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Andrea Isles + Melinda Wheeler

Twins, Andrea Isles + Melinda Wheeler from Mackay, Queensland share with us what it really takes to be mothers + teachers working in regional + rural schools in Australia.

Do teachers really need to put in a million hours of overtime to feel like they are working hard enough? Can there really be a work / life balance for Mum’s who are teachers?

We go to the depths of the challenges and triumphs as a teacher & why these women know that the key to success in the classroom is by putting their family first. Having a rough start in childhood, due to the passing of their Dad, really taught them the power of community and from there, strengthened their desire to leave a legacy. Together, they have a dream that their students will be life-long learners and find joy in every learning opportunity.

Tell us about your childhood:

Growing up as a twin certainly made life interesting for us.

We were like any other family growing up. We had an older brother, a Mum who stayed home to look after the house and a Dad who worked hard. All of that changed when our father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away only 8 weeks later at the age of 35.

It really just threw us in a hole & changed all of our lives in an instant. Once that happened we became very aware of how short life can be.

Our mother re-educated herself and went back to work full-time and we all did our best to help out, carrying the heavy burden of loss, but trying to see the light in it all.

Looking back we had a really happy childhood and were fortunate to have a very supportive bunch of neighbourhood friends – like family, who kept us strong.

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Tell us about why you both became teachers?

Our Mother was very persistent that we were educated and had a good job that would support us if anything were ever to happen unexpectedly in our lives. And that was a fair call from Mum considering what we went through together, losing Dad.

Money was tight as the time had come to make a decision about our professional future. This meant that we couldn’t move away to study and had to pick a course that the Mackay University offered… which at the time were very few courses available, as it had just opened doors. Being twins, our Mum wanted us to each find independence from each other so sent us to different rooms in the house so that we could individually pick what course we were going to do. In University. Upon coming out of the rooms after making a decision, we realised that we both selected teaching.

Talk us through your experience of teaching so far. What have been the biggest highlights? And the greatest challenges?

Teaching has certainly changed over the last 20 years. The introduction of technology has been both inspirational and stressful.  The responsibility nowadays to wear so many hats can be quite daunting. Expectations for each new year seems to increase.

Highlights?

Melinda: I loved having the opportunity to move around the diocese and teach in a number of different schools both regional and rural.

Andrea: I began my career in a small rural school while Melinda was at a large coastal town.  I was so grateful that I was able to share my experiences with her because I was really struggling being the only grade level first year teacher. I have been blessed to work with some amazing people over the years & these long lasting friendships have certainly been a highlight.

Challenges?

Melinda: A lack of technology restricting me from communicating with my family was a big one! When I first started teaching I found the isolation quite difficult to cope with.

Andrea: Not being able to live in the same town or work in the same school with my sister was definitely my biggest challenge. We previously did everything together and now suddenly, we were apart. It was tough. Our careers have taken us in different directions, which has been wonderful but I do miss her!

Was there anyone in particular that inspired you both to become teachers and what was it about them that inspired you?

Melinda: There wasn’t one specific person who inspired me to be a teacher but I really believed that I could be that teacher to inspire others.  I knew that I really wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. The school community I grew up in definitely helped my decision, I loved going to school every day.

Andrea: I think everyone has had a teacher that they’ve really looked up to and at one point or another had felt that they too wanted to be like them and teach. I’ll always remember our teachers at Emmanuel Catholic Primary School.  The entire school community was so supportive, especially during such a devastating time in our lives.

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Both of you have worked in regional and rural settings setting can you tell us about your experiences in these locations?

Andrea: My most memorable experience was when one of my students invited me out to their property. I got to ride horses, ride 4-wheelers and indulged in a smorgasbord of food for morning tea.  It was a great way to start my outback adventure.

As well as that I have endless memories with animals of all sorts, emus, kangaroos, roosters and dingoes. The animals would just be roaming around in the town. There were always funny stories told by my students about the fun they got up to on the weekend and almost always involved some crazy wildlife. It was such a different world out there and it honestly did take some time to adjust to a regional setting when I returned home.

Tell us why you Andrea took the next step to become Assistant Principal Curriculum?

At the time, I was teaching Year 4 and a fellow staff member suggested that I apply for the position to become Assistant Principal Curriculum. It was only an acting capacity so I thought it would be a great opportunity to see what the role was like and go back to class as normal afterwards.

Four and a half years later, the person I was acting for was moving to another town and so I officially become the APC at the end of Term 3 2019. I don’t think anything can really prepare you for the transition from classroom teacher to leadership but having the support of fellow staff, especially my fellow AP’s, really helped me over the years.

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Has being in a leadership role changed you?

Melinda: I remember the principal had to go away for a meeting which meant that I would be in charge of the school. I was only 24 and very nervous so the principal called me into his office and offered me a piece of advice.  He told me whatever happened, especially if it involved a parent, I was to listen to them.  Take the time, sit and really listen. He said people want to be heard and it’s important that we hear what they are saying.  I’ve never forgotten that advice and I try to focus on that every year when I get to meet new families of the students I am teaching.

Andrea: I have definitely learnt that I don’t need to be ‘perfect’.  Trying to maintain this ‘perfection’ is not healthy and it is ok to make a mistake. I had to ensure that I was not making school my life and spending every waking moment at school or thinking about it. Supporting those around you is important as well.  Relationships are key. I always ensure that I’m developing these positively with students, staff and parents. Same goes for outside of school, healthy personal relationships will ensure your sanity in and out of the classroom.

Tips for being a Mother & a teacher?

Melinda: Marry a really supportive husband. Someone who is willing to laminate, cut and help you move when you have to change classrooms. I was lucky enough to meet my husband whilst working out west and I know that I couldn’t do everything I do now if it wasn’t for his support.

Andrea: Living in Emerald we have no family support so sometimes having to rely on friends was the only way that I could manage things. Having a support network is really important for those times when you are desperate. Now that my children are older they help out a lot with the household tasks, they iron, hang out washing, help with cleaning, feed the dog and empty the dishwasher. Just like in the classroom, if you set expectations, things run smoothly because everyone knows what needs to be done.

How do you approach the morning rush in your family?

Melinda: Organisation is key. Bags and lunches are packed the night before. No technology is allowed in the mornings for the kids. They are only allowed to watch some television if all their jobs are done. It’s a team effort. If we need to get out the door by 7:20am every morning, everyone needs to pitch in and help.

Andrea: Being organised and having a good routine is key for our family. Now that my children are older, life is certainly a lot easier but in the early days, having a routine that everyone followed made all the difference. We each were in bed by a certain time so that we could all get up early.

My husband is a shift worker so at times he was home to take the kids to school in the morning for me but when he was at work they just knew that they had to be up and ready to go by 7.

Everyone makes their own lunch and gets themselves ready. I’m lucky to have 3 boys so ‘hair’ was not an issue.

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How do you approach your daily to-do list?

Melinda: Set goals for each day.  Goals that are achievable and that include the Work/Rest/Play model.  Prioritize what is important, get that done, and what isn’t can wait.

Andrea:  I like to take things day by day. I can get very stressed thinking about all the things I need to do in a week, especially when there are extra meetings plus the kid’s sports etc. I just take some deep breaths and focus on what needs to be done each day. I also write a lot of lists and then just tick things off once I have completed them, otherwise I can be forgetful.

Have you seen any changes in the way motherhood is approached in the workforce?

I think it’s the teachers themselves who look out for one another, especially the teachers we are working with on that grade level. We work as a team to try and dedicate the work. Some teachers even offer to take on more work because they don’t have children and try and lighten the load for those who do. I still believe we have a long way to go in regards to working mothers in education.

What does a typical day look like for you at your schools? 

Melinda: Each day is different. It usually starts with getting ready for the day, checking planning and the school bulletin. I will have a chat with teaching partners about the week and then open the doors.  From then on it’s busy, busy, busy. There’s never much time to sit down whilst teaching.

I will spend time preparing for the next day, marking work, collecting data, attending meetings, sending and checking emails, cleaning the space and before you know it, it’s home time.

Andrea: School days are never the same, there’s always something different happening. I usually get to school by 7.15am, check and send emails. I might have a before school duty which begins at 8.00am. I meet with leadership members about various issues depending on what is happening at the time. I work in my office on various curriculum tasks. I work with students in small group intervention programs during the middle session of the day. There could possibly be another lunch duty after that.

In the afternoon I meet with the principal, learning support or other teachers as necessary. If there’s no meetings, I spend time working on curriculum tasks and more emails. I have an after school duty every afternoon.  Followed by more meetings after school. Finally I leave school by 4.30pm or 5.00pm.

Funniest teaching story?

Teaching year one for the past 5 years, you always get lots of words spelt incorrectly or pictures that ultimately, unbeknownst to the child, look totally inappropriate. One child had written that they had to be picked up at sex o’clock and the dinosaurs whose clubbed tails looked like huge (insert male genital part here), were drawn attacking other dinosaurs with them! Haha!

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Teach … [verb]

1) To impart knowledge of or skill in; give instruction in.
2) To instruct by precept, example, or experience

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