The passion of the 30-year veteran: teachers who still love teaching

Jul 21, 2015 by

Liz Porter –

Almost half of today’s young teachers quit within the first five years. One in four suffers burnout. Yet some love the job so much they have stayed in the classroom for 30 years and more. Meet four of them.

Jad Ryan – 49 years

In what jobs can you also be an actor, a comedian, a sports coach, a writer and a counsellor?

Jad Ryan, Elwood Primary School

Elwood Primary School grade 6 teacher Jad Ryan has been teaching primary school for a remarkable 49 years, 26 of them at Elwood.

Opportunity: Kardinia International College senior school English teacher Helen Verdnik has relished the opportunity to teach, after initially being denied the opportunity to continue studying.Opportunity: Kardinia International College senior school English teacher Helen Verdnik has relished the opportunity to teach, after initially being denied the opportunity to continue studying. Photo: Pat Scala

“I tell the kids I went to uni when I was 10,” jokes the mother of two adult children, who went to a three-day week four years ago, to have more time with her three grandchildren. Yet she still finds time for cups of tea with a group of 2013’s grade  5s – or to attend the VCE drama night of a former “difficult” student, the star of one of her many school musical productions.

“I had no noble reasons for going into teaching,” Ryan recalls  “My mother and sister were teachers and there were fewer career options for women then.” But there was a “pivotal moment” in her first posting, with a small girl in her grade  1 class who had bruises and cigarette burn marks on her arms and legs.

Sadly, for all the school, police and DHS efforts, the parents simply removed the girl and disappeared. Yet Ryan had been able to provide the child with “one trusted adult in her life”.

Dream job: 30 years on, Sharon Lee, of Holy Cross Primary School, New Gisborne, still dreams about lesson plans before the start of a new term.Dream job: 30 years on, Sharon Lee, of Holy Cross Primary School, New Gisborne, still dreams about lesson plans before the start of a new term. Photo: Supplied

“I thought perhaps I can make a difference in someone’s life in a small way.”

Her early years of teaching in disadvantaged schools in Melbourne’s inner west taught her that teaching was more than just “imparting knowledge”.

“It was about winning (the kids’) trust and getting them to value school. Then learning would begin. It was pretty tough. It’s not like teaching at Elwood, where students come with all these experiences and background. These kids had had so few everyday experiences, like going to the zoo.”

Skilled: Princes Hill Secondary College  teacher Brian Pender loves passing on practical skills to students.Skilled: Princes Hill Secondary College teacher Brian Pender loves passing on practical skills to students. Photo: Scott Barbour

Thanks to a government program, Ryan used a yearly group train ticket to take her children to the end of every train line – to the beach at Frankston and to Healesville.

“We even went to the ballet – an experience and a half, with grade  6 boys.”

At Elwood, Ryan finds equal rewards. It might be unlocking the potential of the child who arrives with a huge reputation for disruptiveness – “finding what she was good at (dance) and building that trust”. Other times it’s digging out the “rap” poem that will inspire world-weary grade 6 about such abstract writing concepts as “alliteration” or “personification”.

Above all, the teacher emphasises how much she herself has gained from working as a primary teacher. “In what jobs can you also be an actor, a comedian, a sports coach, a writer and a counsellor?”

Helen Verdnik – 34 years

Now in her 34th year as a teacher, Helen Verdnik first dreamed of being a teacher when she was a student at Geelong’s Sacred Heart College.

“I loved learning – and I loved literature and history,” says Verdnik, a senior English teacher at Kardinia International College, a private co-educational school based at the former Morongo Girls College.

But her father believed that “education was wasted on girls”. So instead of going into year 12 and on to university she had to leave school and get a job.

After four years working in a pharmacy, Verdnik married and had two young children. Only as a “mature age” student could she begin following her dream, doing year 12 at night at Geelong High, followed by a BA (Hons) in English literature and history at Deakin University. She finally began teaching when her older boy was in year 7, and his little brother in year 3. More than three decades on, she is as committed to teaching as she was on her first day in front of a year 9 class at St Joseph’s Boys College – a potential baptism of fire to a teacher with less life experience.

“Luckily they didn’t know I was in my first year out,” she says. “Still, the first two years were really, really difficult. I was very idealistic and had unrealistic views about what to expect in terms of students’ work ethic and interest in learning.”

Firmness and consistency got her through.

“Never make a threat you don’t follow up. If I said I was going to ring their parents (about behaviour) I would.”

Meanwhile she has avoided burnout by “keeping a perspective”.

Teaching is a more demanding job than it used to be, she says, with greater expectations from both parents and students – especially those doing a compulsory subject, such as English.

“Kids know if you’re not doing your job. They are keen to do well and they have their sights set on a particular ATAR. They know which teachers work for them and get their work back quickly with lots of annotations and corrections.”

But her life teaching year 11s and 12s English is full of the joys of feeling appreciated for the work she puts in.

“I just love teaching. I really love it. The relationships you can have, particularly with the year 12s, are so very rewarding. I don’t have any plans for retirement!”

Sharon Lee – 32 years

On at least one night towards the end of any school holiday, Sharon Lee will have a dream about lesson plans for her grade 3/4 class at Holy Cross Primary, in semi-rural New Gisborne – a school with an olive grove and vegetable gardens tailor-made for science projects.

“A dream, not a nightmare,” laughs the 52-year-old, who, at 20, walked straight out of the Mercy Teachers College (now the Australian Catholic Teachers’ College) – and into her first job teaching 41 grade 5s at Gladstone Park.

“I can’t imagine a job that’s more important than working with kids,” says the teacher, who has taught for 32 years – the last 14 of them at Holy Cross. She had two brief stints of maternity leave for her children, now 16 and 17 and inclined to roll their eyes, she says, if she uses her “teacher voice” when helping with their homework.

“You’ve got these little kids who trust you, who look to you. If you get it right they feel totally at ease in your presence and then have the confidence to explore the things that are interesting to them. You find out about their families and their pets and you make that connection daily. It’s too important not to give it 110 per cent.”

Lee has “always” wanted to teach, tracing the decision back to her first day at school, aged four, at St Brendan’s at Flemington.

“From the second I walked into the classroom I just loved it:  the look of it, the smell of it, the colours, the people. I had brilliant teachers – those beautiful little old nuns who had energy and enthusiasm in buckets. I think I just wanted to be them!”

The teacher loves teaching grades 3 to 4, and relished her time teaching grade 1 reading recovery. When pressed, she will admit to especially enjoying teaching grades 5  and 6  “because the curriculum is so interesting in the older grades.”

“You have the opportunity not only to teach them so much but to provide them with the skills to enable them to really blossom in terms of their own interests. Because they are primary school they still have that absolute wonder about learning.”

Regular holidays have saved her from burnout, she says.

“When you do get to the end of the 10 weeks you fall into bed and sleep for a few days because you’re exhausted.”

Brian Pender – 37 years

Princes Hill Secondary College’s metal-work, woodwork and jewellery-making teacher Brian Pender combines teaching with the administrative work of being deputy principal.

The 61-year-old enjoys duties such as running the school camp. But he’d never give up his weekly half teaching load of 11 classes of years 7 to 10 students.

“The kids keep me sane,” says the teacher, who trained as an industrial designer and spent two and half years designing electrical appliances – and growing increasingly frustrated with the fact that TVs, radios and fridges were being designed for obsolescence. He wanted to use his training as a designer in work that would achieve something lasting. A job teaching kids to “make things that would last…and to fix things” – skills that would stay with them for life – was the perfect solution.

“I thought I could bring some of the problem-solving skills learned through design into education and to kids and their lives. Visual literacy is really important and the ability to make decisions based on things like good design, rather than on advertising, is a good life skill.”

Pender’s original interest in a teaching career was sparked by his own positive experiences as a student at Mildura Secondary College and then at the local tech school, where he began his design course.

Now, after 37 years in the classroom, where he has taught everything from woodwork to painting, drawing and photography, it is the joy of working with young people in a collaborative “sharing” workplace that keeps him in the job. Recently he’s been teaching year 7s enamelling, helping them design bookmarks themed to fit their reading tastes. Meanwhile he’s been leading his older students in a jewellery-making project which involves stone-setting, using interesting buttons instead of gems.

“The kids are dynamic and interesting and have wonderful views about life. And I work with highly accomplished professional colleagues,” he says.

“It’s certainly not the pay and conditions. Changes over time have led to an inordinate workload on teachers that takes us away from our core business – which is working closely with kids to help them achieve their potential and try to extend them if we can.”

The most damaging change, he says, came when thousands of teachers were stripped out of Victorian schools in the 1990s, with an immediate effect on those remaining – and on students with special needs.

“Everyone takes work home, with a resulting effect on family life and work life balance.”

Source: The passion of the 30-year veteran: teachers who still love teaching

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