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A Teacher’s Journey

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Sarah Dowling

Sarah teaching in Pakistan

Curtin student Sarah Dowling was recently awarded the John Lake Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Master of Education. Sarah tells us about her experiences teaching and her eventual journey back to the profession.

My journey back into teaching is a meandering story that spans 40 years, several continents and careers. A postgraduate Diploma of Education was often recommended to geologists as a prudent Plan B and after 5 years of exploring for diamonds in the Kimberley, working in a salt mine near Carnarvon and as the Curator of the Geology Museum at the University of Queensland, I accepted the Department of Education’s generous offer to pay for my Dip. Ed. and enrolled at UWA in 1984.

Armed with two practicums of two weeks, at Wesley College and Perth Modern School, I graduated as a teacher of Science and Social Studies (HASS), deferred my two year bond and travelled from London to Kathmandu for a year. An unforgettable experience was being asked to give a lesson to a group of boys in a small school in the Thar Desert in Pakistan. The students were sitting cross-legged on a dusty floor in a room made of earth and using slates and chalk. I was humbled by their attention and respect and realised that education was survival for these boys.

When I returned to Perth I was assigned to teach Science at a large government secondary school in the northern suburbs of Perth which was trialling 3 x 100 minute lessons. I was idealistic and determined to apply a discovery-learning, student-centred approach to all of my mixed ability large classes (particularly with my Year 9 classes). Suffice it to say that within a year, my ideals of collaborative learning were replaced by students sitting in rows, teacher demonstrations, and the frequent application of a metre-ruler to the desktops. The most disheartening aspect of my ‘new’ approach was that behaviour management was less of a problem as the students adjusted back into a familiar style of learning. My silver lining was my small upper school Senior Science class who fully embraced project-based discovery learning and stimulated my subsequent interest in alternative assessments for students for whom reading and writing was difficult. I can honestly say that the two years I spent at that school were the most exhausting work I have ever done and led me to resign and work in the mineral exploration industry once again searching for nickel and diamond deposits. This fieldwork was primarily in Finland and the Goldfields and Kimberley regions of WA and was leavened by some more part-time study at UWA in English and Art History which reinvigorated my interest in communication.

Fast-forward 35 years into retirement and the memories of those boys in the Thar Desert and my student scientists in that Senior Science class. I decided that I would retrain as an ESL teacher and work in my suburb which had become a resettlement node for migrants and people seeking asylum. In 2018 I enrolled in the Graduate Certificate of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) offered through OUA and delivered online by Curtin University and followed that up with a Masters of Education from 2019-2021 also online through OUA/Curtin University. Those four years of study were totally absorbing and thought-provoking and a life-line during the COVID pandemic.

There were no practicums required for these online courses, so in order to apply my newly acquired knowledge whilst I was studying, I volunteered as an English tutor to several adult students through Read Write Now and the Adult Migrant Education Program Home Tutor Scheme, and also as a Mercy Connect mentor to a couple of secondary school students who had suffered trauma in refugee camps. I have now re-registered with the WA Department of Education, volunteer as a tutor in the Digital Literacy course at Centacare, and also work privately as an English tutor. I enjoy working one-on-one with my students and try to honour the responsibility I felt in the Thar Desert and in my Senior Science class almost 40 years ago.

Sarah Dowling has returned to teaching after a long and interesting career.
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