Recently I was the opening Keynote speaker at the MindMatters conference. The conference was aimed at educators and other professionals working with children and young people with the theme of ‘unlocking wellbeing’. Below is a copy of the speech I gave (this is what I read from….actual wording may have been slightly different on the day!)
Hello & Welcome
Firstly I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we meet on today and pay my respects to our elders past, present and future.
So just to get an idea of the room – who teaches lower primary up to grade 3? What about upper primary? Any middle or secondary teachers? Anyone else I’ve missed?
And how many of you are here because your school/leadership told you to come? What about because you’re interested in the content? You wanted a day away from your regular job??
Don’t worry I won’t dob on you!
As I’m starting off your day here I’m really lucky in the sense that if I say anything stupid you’ll have hopefully forgotten about it by the end of the day after your brain has been crammed full of information in the days sessions. I guess that also works the other way though that if I say something incredibly profound or poignant that’ll be lost by the end of the day too. So really I can pretty much say whatever I want!
So a couple of days ago I was chatting to someone about speaking here today and all of a sudden they gently titled their head to one side and got this quizzical look in their eyes and said ‘ so uh, what’s your background again’. And I think that’s a really interesting question.
Not because of the answer – I’m really not that interesting and also I don’t even really know exactly why I was asked to speak today. No, the reason I find that question interesting is because it made me think about the reasons that person asked that question. It’s a question that is underpinned by quite a few assumptions – some of them are about me obviously. Some of them are about what a T & D conference should be like and some of them are about how we view education and the role of teachers and of community within education. So it’s a really interesting question. I’m going to give you the answer to the original question – my back ground shortly. But first I actually just want to offer you the next 20 minutes to have as your own. Life gets really busy. Really really busy. We’re pushed and pulled from every direction by expectations of the community, school leadership, the media, students, parents, our families and ourselves and this often doesn’t leave us any time to just sit.
To sit with ourselves and reflect, reflect on our practice directly but also on our wider vision. So for the next 20 minutes or so you have the opportunity if you wish to sit back in your chair and tune out from what I’m saying and reflect on what education means to you, what is your vision for yourself, for your students and for education as a system. You’re more than welcome to stay with my little ramble but I give you permission to just sit and reflect and find some processing time if you like and perhaps if we have time at the end we can come back to those questions and maybe a couple of people will share their vision.
For those of you staying tuned I’m going to share quite a bit of my personal story and through that some of my own reflections on the theme of this conference. Some of you already know me but for those who don’t I’m a Riverland girl. I have a beautiful little house just outside of Monash with my partner, son and dog. I was actually born in Waikerie although that doesn’t make me a local (depending on who you ask of course) as I haven’t lived here my entire life. I’ve spent time living in Victoria, NSW and other parts of SA. In fact I’ve attended 9 different schools as a student. I’m young obviously. 26 to be in fact and with all the advances in modern medicine I perhaps haven’t even lived a quarter of my potential life yet. But I’ve managed to fit a few things in.
I left school at 15 after a bad run with bullies and the like. I was angry and disappointed with the system, with teachers and with other students. Not with learning and not with academics – and that’s an important distinction to make. I started working a full time 50 hour week job at a factory sewing dog coats, pet beds and ferret carriers. In 2002 I gave birth to my beautiful little boy Zacharie. I was only 17.
My son gave me the courage and motivation to demand a better life for myself and leave the toxic and dangerous relationship I’d been in with his dad since I was 14. It didn’t happen the moment he was born or even in the days directly following, the process of deciding and doing took maybe 7 months. I’d spent years in this relationship believing I was nothing and no one and worthless and that I always would be so and I didn’t deserve any better. But holding that little boy in my arms for the first time lit a fire in me that said I might not deserve any better but this little person in my arms certainly does and so it began the chain of events that’s led me to today.
I left the yucky place I was in and re-enrolled in school. I completed year 12 as a single teenage mum with a toddler despite the fact that I’d only completed one term of year 10 and hadn’t done anything of year 11. The year I completed year 12 I was also entirely responsible for my 3 bedroom rental property and all the bills that come with that working 3-6 nights a week at the local pizza bar and only attending school 3 days a week as one day of the week I was volunteering with Riverland Regional Health as a peer educator and the other day I was participating in community arts project facilitated by Riverland Youth Theatre (who are the creators of the lovely red phone box in the corner – do pop in and share your super hero story with that great project), Vitalstatistix National Women’s Theatre and Riverland Regional Health.
I should probably mention right here that I’d hated drama in school, in fact I was pretty vocal about the fact I thought it was embarrassing, boring and a waste of government money to fund arts projects. I actually became involved in that project kind of accidently and almost against my will purely because someone I respected asked me to go and I wanted to impress them. I expected to attend one session and then come up with a reasonable excuse to stop going. That project lasted a year – one day a week for the first 11 months and then a few weeks of intensives. I missed 2 sessions in that year – one for a year 12 English exam and one because I was in Sydney attending a drama camp!
That very first session was like finding something I’d been looking for my whole life but I hadn’t known existed. It was an environment where my story was not only valued by the people in the room but where it could actually be useful – where the things I knew and the skills I had could actually do something. And so that was the beginning of everything that’s come since.
Everything I’ve done since and do now has been about 2 things – the first is to create opportunities for other young people and children to experience what I experienced through that project – that their stories matter and that they have a voice and the second is about trying to create a better world for my son and through my journey now for me as well.
So all of that is back a few years ago now – what have I been doing since? I’m now a professional theatre practitioner in my own right, I studied acting at uni and have worked on numerous projects as a writer/director/performer and facilitator. I’ve also taught workshops in performance, creative writing, movement and related skills with ages 4-75 including developing my skills as an artist working collaboratively in schools.
I’ve given my time and my voice towards building my community in a variety of ways. I currently sit on a number of community boards and committees and mentor young people in a variety of ways through a variety of programs including local government youth advisory councils and state programs like Youth Parliament. I’ve represented our community at National forums such as the Brightest Young Minds Summit, World Interplay and Regional Arts Conference Junction.
I’m also currently completing a Bachelor of Teaching and Learning and a Bachelor of Arts externally towards becoming a secondary drama/English/ social studies teacher. I’m actually in the middle of completing a prac at Lameroo Regional Community school which has been a lot of fun and a fantastic opportunity to reflect on my educational philosophy.
My partner also happens to be a highschool science/media studies teacher and my son who is now 8 and half is at school himself so I’ve got a lot invested in this beast we call school on a number of levels.
Which again brings me back to reflection. Reflecting on what we do, how we do it and why we do it.
In my work in schools and in the wider community over the last few years I’ve been struck again and again by how easily we slip into patterns , into habits, into survival mode. How we list off in our heads the problems and the potential solutions including what we ourselves could contribute and yet we then continue doing exactly the same thing. There are actually no easy answers to unlocking well being for our students or for ourselves. But there are tools – many of which I expect you’ll hear in the sessions later today. But I just wanted to leave you with 3 things-
1. Resilience is absolutely one of the most important things we can offer our students and our young people. It’s also one of the hardest things to learn and the hardest things to teach. Resilience isn’t about nothing ever going wrong – in fact it’s the exact opposite. Resilience is about seeing the things that go wrong as an opportunity to learn and make new choices. The single most important thing my life’s journey so far has taught me is that there is nothing that you can mess up so badly that it should steal the rest of your life from you and that’s an important message for children and teenagers in particular
2. Which brings me to number 2. People, all people, not just our students but us as well need permission to fail. We learn more from our mistakes than we do from any of our failures. Unfortunately as we all know our culture is very success orientated and fixated on labels and external recognition so allowing children space to fail is incredibly difficult within our current schooling system. This is one of those times where as educators we need to fight for our students – we need to fight our own expectations, we need to educate our leadership and we need to advocate at systematic levels. I absolutely believe that change is necessary in the education system, not because it’s wrong or broken or useless but because we can do better and evolution is a natural part of becoming the best we can be. Our students deserve that and so do we.
3. Lastly I just want to say this – Our culture has taught us to abandon our instincts for logic. Yet both have a place in the world and in particular in our role with children and young people. If you know your young people, believe that you know them. Trust yourself. You won’t get it right all the time and when you get it wrong you need to say sorry and find ways of fixing it. But our instincts can offer us insights and solutions that logic will miss so we need to balance both.
And so perhaps most of all I just want to say this – my vision for education is for children and young people who are given the tools to experience connection with and care for their community. The goal isn’t really for them to ace NAPLAN or get an ATAR of 99billion zillion. It’s to enable our precious little people to grow into adults who can experience the world as painful, confusing and frightening but as ultimately deeply, deeply precious and worth their commitment.
Unlocking Wellbeing Program Bio
Alysha Herrmann- What it means to belong: Resilience, mistakes & instincts in building a better future.
Alysha Herrmann is the proud parent of an 8 year old son, a theatre practitioner, community builder, dedicated volunteer, is currently completing a Teaching/Arts degree and is the 2011 South Australian Young Citizen of the Year. On the road to unlocking her own wellbeing Alysha has been a high school dropout, teenage mum, single parent, waitress, artist, student, sewing machinist, blogger, dishwasher, community facilitator, speaker and many other things in between. Alysha is committed to social justice outcomes in everything she does and you can read more about her interesting and diverse work, her views on community building, resilience, wellbeing and her vision for the future on her blog at https://alyshaherrmann.wordpress.com
Big thank you to Riverland Headspace for hosting the conference and inviting me to speak.