Photo: supplied.

Things were more disciplined in general – not just in schools – with children and adults having a more hierarchical relationship. “If a teacher told you to do something, you did it. Things are more open now. Kids express their opinions and views now.

“Welfare is also huge now. We have the positive behaviour system. There is less formality for teachers and students, there’s a more relaxed relationship now. And parent involvement – you would very rarely have parents involved, just parent–teacher interviews. You didn’t see a lot of parents.

“It is fabulous the way it’s evolved, and I love the relationships we now have with kids, building those positive relationships with students and colleagues. It’s great to see kids grow and build their confidence.”

Robyn notes that the professionalism of teachers hasn’t changed, consistently demonstrating dedication to their job and commitment to students, with a focus on helping them to achieve their best. She has also noticed teachers’ willingness to work with a wide range of children and cater for their needs.

The advancement of technology has transformed the classroom, she says. When Robyn began teaching, not only were there no computers or iPads but there were no photocopiers either. “I remember bringing my TV from home so my students could watch the moon landing in 1969.”

School reports were completely handwritten, “so if you made a mistake you had to start all over again. Computers make it much easier.”

She has also seen the way literacy is taught change across the years. “The ‘whole language’ came in fairly early in my career and that was a turnaround from a phonetic approach, that was a huge change. Now going back to a phonics base, so things come and go.”

“The men were dominating in that era, as a minority – the boys club. Jobs for the boys. You looked after your mates.”

For women, other changes have been revolutionary, but not without a fight. “Women didn’t have equal pay. We had a hard time from men around getting equal pay because they felt that we didn’t do equal work. Men at that time were in the minority in primary schools but they had the majority of senior positions. We had to be very strong on it.”

Some colleagues made it clear that they were not supportive. At one graduation ceremony, Robyn remembers the father of a graduate teacher saying to her: “You shouldn’t be working because you’re married, and your husband’s job pays for you and you’re taking someone else’s job. You have an income – you shouldn’t have two incomes.”

The sexism was overt. “The men were dominating in that era, as a minority – the boys’ club. Jobs for the boys. You looked after your mates. I was a very strong advocate for women and women’s rights and belief in women,” Robyn says.

Having a career gave women a new kind of security. “I ended up divorced in the 1990s and if I hadn’t had my job, I would have been so restricted to leave a marriage that wasn’t working.”

It’s a salient reminder that the flexibility we take for granted now has been hard won. “I can remember having a sick child and you couldn’t take carer’s leave, so you had to find someone to look after them. I told my principal my daughter is unwell, and they said you can’t bring them into school, so I would have had to take leave without pay to look after my child. We have to support women in the workforce; it’s so important.”

Robyn Young at home. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

“Being a teacher is a learning experience. It’s just amazing. You’re constantly growing as a teacher; you never stop learning.”

For Robyn, the AEU has been crucial for support and information, and as advocates for improving member conditions. She has always enjoyed the regional meetings, as an opportunity “to meet with others in the profession from different settings, hearing local issues, guest speakers and the latest news”.

The love of being part of a community and collaborating is something that Robyn comes back to a lot. “I particularly liked being an assistant principal and working with the principal because it’s about collaboration.” A big positive these days is the way teachers share information, use networks, and learn from other people.

Since retirement, she misses the constant learning. “Being a teacher is a learning experience. It’s just amazing. You’re constantly growing as a teacher; you never stop learning. I did lots of courses. I just love study and learning more things. When they wanted to innovate something new, I was always happy to learn about it. I think that the professional development teachers have access to now is fabulous.”

“I’ve loved being a teacher and that’s why I’ve done it for so long,” Robyn says. She is now registered as a CRT and her retirement so far has been anything but quiet, including volunteering as a mentor for students at risk of disengaging from school.

And another thing…

The most important things I take into the classroom every day are… passion for teaching, adaptability, thorough preparation, caring and kindness.

The most important things to leave at home… personal issues, bad mood.

The best advice I ever received was… say ‘yes’ to new ideas and challenges.

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be… establish a home/work/life balance (from the start).

My favourite teacher at school was… I liked all my teachers!

The people I admire most are… my teaching colleagues, for their unfailing dedication and commitment to their students.

The music or book that changed my life was… The Wealth Within by Ainslie Meares MD.

In my other life, I am a… pioneer.

If I met the education minister, I’d tell them… to send a letter of acknowledgement for years of service and contribution to education for all teachers, not just those who reach the Department of Education designated milestone years. And to provide more support for beginning teachers by employing experienced/retired teachers as dedicated mentors/coaches (with no other responsibilities such as leadership, classroom teaching).

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