If you had told me, when I started teaching in the second half of the 1980s, that I would end up as a ‘learning support’ teacher on the Sunshine Coast, I would have laughed out loud. After spending most of my primary years in Papua New Guinea with Australian missionary parents, both from Sydney, I returned with them to spend most of my teens scrambling up and down the Blue Mountains, NSW. Eventually, I studied at UNSW and then my first few years of teaching were in Secondary English/History with the NSW Teaching Service (‘Far West’ including three years in Broken Hill High School). I expected to settle in to a secure career as a NSW secondary humanities teacher.
With a transfer from Broken Hill in the pipeline (back to my beloved Blue Mountains) I was offered, out of the blue, an opportunity to teach at a Christian college in Darwin (known to a few others in this school!) This gave me my first, very positive, taste of Christian school teaching. Darwin was a great place to be in the early 90s, but it was also during this period that I began to really understand that education wasn’t a tidy, repeatable process that guaranteed the same results for all students. I also learnt that teaching ‘Christianly’ was much more than just fitting a weekly chapel message in to a secular program.
Early on in the Northern Territory adventure, we began noticing that my firstborn son was not achieving the usual early-years benchmarks. It eventually emerged that, with cerebral palsy, visual and cognitive impairments, he would most likely never achieve his matriculation or become a successful tradesman, businessman or academic. At the time, our focus was on the day-to-day demands of caring for a child who still couldn’t walk or talk, when most toddlers are running rings around you and asking questions about everything they encounter. Those years of early intervention in pre-school gave me new insights into the immense challenge of meeting the educational needs of unique children.
I also had a taste of working with students experiencing a range of different disadvantages in terms of their education, as a secondary correspondence teacher for students in remote and rural communities. I learned about the grinding poverty and social disruption experienced by so many indigenous children, through no fault of their own. I was briefly involved in a trial of satellite technology, to deliver video teaching to remote schools in the ‘Tanami Project’, nearly thirty years before the Covid/Zoom ‘revolution’. This experience also helped me realise that the traditional educational approach was never going to work in the face of these overwhelming barriers to learning.
Eventually back in Western Sydney, having returned to be near family, I was asked whether I had ever considered working in the ‘special school’ context, while enrolling my son into a special school. I was being offered a job, to work with a class of cognitively impaired teenagers in their final secondary year. Initially stumped, I worried about the impact on my professional standing and reputation, but once again, I took the wild card and found myself immersed in a totally different educational world. What I most enjoyed in that role was the freedom to pursue what would actually be beneficial for the students, rather than what the National Curriculum dictated should be achieved by that age.
Then, after relocating again to be near family a few years on, this time on the Sunshine Coast, I was again drawn into disability support, working in a special education unit in a large SC high school. It was during this period that Queensland government’s Education Adjustment Program (EAP) and the ‘verification’ process was developed. Then a few years on, by now at Glasshouse Country Christian College (then a small ‘backwoods’ school of just a few hundred students), I was introduced to the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data for students with disabilities (NCCD).
The Queenslanders’ love of acronyms has continued on, with the establishment of the NDIS, for citizens of all ages dealing with disability, and despite the often infuriating bureaucratic processes involved in all these programs, it is reassuring to see that the care and development of those less fortunate is paid more than lip service in this country. Along with others, I hope that the recent change of national government will result in more than just good intentions, that they will enact reform to ‘return it to its original vision’, as promised. With all its flaws, there are still wonderful things happening across this country under its operation. I thank God for that.
So, looking back, it seems that the wheels never stop turning in the chase to provide equity and respectful support for those with unique educational and personal needs.
Since my time as a school student, there has been a revolution in thinking about providing appropriate adjustments and experiences for disabled students, especially in the context of Christian schooling, where the gospel of Christ meshes so beatifully with the avowed commitment to deal respectfully and compassionately with those in need. It is an honour to witness the diligent and loving way that teachers and aides in our college shoulder this expression of Christian service. We can always find ways to improve but while there’s breath in our lungs and we keep taking one step after the other, His word will be a light to our path. ’Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow!’