If you had asked to guess what the most unexpected benefit of moving to Australia would be, I would have never in a million years thought that the answer would be the amazing education that our children would receive in the countryside.
When we moved from Singapore to Australia, we steeled ourselves in anticipation of big changes to our children’s schooling. Plans were made to hire Chinese nannies to keep up the kids Mandarin. Many sleepless nights were spent fretting over which school to put the kids in and how they would bridge the vast chasm between the Singapore education they had been receiving and their new Aussie schools.
We finally managed to get Finn & Dylan into a beautiful little private primary school just 15 minutes from our house called Penbank.
It is a very small school in terms of student numbers. Minuscule really, compared to the schools in Singapore where we are used to 40 kids in a class and 350 kids in one year level. In Penbank, there are about 130 kids in the whole school, and only about 25 kids per year. The principal knows every child personally and also teaches music classes and special learning activities.
Despite the small intake of students, the school is set on 35 acres of land full of beautiful gum trees and wide open green spaces for the kids to run about in. Dylan’s class of 24 kids has its own vegetable patch, huge playground, pigs and chickens, and Finn’s class playground has a ghost town and majestic pirate ship.
During summer, the school set up a huge trapeze on the school grounds for the kids and the adults were invited to join in as well. It was amazing to see even the tiny kids get the guts to climb up that very high ladder and take their turn swinging in the sky, punctuating the air with squeals of delight
Over here, one thing I find very touching is that the whole community gets really involved in supporting the schools on the Peninsula, not just the parents. Each of the schools on the Peninsula holds one or two flagship events every year which everyone turns up regardless of whether they have kids in that school or not. For example, Red Hill Consolidated School holds the annual Red Hill Country Fair and the Red Hill Art Show, which I’ve written about here http://thecrystalbawl.com/2010/11/22/the-annual-red-hill-country-fair/ and Penbank holds a massive Between The Bays music festival at the end of summer which again is always eagerly anticipated and tickets are often sold out.
Being in Australia means embracing the great outdoors regardless of the season. We had a “Walk to School” day in late Autumn recently which was quite confounding given that the countryside distances would mean that we would take approximately 5 hours to get there from our house on foot, potentially climbing over electric fenced pastures and dodging confused livestock. Turns out that the school just wanted us to assemble at the nearby Moorooduc Oval and walk the 2 km to school together.
Parents turned up with their dogs, kids and coffees, rubbing their hands together in the brisk morning air. The kids were lined up in neat rows and then led off to amble along on a countryside path leading to Penbank.
This is Vivienne, Penbank’s principal who was doubling up as a lollipop lady and cheering the kids on. This would be unthinkable in my day! I think there were approximately 42 levels of strata between my principal and the road traffic control.
It was a beautiful and quintessentially Peninsula thing to do, share a morning walk with your child in the misty goldenshot country air, chat to fellow parents and see the kids skipping happily with their friends.
I’ve also been making guest appearances in Finn’s class as their cooking teacher every Wednesday morning. I have the best fun hanging out with these funny and curious 5 & 6 year olds and introducing them to foods from all around the world.
Every week we have a different theme / country. In the picture below, I was teaching them about Switzerland and its cuisine and we set up a little drive-in counter where the kids could line up and help themselves to cheese and chocolate fondues.
The dipping was very popular, although somehow the boys seemed to enjoy the very odd combination of carrots in chocolate fondue the best!
The Asian food has also been a big hit and the kids seem to love devouring wontons, Japanese gyoza and making sushi. I learned very quickly not to let 5 & 6 year olds anywhere near a wok full of boiling oil despite their assurances that they’ve now learned NOT to pelt dumplings into the wok.
We have made our own chinese hot water dumpling dough and learned not to stick it to our faces and hair (I think), mastered the art making of extra crispy Japanese panko crumbed organic chicken nuggets and conquered American camping classics like maple candied bacon and smores.
It was really cool to get to know all of Finn’s classmates. They are a fantastic bunch of kids, warm, cheeky and open. I found myself actually enjoying those early Wednesday mornings, getting my small group of 4-5 kids into their aprons while Finn’s two amazing and capable teachers Bec and Sophie put music on in the background and helped the other groups of kids in their “investigations”, which sometimes involved taking apart old appliances – hello there fax machine from the 80s!
The kids have made heaps of friends and I’m really glad for the new friendships I’ve made as well. Here’s a photo I took of Dylan arranging the wellies of her classmates after outdoor play. She’s very proud of her classroom and is especially fond of the wood stove in the corner in wintertime.
In the last week of the school term, we had an hour long meeting with the school principal, Finn’s two teachers and the school counsellor to review Finn’s progress. I was again struck by how much each of the four people in the room knew about Finn’s development and personality. He is not a easy child to teach although he is reading and doing maths a few levels ahead of his peers as he can be very disruptive if he is not stimulated enough. Not to mention being a bit of a smartarse!
A few days ago, our nanny S told me that Finn had been rude to his sister and when she asked him why, he told her that his Polite app had been deleted and that he needed to download it again from the App store in the sky… No words! On another occasion, he took it upon himself to write a letter to his school explaining that he was “allergic to cold lunches” as he figured out that everyone in Australia seemed to have one allergy or another.
Anyway, getting back to the school meeting, I was impressed by how everyone was genuinely interested in helping Finn and for their thoughtful suggestions. Mark and myself took the opportunity to thank his teachers for everything they have done to make Finn feel comfortable in his new school.
I have rarely met teachers who are so proud of their vocation, who recognise teaching for the noble and heartful work that it is.
Hanging out behind the scenes in class, I’ve noticed how their eyes light up when they interact with the kids. Even during the lunch breaks when I’m cleaning up the mess from the cooking, I can sometimes overhear Bec excitedly telling Sophie about some child’s progress in writing a particularly difficult word or Sophie commenting about some newfound friendship between two children. They have a lot of heart.
I told them that it is impossible to be that consistent unless you’re being authentic, and those teachers are the real deal. I know that schooling is not the same as an education but here in this very special corner of the world, these two things come pretty close.