I didn’t much like the best teacher I ever
had. Her name was Sr Dominic Mary and she taught science, a subject in which I
was not gifted, in grade 9, not my best year, frankly. A year later, I would be
thrown out of All Hallows’, the school my mother and hers and hers had done
well at, for a litany of offences too many to enumerate here. Suffices to say I
did not paint white footprints from the Virgin Mary to the toilets and back
with a rubber thong dipped in Dulux. Someone else did that. And also
I did not... Oh what’s the point? It’s thirty years ago. I’m hopeful that being
thrown out of a school is like a convict past. You move from shame to
indifference to pride as the distance in time increases. Let’s just say that in
grade 9, I wasn’t as well behaved as I might have been.
Sr Dominic Mary was young when I think of her now, early thirties, although at the time she was old like all grownups. I remember a compact, muscled woman with a wide smile and plain glasses. I have a notion she grew up out west, but really I knew nothing about her personal life. In those days nuns didn’t have personal lives, or even hair that you could see. Grade 9 science was nothing fancy, no laptops, no excursions; mostly we weren’t even in a lab. And Sr Dominic Mary wasn’t funny, she was strict, but she was also really smart. Together we traversed geology – I still remember what happens when basalt turns to rhyolite in Lamington National Park – biology, and I can’t tell you why a tortoise-shell cat is almost always female, only that she is, and astronomy, where I learned to read the night sky, so that when I went to Canada twenty years later I could look upon Polaris and know it for the north star.
I remember Sr Dominic Mary asked me to stay back after class one day. “Your other teachers tell me you muck up, but you don’t muck up in my class. Why?” I don’t know, Sister. “Are you scared of me?” No, Sister. “You could do better,” she said finally. “You ought to think about that.” Science was the only subject I did well in that year.
International comparisons of what works in school education inevitably mention Finland, which accidentally excels at just about every desirable outcome. I say accidentally because equity, making sure all students do well, not excellence, is the goal for school education in Finland. Children don’t start school until they’re seven. They don’t do long days, there’s little homework, and they have a long summer break. Individual teachers take responsibility for their students. Kids aren’t tested until secondary and then not much. There’s no NAPLAN, and the national curriculum is broadbrush.
University of Melbourne education expert Professor John Hattie has analysed variables that make a difference in school education. Those related to home, schools, principals and peers combined account for only around 20 per cent variation in outcomes. What the student brings accounts for 50 per cent, which you’d expect, but the other 30 per cent belongs with teachers. And teachers are a key point of difference between Finland and other places. In Finland, there are ten applicants for every place in teaching. Student teachers are trained in a discipline as well as in teaching, to masters level, and they must grapple with research. Beginning teachers have mentors. They are not especially well paid although the profession is high status.
My son, who is ten, loved school last year. When I quizzed him, he said his teacher Miss Mudge was really excited about the art projects they did, and about science and SOSE, his favourite subjects. A lot of things were interesting to him because they were interesting to Miss Mudge, he said.
In Australia, we have some ‘expert’ teachers in John Hattie’s terms, who understand their students and are passionate about helping them learn. Most people remember at least one. I can think of half a dozen. If we really wanted to improve schools, we’d recruit and train our best graduates to teach, and we’d help those teachers become even better.
First published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend 26 January 2013. Feel free to write to me at Qweekend about Sister Dominic Mary, good teachers or anything else here.