Bridging the gap


In Tasmania we have a large percentage of families who are unemployed, and have been for several generations. At a recent meeting we were discussing how to re-engage families with education and then to help them feel motivated to encourage their children out of the unemployment/poverty cycle. How to bridge the gap between student achievement from different walks of life.Most of us have worked in a low socio-economic area during our careers so we all had opinions, anecdotal experience or research to fuel our conversation.

We moved then to discuss how parental expectation has a crucial bearing on student achievement and life success. I shared one of my favourite stories;my daughter was participating in a survey on the ‘phone. The surveyor asked her “When did you know you wanted to go to uni?” Her response? ” I never knew  I wouldn’t” .

This demonstrated to me the unspoken expectations that emanated throughout our children’s formative years, likely all their years.We never ever told them they had to go to uni, would have been perfectly happy with any career they chose to follow but I suspect all our words and actions would have conveyed that we expected them to be positive contributors to society, not just consumers. And we assumed they would be their very best. We loved them and told them they could be whatever they wanted to be. We showed them that hard work brought great rewards, both financially and philanthropically. Work hard, make positive contributions and you will be happy.

In middle class families there is usually the assumption that each generation will do slightly better than their parents- my mum was a stay at home mum, and book keeper for dad’s building business, mum’s mum stayed at home too and her dad worked at a jam factory, dad’s mum stayed at home  (my dad was one of eleven!)and his dad was a fisherman. Now there’s Ade and I, a bricklayer turned project manager and a school principal, our daughter is a doctor and our son is a comedian/actor by night and a very hard working teacher assistant by day.

This begs the question has each generation of my family outdone it’s forbearers? And how do you measure progress in this area? Is it all about the income? If so is a career criminal a success?

What about the happiness of each family? Did we really show our children that our jobs brought us great happiness? definitely on some days, but definitely not on others

What about stress levels? Their self esteem? The attention they could give their children? How loved did these kids feel ?

And so today while thinking back to the conversation about generational unemployment and poverty and what ‘we’ should do about that, my musings have lead me to ask the question -” Is it ok to put our middle-class values and expectations on others just to reduce their drain on government funds, our taxes?” One of my colleagues said that many of the families he works with currently don’t want their children to ‘do better than them’ and they don’t want them to leave the community they have been ensconced in across generations. They don’t want the apple to fall far from the tree, they don’t want to lose their strong, connected and often blended families. They don’t want their children operating in a world of time cards, pay checks, deadlines, and making new connections in that world that would be as foreign to their families as outer space.

So I guess I’m left thinking that my job as an educator is to provide opportunities in an equitable way that ensures all students can achieve their full potential- but I’m not sure it’s my job to define what that potential is. Should we stop and ask them if they actually want to cross a different bridge to the one they know will take them to where they feel safe, happy, confident and connected rather than just assuming everyone wants to be like us?


Two Options

choices.pngGenes are a funny thing. I’m not sure just how much they have to do with mental health but if I had to hazard a guess based on my own lineage I’d say they are instrumental.

While it was never actually articulated , my dad definitely lived with both depression and anxiety, I know this now with the gift of hindsight, and not just because I asked my nurse friend what his prescription drugs were for. He spent weeks not leaving the house except to drink at the weekends and then crawl back onto his bean bag in front of the tele until the next weekend arrived.

My mum’s a  funny character and again when I revisit my childhood, adolescence and young adult years, I can attribute much of her behaviour to the same demons. She was so anxious when her house was for sale that she hid in my brother’s wardrobe while the agent showed potential buyers around. We spent time told to be silent and lay down on the floor when visitors knocked at our door, friends were not allowed to stay for meals and sleepovers were out of the question. One of my biggest regrets is from the time when she passively attempted to end her own life by not treating her diabetes, and ended up very very sick in hospital. When she was eventually moved from the ICU to a ward to recover the nurse asked me did I think she was depressed ( dad had died a nasty death two years prior) I answered no. I had not yet even began to understand my own battles at that stage so I certainly couldn’t recognise them in anyone else. I was swamped with my own grief from losing dad and was in no position to comment on anyone’s else state of mind. Mum is still reclusive, guarded, overly private and confidential and I wonder now if she’d got some support back then would  her years have panned out differently?

I finally realised I wasn’t okay after listening to Andrew Fuller, a prominent psychologist, talk about mental well-being. He talked about ways to check in with yourself and one resonated deeply with me “when did you stop singing in the car?” As well as being a boating family we were always a family with music around, the radio always on and mum and dad singing when they were in good spirits, and dad whistling his way around the place too in his lighter days. I have always loved a good sing and in the car on my own was and continues to be no less attractive than with friends and family. So when I heard these words my journey of self awareness began. My next clue was a friend pointing about my extreme weight loss as I was obsessed with walking the hills around my house, the biggest clue was when I thought I might like a ‘minor’ car crash, I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to be left alone for awhile.

I could go on for pages about my brothers, we’re a boating family and it’s suffice to say that they are definitely in the same boat as they rest of us, possibly a little further out to sea though…

Enter the next generation, my children. Fabulous, gregarious, intelligent, funny, caring they almost sound too good to be true. But my daughter hasn’t escaped from the tendrils of anxiety. She even succumbed to the Black Dog in grade 7. But I always knew this about her, I saw the signs being a consummate anxiety sufferer by now, she knew I suffered too and so she told me when she was not ok. She told me!

My boy though, he didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask. We had what I thought was a great open relationship- he told me lots of things, which I now think of as distractors, deflectors from the real him. Through his writing he has now told me that he’s right there alongside the rest of the family, for better or worse he’s trapped in the web of inane insecurities, constant self reflection and the battle to simply feel content.

So where to now? I can choose to wallow in self doubt about my parenting, dive head first into a bubbling pot of self deprecation, and finally drown under  a tidal wave of self hate. Or I can remember that it’s ok to feel anxious sometimes, that the feeling will go away, that there are more highlights than bloopers in the film reel of my life so far, and I can share this with my son so that he too can rise above and break out from the web of fear and apprehension that anxiety weaves. I choose option two!