My friend Peter died this morning.
He was about 80, had a form of dementia and doing simple things had been hard for him the last couple of months. I like to think that he went at a time of his choosing.
But I want to tell you about how he influenced my life.
When I was a fledgling teacher, I was so lucky that my first school was Albion Primary School in the western suburbs of Melbourne. Lucky because Peter was the Assistant Principal there.
It was 1976. I was particularly ill-equipped to start teaching. I had spent three years at Teachers’ College at a time when the training of teachers was undergoing change, toward a more academic focus. I was probably told about curriculum, but I didn’t have a frame work to put it in, so it meant nothing to me. As well any documents we had to work with were about 20 years old and seemed rather skimpy.
I’m sure my supervising teachers on my teaching rounds attempted to show me what to do. But the whole experience of schools was so overwhelming that the little matter of what I was meant to be teaching slipped by me again. They must have been relieved when I left!
It was also the time of change in teaching methods, moving from a one-size-fits-all approach to individual differences and a child-centred approach. I avidly read John Holt and A.S. Neill’s ideas on child paced learning in open classrooms. I wanted to throw out all those old ways, but had no idea of what I was going to put in it’s place.
So there I was, with my own group of Grade 5s, with ideas about how things should be, but none about how to get there. It was a difficult and tumultuous year for me.
I wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for Peter. He took me under his wing. I found out later that he interceded with the Principal, telling Paul to give me more time, that there was something there in my teaching that could be developed.
I would look at the other first year teachers who knew how to set up reading and spelling groups and wonder how they knew what to do. They went to a different teachers’ college; maybe they were taught different things, and maybe they listened when they were being taught! But Peter also helped me understand that my ideas of education had validity too. In my third year the school was prepared to experiment with Marlene and I teaming together, combining our grades into one. Peter’s influence!
Peter’s other big influence on my teaching was that he was my first role model. He was a country lad, open-hearted, warm, funny, honest. And that’s how he was as a teacher. He could find the good in every child and they loved him because he could crack a joke and make them feel special. Guitar playing and singing was a passion, and their eyes would light up when ‘Mr. O.’ walked into the classroom with his guitar. He could keep the whole school entertained with his story telling and singing. And our Grade 5 camps at Hepburn Springs were crazy fun times.
I’ve never been a teacher with that big presence, but Peter taught me that there is a way to reach every child, and that every child should be reached. He taught me that a smile and a heart-felt “Great job” goes a long way. He taught me that we all need laughter and singing, and that out curriculum should never be so crowded that it gets squeezed out. He helped me realise that teaching is about connections, and spelling groups are important, but not that important.
Peter didn’t teach me what to teach. That came gradually, and was a few more schools away. But more importantly, he showed me how to teach.
And we became good friends, Marlene, Peter and I. We even sang folksongs in a pub a couple of times! Marlene had a beautiful voice, and Pete was our guitarist, and who knows what I contributed!
Then our lives lead off in different ways. Peter and I would get back in touch, then go our ways again. Until a couple of years ago, when, by pure chance, I found out that he was now in a residential home about 10 minutes from me. So I visited him most Mondays. We spoke a lot about his childhood, his sporty days (he played a couple of games for Essendon Football Club), the country schools he taught in. He loved trains and dogs and birds and acting and writing poetry. And his kids, of course.
But gradually those things slipped from his memory. Right to the end Peter was always gentle and kind, and even when I couldn’t understand what he was telling me, he somehow managed to make me laugh!
So, I will miss him, but treasury the memory of our friendship.