Thanks for great school years

Our son will make the transition to secondary school next year and before he embarks from a small to a slightly bigger pond, I want to pause and acknowledge the factors that have contributed to his learning so far, or not. He’s attended public schools in Australia and in Canada. Currently he’s at Bardon State School in Brisbane’s inner west, which is probably not unlike many other public primary schools in Queensland. In Canada he was at Banff Elementary School in the Rocky Mountains.

Bardon is small for Brisbane, just over 200 students when we started, over 300 now. Banff was about the same. They’re schools, but they’re also communities. I’ve come to know parents, of one child or six children, and everything in between. They’ve taught me what it means to commit to the most important job I’ll ever do. They’re all busy, many in stressful jobs, but they spend time at the school helping out, time with their children, time with one another.  It’s been a great privilege to know them and learn from them.

The principal at Bardon, Mr Robertson, is strict about uniforms and the national anthem by today’s standards, but when you see him gently guiding prep children to the stage to get their You-Can-Do-It awards on Assembly, bending down to their level with a kindly word, you understand the value he places on each and every child. In Canada, it was Mr Woytuck, who mysteriously disappeared every time the school’s super hero, Captain Kindness, was in the building.  

I know I’ve been critical of the NAPLAN national literacy and numeracy tests and the national curriculum this year. If you look around the world, the countries with draconian testing regimes and prescriptive national curricula, even the ones that have succeeded, rue what they’ve lost, the creative and critical thinking skills in graduates that the 21st century so badly needs. In Canada, standardised testing was state-based and minimised and there was no national curriculum. The content was much more vivid and relevant for the students.

Neither tests nor national curricula make better teachers, and the one thing we do know about children and learning is that better teachers are the other half of the sky. When he was in prep, my son’s class met every Monday to decide what they’d do for the week. The teacher’s job, Mrs Brandon told parents at open day, was to fit the learning objectives into student-directed projects. In the week that had just gone, she said, “we had a circus,” her eyes wide with excitement as she spoke. The students learned to read, write and do maths, not by being compelled to, but because they needed these skills for their circus which was compelling all by itself. In Year 3, Mr McQueen, who had a song for each student as he called the roll, ran debates and organised a publishing house. Miss Mudge in Year 4 was in her first year  – her enthusiasm was infectious – I’ll never forget Egypt. Miss Veasey was more skilled at managing ten-year-olds than anyone else I’ve ever met, and fun. And this year, Mrs Chapman has been delightfully firm, preparing the class for the transition to secondary school while instilling a love of maths. We sure lucked in. It’s been these teachers who have made a difference to our son, not fads like single-sex or laptop classes that other schools have adopted, not the fanfare of NAPLAN or the profane poetry professors reviewing the national curriculum.  

But for all that schools have given our son – these great teachers, a campus set among mature eucalypts or a campus in the mountains, a walk or ride to school in minus or plus 36 degrees, lessons at a nearby swimming pool or a nearby ski slope – the greatest gift of having a child go through school for me as been time spent with children, marvellous, happy, bright, hopeful, interested, interesting, exploring, joyous, hangry, running, biking, sledding children. So, for all you’ve brought to our lives,  thank you students of Prep B, 1B, 2R, 3A, 4B, 5/6, 6S and 7/6, especially those who wrote such great stories. You are riders and climbers, writers and readers, and sledders and skiers, and you are the future. What a great future it will be.