Behind Enemy Lines
I have always had a very conflicted relationship with private schools and, maybe as a by-product, been an enthusiastic supporter of public education. The conflicted relationship began when I attended The King’s School in Parramatta as a boarder. I spent my childhood there. Literally. From Year 4 to Year 12 (6th Form in those days). The last few years are a bit of a blur. It wasn’t that I was particularly unhappy or smoking a lot of weed. I was disconnected from the place. I couldn’t marry what I was seeing in the world around me with the archaic world I was living in. The uniform, the compulsory cadets, the barely disguised elitism.
When I left I had a pretty severe reaction to my schooling. Some might even say violent. Like a few of my year group I tried to pretend I went to a public school. It took me years to be able to admit to going to King’s. Rather than seeing it as something to be proud of I ran away from it. I thought people would think I was a “born to rule” snob if I admitted to going to King’s. So I pretended I went to Parramatta High. I went to uni in Newcastle partly because, in terms of ethos, it was as far away I could get from The King’s School. I loved Newcastle because I had no history there. I could start with a clean slate. Or so I imagined. Inverted snobbery? Perhaps. A vain attempt to escape my past? Definitely.
I did a Dip Ed after my Arts degree and began a career in public education that has now spanned four decades. As well as teaching in the public system I have written about it and, in so doing, become an advocate for public education in a number of forums. As far as I was concerned I’d left the private school system behind me when I escaped from King’s.
Then we moved to Melbourne and my daughter won a drama scholarship to a private school. For some reason she was mad about drama so how could I let my ideology stand in the way of her dreams? Besides, my eldest daughter had attended a private school in Sydney, albeit a very inclusive one. My brothers had sent their children to private schools. One lived in PNG and had little choice, the other thought it best for his kids. Who can argue with that? Still, I’d made my bias against private schools pretty clear so I expected some well deserved flak. I wasn’t disappointed. My closest friends were bemused. They are teachers in the public system and without saying as much clearly felt I had sold out.
To be honest I was deeply conflicted about this course of action. I was writing about the benefits of public education while sending my daughter to a private school. I felt like a hypocrite. My book, Playground Duty, is a celebration of teachers in general and the public system in particular. When I was talking about it at the Byron Bay Writers Festival I was advised to tread warily in my criticism of private schools. I had never been publicly vocal about them. I had exerted all my energies in defending teachers in general and public schools in particular. I hadn’t wasted too much energy bagging private ones. Not publically anyway.
Like many of my ilk, while I found ways to justify sending my children to private schools, I remained deeply committed to public education. I buried the obvious conflict of interest in much the same way that I had buried going to King’s all those years before.
Then I was confronted by an even greater challenge to my ideological opposition to private education.
Moving to Melbourne gave me the opportunity to focus on my writing and acting careers and to launch my playwriting program, Finding Your Voice. It was very exciting. The possibilities were endless. I pitched Finding Your Voice to a number of public schools and had some success with partnerships with schools, theatre companies and arts organisations. Like all freelancers I also got my share of knockbacks. I discovered that re-inventing yourself in your sixties might be incredibly rewarding but it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.
The long and the short of it was, I needed a job. A teaching job. That was fine. I never wanted to stop teaching. I’d continued teaching in various guises since I’d arrived in Melbourne but the work was spasmodic and the pay inconsistent. I searched the public system high and wide for jobs. The closest I got was teaching English in Bendigo. I hadn’t taught English for centuries. They politely told me I probably wasn’t the person for that particular job. After another rejection letter I decided it was time. Time to put aside my inverted snobbery and find a job. If it was in the private system, so be it. A friend gave me the details of an independent schools website and I began searching.
I found an advertisement for a part time drama teacher at Melbourne Grammar School. The Melbourne Grammar School. I applied and got an interview. I rifled through the wardrobe and located my wedding suit. Since our wedding day I’d only worn it for funerals and auditions. Neither were usually much fun. I prepared as best I could, donned the suit and made my way to South Yarra. There was a casting agency opposite the school. I’d auditioned there. I never imagined I’d be auditioning across the road at Melbourne Grammar School.
I asked a boy for directions. He was much like any other boy. That was a good start.
As I walked up the path towards the front office I was struck by the sheer majesty of the bluestone buildings. You couldn’t help but be. Situated a stone’s throw from Melbourne’s CBD, the grounds are as impressive as the buildings. Apart from casual observation I didn’t know much about the place. I was about to find out and, in the process, have many assumptions I’d made about private education challenged.
The interview went well. Like the vast majority of teachers I’m passionate about my subject area. It doesn’t take much to get me excited about teaching drama. The interview panel were friendly and formal. Just as you’d expect. One of the advantages of being an actor is that going for jobs is commonplace. When I was younger even a daily occurrence. I’m used to putting my best foot forward for work. I batted away most of the questions with relative ease until I was asked,
“Why do you want to work at Melbourne Grammar?”
I paused. My mind was racing.
“Because I’m desperate and need a job.”
That didn’t seem like a wise response.
“I’ve always wanted to work in such an esteemed establishment.”
That was clearly bullshit.
It’s funny how quickly the mind works under pressure.
“I am passionate about teaching drama and sharing my love for the subject.”
Or words to that effect. Thankfully the Deputy didn’t push me further and we moved on to questions about practice.
On reflection the fact that he didn’t pursue it indicated that they were after the best teacher not necessarily the most status conscious. It was the first indication I got of the schools modus operandi. Contrary to public perceptions Melbourne Grammar is committed to educational excellence above all else.
Another question had me on my toes.
“Will you be continuing with your writing and acting careers if you get the job?”
I paused. This could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. There was no point in bullshitting.
“Well, I’m not going to sign up for a year on Neighbours but if a good film role came up I’d like to do it. Of course, I won’t stop writing. I can’t. I’m a writer.”
I hoped I hadn’t blown it. I later learnt that it was exactly what they wanted to hear. They wanted a drama teacher who was still working in the business. Who was on top of contemporary practice and committed to the art form. It was another indication of the true nature of the schools philosophy.
When the interview was over I was asked if I had any questions.
“Do we have to wear a suit?”
I looked at the panel. The men were in suits. The only woman on the panel was dressed stylishly. I’d never been in a staff room where men wore suits. I wasn’t exactly known for my formal attire when it came to dress.
“We like to set an example.”
I got the message and quickly retreated. I certainly wasn’t going to blow an interview over dress codes. Besides, the actor in me didn’t mind a costume.
I received notification that I had been short listed and that the panel would now like to observe me giving a lesson. They clearly weren’t going to leave any stone unturned. I donned the suit and headed off to give a demo lesson.
It was the first time I’d been past the front office. The building reeked of tradition. It was like walking down the corridors of my past.
I took off my coat and got stuck in. Teaching is an acquired skill. Once you have it you never lose it. I was powering along when out of the corner of my eye I spied the panel taking notes and whispering behind their hands. Even though I was used to people observing my lessons I found this a trifle disconcerting. It reminded me of being inspected way back when I was on probation. On that occasion, if I remember correctly, the Inspector fell asleep. Luckily the panel didn’t fall asleep.
With that hurdle jumped I received notification of an interview with the Headmaster. He wasn’t the Principal. He was the Headmaster. He was very warm and after a few questions, offered me the job.
I was about to start work teaching drama at Melbourne Grammar School.
I was relieved more than anything. I had no idea what I was getting into but I knew I had regular work and, crucially, a regular income.
I made my way down to the Malthouse Theatre for a drink. I ran into an old friend.
“What’s this?” he pointed at the suit.
“Just went for a job.”
“It wasn’t an acting job.”
He waited until I explained myself.
He gave me a quizzical look. He wasn’t going to let me off the hook.
“I’ve got a part time teaching job at…”
“…at Melbourne Grammar.”
He burst out laughing.
“Red Ned’s sold out?”
My look told him he’d struck a nerve. He apologised. He didn’t mean it. Yes he did. Not only did he mean it but he neatly articulated what I was thinking myself. What I’d been thinking since I logged on to the Independent Schools website.
A few other artist friends joined us. When I told them they barely batted an eyelid. They were pleased for me. It was no big deal. Most of them sent their schools to private schools anyway. Come to think of it, so had I.
My friends, of course, enjoyed the delicious irony of “Red Ned” teaching at Melbourne Grammar. Why wouldn’t they?
Much like my inverted snobbery at uni about going to King’s, I have been less than forthcoming about my new position. No postings on Facebook or Twitter. I haven’t necessarily hidden it but I haven’t shouted it from the rooftops either. The truth is I have been worried about how my fellow advocates for public education would react to my crossing the floor.
What I discovered “behind enemy lines” has made me reassess the whole public v private debate.
As I walked up the path towards the bluestone on my first day as a drama teacher at Melbourne Grammar School I was like any first year out teacher. I was running through lesson plans, thinking about plans B and C if plan A didn’t work. I wasn’t nervous but I knew I needed to be on my toes. I was focussed. I was almost oblivious of the surroundings. I guess I left my ideology at the front gate. There was no point looking back.
The door to the front office was flung open and a striking looking woman in a short skirt and high heels came bounding towards me. I looked around to see what was wrong. Maybe there was a fire?
She stuck out her hand.
“My name’s Nat. Welcome to Melbourne Grammar. We’re thrilled to have you on board.”
I was stunned. I had never received such a welcome. It was an indication of what was to follow. Nat was the teacher in charge of teacher welfare. Not student welfare, there was someone else for that, but teacher welfare. Her remit, amongst other things, was to look after the teachers. To make them feel wanted, to provide a sympathetic ear when the going got tough, to look after them. I had never been in a school that had someone designated to look after the teachers.
It goes without saying that Melbourne Grammar School has the financial resources to allocate someone to teacher welfare. That’s not the issue. The issue is that they choose to. They put teacher welfare at the top of their list of priorities. They understand that making teachers feel valued is of inestimable worth in an educational institution. They understand, better than any place I’ve worked in, that treating teachers like professionals will result in their behaving like professionals. The reverse is true. Treat teachers like kindergarten children and they will behave like them.
It’s a lesson that has been constantly reinforced since I began my teaching career in Tenterfield all those years ago. By a strange twist of fate we had a young, committed group of teachers at Tenterfield High School who all decided to stick it out rather fleeing the granite belt town at the earliest opportunity. We were given free reign by an enlightened executive who recognized our dedication and made allowances for our shortcomings. In short, they treated us like professionals. The result was we transformed the smallest high school in NSW into a powerhouse. We weren’t overburdened by endless reams of bureaucratic red tape as teachers are today. We were given our heads and we responded accordingly. We were accountable to the children and their parents. No one else. Most crucially, we were valued.
As Nat swept me around Melbourne Grammar School and introduced me to all and sundry it was patently clear that the staff were afforded a level of respect that I had rarely encountered in forty years in the classroom. I was surprised that people seem to be expecting me and welcomed me. They were naturally pre-occupied with preparations for the Term ahead but they didn’t seem to be stressed out or, worse, dreading what lay ahead.
I later discovered that quite a few members of staff had worked in the public system and remained supportive of it. They had chosen to work in the private system because they were treated as professionals and were therefore able to focus on best teaching practice instead of being diverted by endless bureaucratic demands.
A shining example of this is that teachers at Melbourne Grammar weren’t expected to hang around unprepossessing staffrooms for hours after they had completed their teaching load for the day. Nor were they expected on site until they had duties to perform. In many schools, both public and private, teachers were expected on deck from first to last period no matter what teaching load they had. Therefore it was possible for a teacher who didn’t have a class until midday to be expected at school at 830. Or if they finished for the day at midday they were expected to hang around until 330. It may seem like a little thing but if teachers are trusted to do their marking and lesson preparation wherever they want it is likely they will respond positively. They don’t need to be treated like the students they teach. They don’t need Duty of Care to protect them from themselves.
I’m not suggesting for a second that all private schools are as enlightened as Melbourne Grammar. What I am suggesting is that all schools, private and public, should take a leaf out of Melbourne Grammar’s book and treat their teachers like adult professionals. Respect leads to empowerment. Disempowerment leads to disillusionment and, in the case of teaching, poor performance. We want our teachers to do better work. They will only do so if they are valued.
In public education this requires both unions and education departments to work together in recognizing teachers professional needs rather than using them as pawns in power struggles that do nothing for face to face teachers. It also requires accepting that the old class war paradigms are anachronistic and stand in the way of good practice.
I should know. I was guilty of that kind of thinking before I taught at Melbourne Grammar.
The hierarchical nature of the teaching profession results in some members of the executive treating seasoned professionals like novices. At Melbourne Grammar I got the distinct impression that the executive respected the rest of the staff. From my experience, they certainly went out of their way to make them feel welcome as well.
I was introduced to the student body at an Assembly in the Memorial Hall. It was like a scene from Hogwarts or, for the older generation, from If. All around the hall were paintings of past Headmasters. I half expected them to spring to life at the drop of a hat.
My introduction was slightly bizarre. I stared out at a sea of uniformed faces while my “achievements” were read out. What the boys made of them is anyone’s guess although they did seem impressed that I had an entry on Wikipedia. The formality of the occasion took me back to my own school days. The fact that anyone would bother to find out what I had done and convey it to the school community took me totally by surprise.
My first few classes continued my education. I had never taught at either a private school or a single sex one. A drama room full of boys was a new experience. It was also an entrée to the mass of contradictions that is Melbourne Grammar School.
Drama is compulsory. Every boy has to take a semester of drama in either Year 9 or Year 10. Art is similarly compulsory.
Having taught drama for so long I approached my first class with quiet confidence. I decided to employ an old ice breaking exercise. It effectively involved everyone taking turns in standing in front of the class and saying something about themselves for a minute. They stamp their left foot,
“My name is (insert christian name)”
Then they stamp their right foot,
Then off they go. It’s quite confronting, even for someone who likes talking about themselves like me. Well, it is usually.
Some of these boys had no such inhibitions as they listed their latest adventures skiing in Europe or holidaying on their farms. It was revealing in more ways than one. A few were openly contemptuous of both me and the subject. I could see myself drowning in a sea of testosterone fuelled boys. I came to the immediate realisation that teaching this lot to walk around a room like they were walking through mud was going to be a challenge. And it was.
I was relieved to discover that there were some keen drama students amongst my cohort. This shouldn’t be surprising as this was the school that produced, amongst many other theatrical luminaries, Barry Humphries, Barrie Kosky and Simon Stone. The keen boys were oblivious to peer pressure and came to embrace everything from walking through mud to extra curricula performances.
There were also quite a few Asian students who were way less confident and a lot more respectful. That wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was that many of them embraced the subject wholeheartedly and excelled at it.
I hadn’t expected there to be so many Indigenous and Pacific Islander boys in my classes. I discovered that these boys came from as far and wide as Fitzroy Crossing and Rabaul in PNG. Melbourne Grammar was nowhere near as white bred as some might have thought.
My first formal Assembly reinforced this and highlighted the schools contradictory nature. Melbourne Grammar is a Christian school. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the school is a Christian but it does mean that Christianity is at the forefront of the schools philosophy. I have to confess to feeling that nine years as a boarder at Kings more than filled my cup with religious instruction. Church has been, like my suit, put aside for weddings and funerals. So I was slightly, and very silently, disdainful of the man of the cloth who made his way to the lectern following our Procession into Assembly. The fact that Hans became a good friend says a lot more about my prejudices than his religiosity.
While basking in smug contemplation of the absurdity of all the folderol that accompanied the Assembly I nearly fell off my chair when Hans opened his mouth. I was anticipating something like “The Lords Prayer” to bookend the rousing rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers” that had accompanied the Procession.
“I wish to acknowledge the owners past and present…”
A Welcome to Country. Or more accurately, and more telling, an Acknowledgement of Country.
It was the last thing I expected. It was moving because of Hans’s genuine and heartfelt delivery. It was extraordinary because of its context. I wondered about the contradictions of marrying traditional Indigenous customs with the rituals of their Christian conquerors.
It neatly encapsulated the seemingly endless contradictions I was to discover behind the bluestone walls. I could have expected the hymns and prayers but would never have expected the Acknowledgement of Country.
When I told Roy (the Headmaster) that I would in all probability write something about my experience at the school he asked me not to highlight the schools extensive scholarship and outreach program.
“Everyone will think we are patting ourselves on the back.”
I hope he doesn’t mind my disobeying his request.
The fact is, far from patting itself on the back, Melbourne Grammar went out of its way to be as socially inclusive as it could possibly be. It was a privileged institution that shared its love. The schools culture was a long way from being the self satisfied mono culture of popular opinion.
It was, however, a boys school.
Once upon a time an all boys school would be easy to define. Macho posturing, barely disguised misogyny, proudly declared racism, rampant homophobia and equally rampant (but never acknowledged) same sex coupling, topped off by flag waving elitism. Just like the one I went to.
Melbourne Grammar was quite another cup of tea.
For a start the number of strong, independent, highly intelligent women on the staff provided a very different role model from the men’s club mentality of many boys schools. Granted there was an element of “Boy’s Own Adventures” amongst some of the male staff but it wasn’t the only culture the boys were exposed to. Women like Nat could not be ignored.
That’s not to say sexism didn’t exist or that some boys didn’t have very antiquated attitudes to sexual equality.
I had taught one of my classes some improvisational techniques and they moved on to basic scene work employing those skills. Working in pairs, they rehearsed the scenes they were to perform. I had given them “The Park” as a starting point. I moved around the room giving feedback and was pretty pleased with the result.
Then it was time to perform. I was surprised when a pair of boys who had shown little interest in the work volunteered to go first. As the scene evolved one of the boys poked his fingers through his shirt to indicate he was a girl. Some of his mates thought this was hilarious, others were mildly amused, I was gob smacked.
“Feel my nips.”
He poked his fingers at the other boy who obliged.
I nearly fainted. I was so shocked I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Some of the audience were looking at me, smirking, waiting for my response. I was transfixed. All I could think was that if that happened in any other school I had taught at, the girls in the class would have torn the two of them to shreds.
When I recovered my composure the scene had ended and the next pair was on their feet. Thankfully their scene was less affronting and more interesting.
The “nips” scene was in no way representative of the work from the majority of boys. In fact, I got the distinct impression that most thought it was pretty pathetic. It was. From that moment if I got the slightest whiff of sexism I came down on it like a ton of bricks.
There is no doubt there were some awful, old fashioned sexist attitudes amongst some of the boys. There was also no doubt that the boys in the two productions I directed benefitted hugely from the presence of girls in the companies. After a few nervous rehearsals they blended like any of the students I had taught at co-ed schools.
Therein lies the contradiction. A strong female presence on the staff. A girls school around the corner but an anachronistic lack of girls in the day to day life of the school. I was told that a few years ago the staff voted overwhelmingly for the school to become co-ed. It was vetoed by the old boys. The sooner it happens the better. Then there will be no more “nips”.
As for racism, I never encountered the slightest whiff of it. Hardly surprising given the multi cultural make up of the school and the proud Indigenous presence in the bluestone.
As far as homophobia was concerned there seemed to be as much and as little as in any other school I had taught in. Which is to say some boys are as homophobic as they are sexist. The school ran a program about homophobia that was compulsory for all Year 10 and there were, like in the rest of society, boys who were openly gay. No big deal but not what you would necessarily expect at Melbourne Grammar.
I had assumed that Melbourne Grammar School would be a breeding ground for the right wing of the Liberal Party. I expected more Toorak than Fitzroy. At parent teacher nights I was surprised to see both represented. There was almost as much patchouli oil in the air as there was Chanel. As many jeans and t-shirts as suits and expensive dresses. Apart from the parents of the multitude of scholarship holders they didn’t seem to be much different to the parents at some of the other schools I had taught at, especially the selective ones. They just paid more.
Apart from the way they dressed the staff were similarly like any other staff I had worked with. Except for the obvious fact that they were clearly much happier. They may have looked more conservative but it didn’t take much scratching at the surface to understand they weren’t. Compared to King’s in the sixties Melbourne Grammar is a hotbed of radicalism.
Nothing encapsulated the endless contradictions of the place better than the day Paul Keating came to address the boys.
Not surprisingly I was beside myself. Keating’s talk was held at lunchtime in the Memorial Hall. The “Mem” Hall, built after WW1 to honour Melbourne Grammar’s fallen. The boy from Bankstown addressing the bluebloods in the bluestone seemed like a contraction in terms. I was getting used to them. The contradictions, that is.
I rushed to the Mem Hall to make sure I got a good seat. Not that I expected it to be packed. I just wanted to get one up the front. Like getting close to the stage in the mosh pit for Taylor Swift. I was impressively restrained and limited myself to the second row, in the centre. Too much fawning from a man my age in the front row may well have put the great man off.
Attendance at Keating’s talk was entirely voluntary. I wasn’t expecting a big turn out. It didn’t matter. As long as I was close enough to see the whites of his eyes. The air of anticipation in the Hall was palpable. Especially from me. I began a conversation with some of the boys behind me. One of them was the son of an ex Liberal Premier of Victoria. I could hardly sit still. I kept turning around to catch Keating’s entrance. Would it be a Processional? The hall was filling up. Before long it was packed. It was like being in the State Theatre back in the 80’s for the launch of Keating’s Arts Policy and the rebooting of the Unwinnable Victory for the True Believers. Seriously. The joint was rocking. I’m not sure what the fallen would have thought nor the line up of ex Headmasters looking on from their picture frames.
Then he arrived. He was led to the stage by one of my Year 10 students who introduced him to the assembled staff and students. I had tears in my eyes. It wasn’t exactly what I expected when I applied for the gig at Melbourne Grammar School.
Keating spoke beautifully. That will surprise no one. He pitched his speech perfectly. It wasn’t a tub thumping stump speech and had none of the rhetorical flashes of the Arts for Labor one. It was measured and thought provoking. I couldn’t help sneaking a peek to see how it was going down. The packed Hall was spell bound.
After the speech Keating called for questions. A hand shot up from the middle of the hall. One of the Indigenous boys, who happened to also be in another of my Year 10 classes, stood.
“What is your opinion of the Intervention.”
Keating’s response was as would be expected. Although possibly more considered and less colourful than had he been addressing the faithful.
What struck me most was the question. The confidence of this fifteen year old boy to ask such a question in such an environment. His engagement with the great man. His response to Keating’s reply. It was a moment to treasure.
It was also a moment that summed up everything I grew to respect about the school.
The fact that I did grow to respect Melbourne Grammar School was quite a surprise for an old lefty.