What does it take to be the best primary school teacher in Australia? To have a warm and vivid presence might be part of it. Add imagination, keenness, a strong sense of possibilities, interest in the world. Then let’s not forget experience, support from colleagues, and a school environment where everyone is pulling on the same string to keep kids happy and learning.
This teacher, Jo Sherrin, and this school, Bradshaw Primary, can be found in west-side Alice Springs. Last Friday at a ceremony in Melbourne Mrs Sherrin, one of two teacher-librarians at Bradshaw, was named the nation’s Primary School Teacher of the Year at the inaugural Australian Awards for Outstanding Teaching and School Leadership.
Back at school this week, she was looking forward to all the fuss dying down and getting on with the job. I met her in the company of the two Year Four students who had volunteered to be in our photo – Kaylana Hagan and Casey Lally. They showed me how they had learned to write with a nib pen and ink like students their age did in the 1930s. This was part of the work they’d done with Mrs Sherrin in first semester, using a teaching resource, The Hartley Project, she had developed with former colleague Anne Scherer, assisted by Sally Jeavons, funded by the Town Council and the National Trust (Alice Springs).
Hartley Street School was the first formally established school in Alice (lessons had been conducted in other locations before the dedicated building was erected in 1929 – it still stands today). The resource invites a present-day class to immerse themselves in this very different era.
Each child pulled out of a hat a name of one of the former students of the class of 1937. The resource kit provided them with a fact sheet about that student, as well as information about what life in the town was like for its settler and its original Arrernte populations. So began their ‘role play’ – Casey became a little Creed Lovegrove, Kaylana, a young Gwen Ah Chee. They could tell me about their brothers and sisters, their best friends: Casey/Creed’s was Murray Neck, Kaylana/Gwen’s, Nazmeena Mulladad.
They could recite the patriotic school pledge; recall the old-fashioned games they’d enjoyed – marbles, skipping, hopscotch, drop-the-hankie; and the classroom rules so different from today’s – strictly no talking, no being silly, no dirty hands, standing when an adult entered the room.
Mrs Sherrin had her role too: she was Miss Robb, principal and teacher; her powers included administering the cane.
Some families back then “lived in sheds”, said Casey, their toilet was out the back and his/Creed’s sister would be scared and get him to go with her.
Toilets were a bucket and men would come at night, Kaylana explained, to take away the full one, replace it with an empty one.
They had to mime activities for their classmates to guess. Kaylana had shown witchetty grub hunting; Casey, building a billycart.
After all that they had learned, which would they prefer, I asked them, to live in the 1930s or today?
Probably the 1930s, said Kaylana. She loves climbing trees and the idea of a small town where children were free to roam after school, meeting down at the river, climbing the wonderful trees, really appealed to her.
Casey could see advantages in both eras, perhaps coming down in favour of today because in the 1930s “they didn’t have much equipment to play with”.
It’s a way of teaching history that brings it alive, says Mrs Sherrin. That was clear: these Year Four children had great recall of the facts they’d learned, even after the long winter break, and they talked about them with a sparkle in their eyes, relishing the details.
The bell rang – some things don’t change – and Kaylana and Casey had to go. A troupe of Year Ones arrived.
“Come on in guys, do some browsing. It’s your lucky day – you can go to the non-fiction section or the picture book section …”
Within minutes and a half-dozen individual interactions, the children were settled at tables in groups of their choosing with their books. Among them was a “secret spy” (one of their peers) who would be writing down the names of “the champions” – the children who were “on task”.
“We want them to monitor their own behaviour,” explained Mrs Sherrin.
The emphasis is on agreements about expectations and expressing appreciation when expectations are met. The approach operates throughout the school. It’s based on an educational philosophy developed in the USA, called Tribes, which recognises the role schools must play today in developing students’ social skills: “It’s about building inclusion, making children feel connected, being part of a team.”
Bradshaw is not the only local school to use the “Tribes” approach. Mrs Sherrin first came across it when she was at Sadadeen Primary 10 years ago. She put it into practice at the 65 student school in Timber Creek where she was teaching last year. She had a combined class of Years 5, 6, 7, and 8 students. At the start of the year they were very disengaged – low self-esteem, low literacy and numeracy levels. By the end of the year, there had been a culture shift: buddy programs (older students leading young students) were in place across the school, a student representative council was created, the students were running a school disco, the self-monitoring approach was adopted in class.
“In every session students would be asking of themselves, had they done their personal best, and they were doing it really honestly.”
Mrs Sherrin has had a wide-ranging experience of Territory schooling, starting off nearly 30 years ago as a classroom teacher in Katherine. Her bush experience includes Lajamanu, Finke, Ampilatwatja, Mount Liebig and Timber Creek. She has loved teaching at bush schools and has built lifelong friendships with Aboriginal families as a result but she does not under-estimate the challenges – dealing with the isolation and with living in a very different culture.
“You have to build a relationship with people, be able to have fun, tap into Aboriginal people’s humour, so that they know this is a person who’s likes us and wants to help.
“And like [Aboriginal educator] Chris Sarra says, you have to find out what it is that your community really wants to do.
“It’s difficult but it’s rewarding if you can do it.”
Mrs Sherrin retrained in 2004, gaining a Graduate Diploma in Information Services to qualify as a teacher-librarian: “I didn’t want to get stagnant.”
She sees the library as a “vibrant learning zone” for all ages, much more than a place where you can read or borrow books. Her students get involved with wearable arts, drama, they receive visits from authors and illustrators, from figures in the community (former Diggers, local historian Jose Petrick), they make movies – in short any activity that will connect them with learning.
She wants it to be an exciting place, which they’ll feel is theirs and where they’ll be able to learn in the way that suits them: “They might be a visual learner, a body-smart learner.”
It must also draw in the wider community, so that children feel connected and proud about who they are and where they come from.
Her passion for children’s literature led Mrs Sherrin to get involved with the Children’s Literature in the Centre (CLIC) festival, the brainchild of another local teacher-librarian (recently retired), Ruth Jones. The festival brings into our region the kind of experience with authors and illustrators that children in the big cities can have. There have been two to date, starting in 2008, with the third scheduled for March next year. The first two each saw some 2000 students involved in their various workshops over a four-day program.
Apart from stimulating children’s (and parents’) interest in reading and writing, Mrs Sherrin hopes that the exposure could also inspire some future careers: “We’ve got quite a few talented young writers and artists – they too could become the brilliant authors and illustrators of tomorrow.”
The boon would be the more books for Territory children that reflect the people and places around them. Mrs Sherrin says the value of local content can’t be over-stated, especially in the bush context: “Books like the Barrumbi series by Leonie Norrington. I used them at Timber Creek – the kids loved them.”
People may think being a teacher-librarian is an “easy job” – just “reading stories”. Not so, says Mrs Sherrin, and her colleague, Ailsa Moyses, agrees. They speak of the importance of developing and maintaining the library’s collections: it doesn’t work as a learning place if its users can’t find the materials they’re interested in.
They also build on what is being done in the classrooms. For example, teachers across the school identified the need to develop students’ “inferential comprehension” skills, in other words, the ability to read between the lines, bringing their knowledge of the world to connect with the text. So the teacher-librarians introduced an online program that individual students can use, that quizzes and scores them on texts, allowing them to graduate from level to level at their own pace.
Teacher-librarians need a thorough knowledge of the curriculum and available resources, catering for both students and teachers, not just in literature, but science, maths, social sciences, the arts.
Mrs Sherrin loves the scope of the job, and above all being in contact with children across the whole school, from five years old to 12.
“But you have to have strong behavioural management skills and I couldn’t have developed mine without classroom practice.”
She remembers her first Grade 3/4 class in Katherine “swinging from the rafters” and thinking, “They didn’t tell me how to deal with this at college!” Years on the job have taught her that there’s no one rule.
“You have to develop your own ‘kit bag’ and you never stop borrowing ideas. You have to work out what suits you personally and there’s huge trial and error in the beginning.
“And different strategies work for different groups. My Year 7 boys at Timber Creek, for example, they needed energy release before they could sit down and work. So they’d go outside and shoot hoops for a while – they never abused it.
“A student with Asperger’s syndrome might need to work for short periods on the task at hand, with breaks doing their maths’ game or chess game in between, as long as they get there in the end.”
Why could the old style of classroom discipline and learning work for the Hartley Street School children in the 1930s and not today?
Mrs Sherrin looks back to her own childhood in country Victoria for the answer: “Society has changed. I didn’t know anyone whose parents were divorced, there were no blended families. They were all farmers and all their families were in Victoria – my parents had never been outside the state. There was a strong local support system.
“The Territory is very different from that, everyone comes from everywhere, there’s lots of blended families.”
The challenges for schools have perhaps never been so great; those like Mrs Sherrin who rise to meet them deserve our deepest appreciation.
Pictured: From top – Kaylana Hagan (left) and Casey Lally with teacher-librarian Jo Sherrin, who’s been named the Best Primary School Teacher in Australia. • Kalheel Galaminda practising ink-writing at Hartley Street School. • Bradshaw School congratulates Mrs Sherrin – this tribute is in the foyer. • Lucy McCullough in period dress learning to sew at Hartley Street School.