Growing up in a variety of countries from Kenya, Iraq and Nigeria to the UK prepared Lizi for a career as an international educator … Focus talks with her about her passion for art and teaching here in Armidale.
> Where were you raised, and how did you come to make the tree change to Armidale?
I have been very fortunate to have been brought up in a number of countries – mainly in Africa. My parents worked in international development, starting in Kenya, which is where it began for me too.
We then moved to Lesotho, had a stint in Iraq and journeyed to Nigeria when I was six, where we were based for the next fourteen years. The small school I attended in the International Institute of Tropical Agricultural (IITA) was represented by twenty-eight other nationalities. The school followed the Calvert system, which was an American home schooling program, and this often meant a very relaxed learning environment.
Before I got too comfortable my parents quickly enrolled me into a boarding school, Riddlesworth Hall in England, aged nine. This also happened to be the primary school Princess Diana attended, and although my destiny to marry into the royal family has not been fulfilled, I do strangely recall seemingly essential lessons such as how to peel an orange like a lady!
I completed the equivalent of my HSC in a country school in Suffolk close to my parent’s 15th century farmhouse. I am not quite sure where one’s end point of ‘being raised’ is, but Winchester University helped me finalise another chapter in my life, and I graduated with a Primary teaching degree specialising in Art and Design.
The tree change … mmm … I can’t wait for the autumn, when the leaves all burst into colourful flames. Well I have grown to know Armidale relatively well over the last year and have met some lovely people along the way.
Serendipitously, my Great Aunt, Betty Shaw had a posting at NEGS from 1935 for a year and a half, teaching speech and drama. She was an amazingly dynamic woman who thoroughly enjoyed her time here; however she sadly felt obligated to return to England after her mother’s death to support and care for her father. Ironically, her father passed away while she was on the six week voyage home.
Anyway, I would often return back to bustling Sydney after visits here and feel overwhelmed and restricted, desperate to swap the concrete footpaths for grass verges and space.
Relocating to the country was an option I had been exploring, as well as a number of art positions, and so when PLC contacted me saying they were keen to employ me as a class teacher but also utilise my artistic skills throughout the primary school, it was a dream I wasn’t going to let float by.
> Tell us about your teaching career …
My teaching career started off very similar to my schooling in the sense there was a plethora of cultures represented in my Year 1 class of thirty-one children.
In fact, I only had one girl with English as her mother tongue and a number of refugees – two of whom didn’t speak for the first six months due to varying psychological factors. I can tell you it was quite a learning experience for me too! I ventured from my demountable in Hackney, East London to the more affluent location of Muswell Hill in North London.
Again I was faced with challenges, but these were of a very different nature, such as county competitions and organising small musical events in the Barbican Theatre.
I have been exposed to the special needs system, taught ceramics in an American summer camp and ventured to Sri Lanka where a two week holiday turned into an extremely rewarding seven month volunteer teaching/awareness and fundraising position.
It was in a very remote, southern coastal village at Navajeevana CBR (Community Based Rehabilitation) centre for disabled people. There is a preschool attached, and I would drop by in the afternoons and play games with the mentally disabled students or draw flash cards for the speech therapist.
The language barrier made it very challenging, but as time ticked on I realised there were two important needs I could help sensitively address. As is the case in many developing countries, there is a stigma attached to being disabled.
Sri Lanka being predominately a Buddhist country, many believe in reincarnation, and so if a less able child is born it was often hidden away for fear of the community judging the family’s past. Therefore even though these parents were making the very brave first step of bringing their children to the centre for a basic education or medical support (not to mention the teacher’s and practitioner’s dedication) their learning was still immensely controlled.
Art hath no boundaries, and so in it came. I liaised with the teachers and we fashioned a number of creative activities with skill-based components attached – the parents playing the very important role of encouraging from the side lines.
Marvellous, independent art works were produced, and much to my joy a team of enthusiastic disabled adults stepped forward offering their assistance. Then came the second need – to help raise awareness and funding for these fabulous people.
I contracted a Sri Lankan printing company who helped publish a blank calendar on one side and photographs and captions I had taken of the various services on offer at Navajeevana on the other.
The team carefully reviewed, selected and stuck the cropped masterpieces onto every page of the calendars and they were then sold in reputable and established stores in Colombo. It was a very rewarding adventure, and I have since been back after the tsunami to help set up another arts fundraising project, which was headed by the original calendar team.
Australia then opened many professional doors and has had me working alongside some inspirational educators. I started as a relief teacher in preschools through to Grade 6 and was later offered a fulltime position at PLC Sydney. I worked there for two years, gaining a better understanding of the Australian syllabus before moving onto Ascham as a Grade 5 teacher.
The last few years have taught me a huge amount about the diversity of learning styles, teaching standards and the expectations of the private system.
> What do you hope to bring to PLC?
Our past experiences obviously contribute to the person we are now as an individual as well as an educator. Each one of us is a teacher with the potential to guide and inspire.
I would hope that my journey so far enriches those I am blessed to have in my class, but more importantly stimulate their desire to explore, learn and grow into confident, independent and cheerful beings.
Perhaps that sounds a little alternative but we do live in a beautiful world, and if children have an understanding and respect for their community as well as a sense of worth, then I believe we can all flourish.
Art and design is a fantastic subject, and I know that I am biased because I am passionate about it. But you ask any child and most will state that they enjoy it. I believe this is largely due to its freedom, whereas many other subjects have right and wrongs and constraints.
I realise it is crucial to introduce and build on the skills that come with this subject, but it is equally important to allow children the opportunity to make learning meaningful through art, be free from expectations and express their inner emotions.
With regards to facilitating and developing the art programs in the Junior school, I am looking forward to working alongside a competent team, whom I hope I can support, as well as building the children’s artistic capabilities.
> Interests other than teaching?
Where to begin with this one! Rather obviously the travel bug is well and truly in my blood. My brother and I meet up once a year to explore a country or at least part of it, as he is based in Paris.
Last year it was Cuba and what a fantastic place … the people gentle and open, juxtaposing scenery, stunning architecture but sadly often crumbling, and then there is the music and dancing … what rhythm and movement they possess.
Travelling also enables me to pursue another passion, photography, and I rarely leave home without my camera.
Each year I like to set myself a personal challenge and these have ranged from climbing Mount Kenya to pay homage to my birthplace in my thirtieth year, completing a basic Italian course (although I have a very long way to go), ocean swims and last year the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic. I am still mulling over the options for this year!
> Plans for the future?
One short term plan (and I am sure this is a country cliché and many of your readers will soon be grimacing) but I would love to have a few chickens in my garden. I grew up with a loyal goose and many ducks but never chooks. I feel they are one of those strangely underrated creatures!
Long term, to stay happy and enthused, continuing to develop artistically in the hope Armidale offers some ‘sunny’ windows and doors for me to open.
> Thank you Lizi.