Australia’s Career Teachers – Meet Maria

From childhood Maria had a passion to teach. When she was thirteen her father went bankrupt. Watching him struggle to pick up the pieces with a lack of education behind him, became her motivation to empower others. Education, after all, is power.

Life’s too short!

Such is the way of a young, inquiring mind with the world ahead of her, by the age of seventeen, Maria was torn between the choice of studying teaching or law. ‘Life’s too short’, she laughs, ‘I decided to do both!’ So, she commenced her teaching career in 1990, and studied to become a lawyer part-time. Although she loves both vocations, her passion is still the classroom. Her aim ultimately, to lecture and to teach. ‘Transfer life into life’ as she puts it.

Taking the risk

A rural incentive program gave Maria the opportunity to make a tree change, as well as the chance to complete her PHD in International Law at the University of New England in Armidale. It was a double bonus.

At the beginning of Term 1 she landed in a small country town in the North England region of New South Wales. ‘I took a risk’ she says but making the move from large Sydney schools to a central school of just 72 students (they aim for 100), is a risk she doesn’t regret.

The school community

The school is at the heart of a township of approximately 500 people with a surrounding community of around 2000. The town has a general store and two pubs, although one of them has closed. In its heyday, it was a tin mining town with a thriving population of over 5000, many of them Chinese immigrants attracted by opportunity.

Some students commute over 2 ½ hours by bus to school, and the community is lobbying for improved roads and transport services. The community has been hit hard by climate change with drought and more recently floods. The school has a morning breakfast program and free fruit at recess and lunchtime. The kids are right into their sport, and it’s a touchstone for positive engagement.

Practical literacies

Coming from a background of teaching Business, Legal, Commerce and Economics, Maria is now HSIE (currently Geography) and Careers Advisor. She is enthusiastic about her role and admits she’s learning a great deal – but really (depending on the student), the approach to her new subject is not all that different from her approach to any subject. ‘Literacy skills are paramount to being able to negotiate the world.’

‘There are the everyday literacies that should be mandatory from Year 8 on, even earlier. Financial literacy is undertaught, in conjunction with numeracy, and enriching English. Kids need a survival kit for the world. They need to learn how to fill out forms for their Tax File Number, their drivers’ licence. They need to understand governance because there’s a price to pay for complacency. They also need to learn about crypto currencies and future literacies. They must be multiskilled for the new millennium.’

This is one of the reasons Maria is so passionate about her new position and introducing a program to help students to proactively prepare for their future. She’s well supported, but there are challenges.

The challenges

Along with the usual frustrations of shortage of staffing, internal cover cutting into planning time and responding to emergencies (which Maria, like most teachers takes in her stride), in her short time at the school, she has learned about the challenges presented by the rural/urban divide.

‘Students want the opportunity to explore their options, but they face obstacles’. The Tamworth Careers Market is three hours away. Too far to make the round trip with students. A planned ADF Careers Expo was recently cancelled.

There is the challenge of Work Experience placements. Access to opportunities in such a small community are limited. The climate also dictates. Commuting long distances on bad roads with fog, sleet, and wildlife, is out of the question for most, and it’s an understandable reluctance.

There is the problem of information delivery. The school and the village are the only places with reliable internet.

Then there is the perception of place and belonging. Some students just don’t have the desire (or perhaps the courage) to travel far from their community. ‘Some are held back by family, or self-imposed limitations or trauma.’

Before Year 7 they all know what, they want to be. After Year 7 they lose the dream, because someone has told them it’s impossible.

Nothing seems impossible for Maria, and she is determined to foster some of the same enthusiasm in her students. She encourages them to invest in themselves, and not only does she role model how to be successful, but she also deliberately tells them what she has done to get where she is. That must be inspiring!

The future

Maria isn’t afraid to voice some of her frustration in the system. ‘In their 12 years of schooling, some kids have never failed. They’ve been moderated to move on, and that’s not doing them any favours. They will be competing for positions from migrant workers or internationally in the future, with people who are multi-lingual and highly educated. Some of our kids will have no chance against that.’

‘The integration of TAFE with High Schools is great, especially with trades skills shortage, but where is the incentive?’ she asks. ‘There needs to be reform in the unemployment system. Attitudes will shift when policy shifts.’

The Careers Advisory role

‘I don’t think that the Careers Advisory role is valued enough’, Maria muses. ‘It should be mandatory, not left to the discretion of schools. Careers education is important enough to go hand-in-hand with the rest of the curriculum and it has to be consistent from Years 7 – 10.

Advice to teachers new to the roll

In this bottomless pit that is teaching – embrace yourself and find a backup person you trust.

Maria’s advice to students

‘Leave school with as much education under your arm as possible and keep your options open. Be prepared to upskill and retrain. Lifelong learning is essential for the future.’

A last word

‘I’m in teacher paradise I look forward to coming to work. The Principal is first class, grounded and supportive. The kids are fabulous. They want to learn. This school is their life and I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile’.