Graduation address given by Nadia Wheatley

Nadia Wheatley gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Education & Social Work and Board of Studies in Indigenous Studies graduation ceremony held at 11.30am on 13 April 2012 in the Great Hall. Ms Wheatley is an Honorary Associate in the Faculty of Education and Social Work.

The photo of Ms Wheatley is copyright, Memento Photography.

Nadia Wheatley

Graduation address

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this part of Australia where we are celebrating today. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, and to Aboriginal people who are here with us on this occasion – especially those who have just received their degrees.

Congratulations to them – and congratulations to all of you! Congratulations on successfully completing this first stage of the journey into your future working lives. And indeed, congratulations on choosing to take the pathway into the profession of education.

I am sure that one of the main reasons for your choice of this profession is that you want to make a difference to the lives of the students with whom you will be working. You want to help them change their lives for the better.

So I thought I would talk to you today about making a difference – making a change. And the big question with which I want to engage over the next few minutes is: How are you going to know when you have made a difference? How are you going to know when a change has occurred?

... As I am sure you are all aware, we live in a society that likes to measure things with cold, hard numbers. However, in regard to the profession of education, it is often not possible to measure or quantify the difference or the change that teachers make in the lives of their students.

Sure, it is possible to add up the scores from students’ tests, and compare these with the results of tests held in other years or other schools. And yet, although such statistics may be important for your employers, or for governments, or for the media, numbers alone cannot show a real difference that is being made in individual human lives.

One of the reasons for this is the length of time it can sometimes take for success to become evident. The difference or change that you make may not show up during the time that you yourself are working with a student. It is even possible that the real outcome might not show up for a generation.

As well, even within a comparatively short time frame, it is quite easy to miss seeing the change that you are making, simply because it is not the particular and measurable outcome for which you are looking. A few years ago, a wonderful and very humbling example of this kind happened to me ...

I am not a teacher, but because I write books for young people I am often invited to run writing-workshops in schools. Usually, the workshop just lasts for a single school period and I never see the students again. However, in 2005 I was invited to run an ongoing workshop, one full day a week for eight weeks, with a group of sixteen students from eight primary and infant schools in the area of Sydney’s inner south west. While four of the schools were state schools, there were also two Muslim schools and two Catholic schools, and the children’s families came from Bangladesh, Lebanon, Iran, the Philipines, Somalia, France, Italy and Poland as well as England and Ireland and the Wiradjuri nation of Australia. In addition to being culturally diverse, the children were aged between seven and twelve, and they had very different levels of ability.

Now, while it was unusual for me to be invited to work with the same students over a comparatively extended period, the really unusual thing about this invitation was that it was for a Harmony Project. The intended outcome was not primarily to improve the students’ skills at writing, but rather there was the abstract or nebulous goal of building harmony between the students, so that they would become ambassadors for harmony, back in their schools and communities.

So (I asked myself) how do you build harmony, in eight days? And – in terms of this outcome – how do you measure it? How do you know when you have achieved it?

I immediately felt that the best starting point was the land – the country (in Aboriginal terms) – the place where we live. I decided to begin by taking the children for a walk through a patch of bush in our local and very urbanised area, and encouraging them to look for the harmony that exists in the natural environment. As well, I hoped that – just by being in the bush – we would all find a source of harmony within ourselves. During the project we would also try to find out how the traditional owners of our area had lived in harmony with their country. Finally, I hoped that we would develop a sense of harmony as a group, by working together in a way that was truly collaborative, and which was based on certain Indigenous principles of learning.

Well, that all sounded fine as a set of so-called Harmony Outcomes that I wrote on a chart and stuck on the wall of the room that was to be our home for the next eight weeks. But what I faced on the first day was sixteen real children – sixteen children who were strangers to each other, as well as to me. And as we sat in the room and did some orientation and preparation for the bushwalk, it also turned out that thirteen of the sixteen children had never been in the bush – not just in our area, but anywhere in Australia. They did not know a gum tree from a wattle, or a banksia from a bottlebrush.

A week went past, and then, when we met again for our second day together, we did our walk. Some of the children still seemed a bit shy with each other, and I don’t think I was the only person who wasn’t sure of all the names. However, it was a beautiful spring day in early September, and the bush of the Wolli Valley was ablaze with golden wattle. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and at the end of the day I breathed a sigh of relief when the only accident was a broken fingernail.

After that, as we met in our classroom, Tuesday after Tuesday, we followed up the bushwalk by writing nature poems and drawing pictures and studying geology and botany and geography and history (both Aboriginal history, and the history of the settlement of our suburb). And amidst all this we had a two week holiday break.

In the seventh week of our project, we went back and did the same bushwalk again. By now, it was late October, and the season had changed. By now the golden wattle had all finished, and the predominant flowers in the bush were the white tea tree and white kunzea.

When we got back to our school room after that second bushwalk, I wanted to test how observant the students were, and whether the weeks of studying harmony in nature had paid off. And so I asked: “In the time that has passed between the two bushwalks, what is the biggest change that has happened in the bush?” I wanted to find out whether the children had noticed that the foliage had changed colour from gold to white. And so (in my best teacherly manner) I repeated and emphasised my question: “What is the biggest change that has happened in the bush?”

Without any hesitation, and with one voice, the sixteen children replied, “Us!” And when I looked at them in puzzlement, they said: “We have changed.”

Then they explained to me, “On the first walk, we didn’t know each other and we didn’t know the bush, and so we were really quiet and we all walked separately. But this time we knew the bush, and now we’re all friends, and so we walked together in a bunch and we talked and played as we went.”

Well, when the students said that, I cried. And even today, as I repeat it, I feel weepy. I also feel immensely humbled. Because while I was looking at external and measurable factors such as a colour change to the plants, these children had the wisdom and the insight to measure the change in themselves individually, and in themselves as a group. Obviously, the harmony outcomes in my chart had been met, but I had not seen this happening.

In telling you this story, I have to add that it is the best piece of affirmation I have had, in over thirty years of working with students. I warn you that you don’t get these kinds of epiphanies every day. But on the rare occasions when you do get them, they are a reminder that you are making a difference, making a change, even when it does not seem that anything is happening.

In conclusion, then, the important thing is the journey, and your commitment to it.

At all the times when it seems you are not getting anywhere, not succeeding in making a difference, or maybe not being appreciated for what you do, remember that you can’t see the end point. Perhaps the outcome might reveal itself when you are no longer part of the story.

As well, from time to time you should ask yourself if you are maybe using the wrong standards of measurement. Perhaps you are so focussed on meeting a specific outcome that you miss seeing what is happening. Maybe the changes are bigger and better than you have envisaged.

Bearing all of that in mind, I would like to end with some very important thank-yous.

First, I’d like to thank all the family and friends who are here today, and who have supported you and encouraged you along this first part of your journey.

Secondly, on my own behalf, as a member of this society, I want to thank you for choosing a career that aims to make a difference in people’s lives.

And finally, on behalf of all the students whose lives you are going to change: thank you very much, all of you.