The love of teaching
Sarah Walsh, an Australian Catholic University (ACU) Bachelor of Education (Primary) graduate, is passionate about teaching – with an undeniable commitment to her students and fellow staff. And while all teachers face unique challenges in the classroom, Sarah has one extra consideration – she uses a wheelchair.
But Sarah doesn’t let anything stand in the way of achieving her goals. And after finishing her studies with a prestigious commendation from the Executive Dean, she’s now employed as a primary school teacher, and thriving in her first full-time teaching role.
We asked Sarah (or ‘Miss Walsh’ as she is known by her Year Two class) and her school principal Cameron Johns for their opinions on fostering joy in the classroom, diversity and inclusion and, above all, Sarah’s love of teaching.
1. Why did you choose teaching?
“There isn’t one sole reason I selected to be a teacher, rather, it is multifaceted. I chose teaching as I have always enjoyed working with children and the way their minds work. Children are innately and unashamedly curious about the world around them and wish to explore it without fear. In each school globally, there are children who are the leaders of tomorrow, and in order to leave our future in safe hands, each child needs guidance and nurturing, and I wanted to foster that love of learning, that curiosity of the world and promote an unspoken respect and understanding of disability in a non-threatening, inclusive environment.
As a young woman in a wheelchair, I knew my employment opportunities would be lessened to a certain degree and I did not fancy sitting behind a desk all day, so I opted to give working with children a chance. I cherish waking up each morning not knowing precisely what will greet me that day; what emotions the children will bring with them and what achievements each child will make.
I chose teaching to make a difference. I have had innumerable teachers throughout my life that have impacted me, who have imparted wisdom that goes beyond the curriculum and who consistently went above and beyond for all of their students’ academic, spiritual and social-emotional wellbeing. This is something I aspire to do during my career.”
2. Which course did you graduate from?
“I graduated from ACU’s Bachelor of Education (Primary) in 2019. During my studies, I was a committee member for the Canberra Golden Key International Honour Society and concluded my studies on the Executive Education and Arts Dean’s Commendation.”
3. What do you love most about teaching?
“I am currently employed at Saints Peter and Paul Primary School in Garran, Canberra as a full-time teacher. I teach a class of 18 lively Year 2 children but will often team teach with my grade partner. There are many things I love about teaching, so it is difficult to narrow it down. I love working with and learning from other educators, I love engaging in a vibrant, school community. But in the end, it comes down to the children. I love seeing them engaged in learning, supporting each other to achieve their goals. I love when children – particularly those children who have struggled with a particular topic – reach a milestone, such as a new reading level, mastering a mathematical concept, completing a written story or making a new friend and witnessing their joy and pride. I consider each day to be a success if I have seen each child smile and laugh, because it is their joy that I aspire to foster above all else.”
4. Who is your biggest role model and why?
“I have a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy – Ullrich’s Congenital Muscular Dystrophy where the skeletal muscles are severely weakened and continue to degenerate over time.
During my primary school life, I had two teachers who went above and beyond to assist me and my family to adjust as I went from using a wheelchair part-time to being bound to one full-time. This was a very difficult time for my family and was a massive adjustment which was made easier due to these teachers dedication and compassion. They organised fundraisers to assist with purchasing an accessible vehicle, spearheaded projects to modify my house to make it wheelchair accessible and ensured that there was an understanding and acceptance of my disability throughout the school.
There is one instance in Year 5 which cemented that I wanted to be a teacher and that this woman was someone whom I would always admire. Due to modifications at school, the disabled bathroom cut into the girls’ bathroom and therefore some stalls were removed. While preparing for the end of year concert, we were changing into our costumes. I overheard some of the girls in the bathroom complaining about fewer stalls and using derogatory language regarding my disability and this really affected me. My class was quite small and I thought that they were understanding. My classroom teacher was informed and she sent me home. Upon returning the following day, a friend of mine informed me that they had spent the previous afternoon participating in activities with one exception: they were not allowed to stand or walk to their destination. After ‘stepping into my shoes’, my classmates held a newfound understanding for my situation, and the remainder of my time at the school was spent with acceptance and inclusion.
Now that I have seen how crowded the curriculum is, I can fully appreciate and am forever grateful of what my teacher did. She fostered a classroom that was built upon respect and love, an ideal that I have carried with me ever since. It is an honour to work in the same educational office as her.”
5. Has using a wheelchair given you a different perspective on study and on teaching itself?
“Having been in a wheelchair for so long, I don’t know any different. During my studies, we were all on a similar trajectory; working toward similar goals and studying the same units and I was fortunate enough during my studies to have a cohort that was exceptionally accepting and inclusive, not seeing me as ‘the disabled preservice teacher’, merely as Sarah. So, neither socially nor academically could I say that my wheelchair has presented me with a different perspective. I have been informed, however, that my peers stated they benefitted from having me in their cohort, as a constant reminder that disability is not something to be seen as ‘other’, merely as something that is there.
The same can be said for my school and teaching in general. While my wheelchair has prompted my school to make accessible changes (eg, installing ramps to doorways, installing automatic doors to the hall and installing an accessible-height bench) I can’t say that I have a different perspective to teaching, nor do the staff or children view me any differently. This is who I am, and I am respected as an educator not because of my disability, but because of my rapport with other staff, students and parents.”
6. Do you think your disability has presented any unique teaching challenges?
“I knew that I would face some difficulties when entering my own classroom for the first time, and these became apparent during my time relief teaching. The layout of a classroom is paramount to not only student success, but my success teaching. For example, ensuring I have access to all necessary daily tools like the whiteboard, the smartboard, storage and the students’ desks. Through experimentation, planning and collaboration I have been able to arrange my classroom so that it suits all my students and myself. I am very fortunate that my school and my students are thoughtful and accepting, as my students have learnt to give me space if I need to reverse, not to stand behind me when they are waiting (and if they do, they announce themselves), quickly pick up items I accidentally drop on the floor and readily hold doors open for me.
A key element of every primary school classroom is wall displays. This was initially one of my biggest hurdles as there wasn’t anything I could physically use to hang art on the walls. This, however, was alleviated by the Leadership Team allocating me an additional hour of Learning Support to assist me in undertaking these tasks, and I have found that all staff are willing and ready to lend a hand where needed. Teaching is a highly collaborative profession, an ideology I have learn to accept includes me asking for assistance when I require it.”
7. How do you describe your situation to your students and encourage inclusivity?
“Children engage with diversity without malice, or negative preconceived ideas. I have found that once children are aware of why I’m in a wheelchair, they do not view me as ‘other’ or ‘different’, I’m merely their teacher. With children, I have found that honesty and some degree of vulnerability creates a deeper relationship and assists in creating the idea that disability isn’t something to be feared, rather embraced. I tell students, regardless of their age, my diagnosis. I tell them its’s called ‘Muscular Dystrophy’ and that it makes my muscles weaker. I share stories about how I used to walk and as I got older I stopped walking, and I share stories about me being in my wheelchair – a popular one at the moment is when I fell out of my wheelchair, my students were very concerned!
Depending on the age, I tend to add more light-hearted humour to the situation – for younger years, I’ll say that my leg muscles went on holiday and were so relaxed they never came back. And for the older years I’ll ask them to have a guess what it could be after a series of clues. But I always remain honest. Children are more open to disability than I think we give them credit for, there’s no reason to sugar coat it.”
8. How would you describe your teaching style?
“I have always believed that relationships are the key to successful learning, and I have created relationships with each of my students through humour and time. I love to spend the majority of my teaching practice discussing ideas with students rather than me directing their learning trajectory. While there is a goal at the end of a learning sequence, I guide my students through inquiry learning to their destination.
I spent a considerable amount of time creating routines and structures in my classroom to ensure all students felt safe, comfortable and a valid member of their class. This was achieved by a collaboration between me and the students, making them “the master of their own learning”. In every lesson, I embed discussion, hands-on experiences and student-directed learning to ensure maximum retention. I have fun with my students, wishing them to have fun and enjoy all curriculum areas.”
9. What would you say to future education students about teaching?
“Teaching is one of the most rewarding professions you will ever engage with. You will face challenges and say phrases you never thought you would utter, but each day is a new challenge and a new experience. Greet every day with determination, a goal and a sense of humour. While your to-do list may continue to grow exponentially, so will your love for this career. Find something everyday that makes you happy; be it a child’s progress, their smile and laugh, or putting up that display you’ve been longing to set up. Each day is a blessing, treat them as such.”
10. What would you say to people about reaching their goals?
“I’ll say what I tell my students: Nothing can stand in your way of achieving what you wish to achieve. You are the master of your life and your future; you can do anything.”
Saints Peter and Paul School Principal, Cameron Johns:
1. How do Sarah’s qualities complement the school ethos?
“Sarah sees herself as a learner, an essential quality for a teacher and an educator at any age. She is a reflective and intelligent teacher who is also capable of collaborating with her colleagues, which is another essential quality of any teacher.
She is student-focused and can form very warm and supportive relationships with her students. She has a very good future in front of her. Saints Peter and Paul, like all Catholic schools, is charged with the vocation to form young children, in terms of bringing to life their gifts and talents, and helping them develop their understanding of the world, seen through the eyes of the mercy and love of God, and in relationship with Jesus. All of this is so they can contribute to the world and help bring about a just, merciful and compassionate world. Sarah contributes to this in her person and in the way she goes about things; she is modest and unassuming and understands that all education begins with relationships.”
2. What message do you hope the school gives by selecting high performing teachers within a diverse staff and student body?
“The Scottish theologian John Swinton says, when writing about diversity and inclusion, ‘To be included you have to show up. To belong, you have to be missed.’ I would hope that all Catholic schools see children as belonging to their schools, regardless of abilities, and I would hope that all staff would feel in some sense that they belong to the school too.
With belonging comes purpose and a sense that one is available and a valued member of the school community.”
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