Graduation address given by Dr Catherine Keenan

Dr Catherine Keenan gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Education and Social Work graduation ceremony held at 4.00pm on 23 March 2012 in the Great Hall. Dr Keenan is co-founder and executive director, The Sydney Story Factory.

The photo of Dr Keenan is copyright, Memento Photography.

Dr Catherine Keenan

Graduation address

At the beginning of last year, a friend and I had an idea. For more than a decade I’d been an arts journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald, and Tim Dick, my friend, had been at the Herald for a similar amount of time. Our idea was to open a writing centre for young people in Redfern. We wanted it to be a creative place - a place where children, many of them from disadvantaged, Indigenous or non-English speaking backgrounds - could come and get free help to write whatever stories they liked. They would do this with the help of volunteer tutors – not trained teachers, or not all of them anyway, but people who love words and like being with young people, and would sit with the students one-on-one or in small groups, encouraging their ideas and stretching their imaginations.

Over the past few weeks, with Professor Robyn Ewing, who is the fantastic vice president of our board, we have been interviewing for our storyteller-in-chief – a creative, inspiring teacher who will oversee all these writing classes and design programs that buttress this interaction between the students and volunteers.

It has made me think a lot about what good teaching is, and what makes a great teacher.

If you ask people that question – what makes a great teacher – the first thing they will give you (if they have been lucky) are names. Great teachers stay with you for life. For me it’s Mrs Vernon; Miss Matthis; Miss Gaffney. Names that 30 years later are still etched into my brain.

I started thinking about why they were such great teachers, and I decided that it’s not really to do with the knowledge they imparted to me – although of course they did do that. That traditional idea, that a teacher is a person who passes on their learning is true, and obviously important, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing. All these years later, I remember Mrs Vernon, Miss Matthis and Miss Gaffney because they did something far harder. When I was young and unformed, they looked into me and they saw something I couldn’t. They saw that words and writing were the place that I belonged, and the place that would make me happy. I didn’t come from a bookish family and this is not a thought that would naturally have occurred to me. But they saw it. And most importantly they approved of it. And in so doing, they showed me a whole new idea of who I could be.

For me, everything else flowed from there. It was because of Mrs Vernon, Miss Matthis and Miss Gaffney that I became the first person in my family to go to University. I studied English Literature, then completed a doctorate in England; I taught literature, then became a journalist. I was literary editor, then an arts writer, and now I run the Sydney Story Factory. In May last year we began running writing classes at schools around Redfern, and in July this year our space on Redfern Street will open. Hundreds of children will come in each week to write everything from stories about Martians to newspapers, from playscripts to novellas.

Everything I have done has been about words and writing, because those teachers showed me that that’s who I was – and that was ok. When I think about what I hope for at the Sydney Story Factory, it’s that we can do for some of our students what those teachers did for me.

All of you here, graduating today, can change lives. At this university, you have learned how to pass on the knowledge you have, and you will do that, very competently I’m sure, to all the students you come across. But for a small but significant number of students – for the students who will remember your names in 30 years’ time - you can do much more. You can see things in them they may not be able to see themselves, and you can approve of that. You can show students new ways to be - though in retrospect, it will look like you simply showed them who they already were. It is a wonderful profession that you join today. Do well at it, and the consequences will long outlive you. Great teachers truly matter. May you be the first among them.