Catherine McAleer

Founder of Share, Teach and Reach Development Project, Catherine McAleer, shares her inspiring story as an educator and humanitarian.

“You cannot fill from an empty bucket. You will never be able to do all that you think you have to. Teaching is like that, there will always be something that needs to be done. You can’t do it all. Work will never truly be finished and that’s OK, you are a human being, not a human doing.  Your job and the children are important but so are you“

BTC: Can you tell us a little bit of background on yourself and what childhood was like?

CM: The youngest of three, I grew up in the border town of Goondiwindi. Our family-owned a small hobby farm, 12kms out of town.  I have fond memories of time spent split between reading books and being outside; riding a go-kart, climbing trees, swimming in the creek and playing some kind of game with my brothers.  There’s a saying, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”  It’s true and so appropriate.

BTC: Tell us about why you became a teacher?

CM: From as far back as I can remember I had always wanted to be a teacher, although it’s not what I did first.  As I finished school, I actually had no intention of being a teacher. Teaching didn’t even come up as an option. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but teaching wasn’t it. I had a few different jobs, I worked as a travel agent after initially studying for an Associate Diploma in Business (Travel), then in a bank and I spent five years on and off working in an American summer camp.  It was here that, the desire to teach was reignited. I loved sharing my knowledge and skills with girls in Girl Scout Camp and I decided it was time and I was ready to give teaching a go. Why? I cannot put words around it or explain it, I just did.

BTC: Talk us through your experience of being a teacher. What have been the biggest highlights? And the greatest challenges?

CM: I began my teaching career in a small rural school with around 29 students at the time. I hit the ground running and threw myself whole-heartedly into teaching my year 4/5 students. The rural community welcomed me, and I felt at home. I devoted my time to teaching and giving it all I had.

I look back now, and a few things come to mind as highlights from my years in the classroom, they are what really made my students come alive and some of them still remember them.

There was:

  • The time we recreated a 1950’s Christmas Dinner in drama class.
  • We (myself included), learned how to sing a song in sign language for Harmony Day.
  • Students drew the type of shoes a young girl who lived in a rubbish dump in the Philippines wore at the conclusion of an integrated unit. (Interestingly a couple of years ago, I was honoured to host that same, now young women, in my home here in Australia)
  • Perhaps the greatest highlight of all was my final year in my first school drafting and sewing shorts and shirts for children in the Philippines with members of the whole community.  Some came to teach the children how to use the sewing machine, others helped them cut out their project, others just ironed for us and some were there for moral support.

The greatest challenge was remembering to enjoy what I was doing and not to let it become a chore. I don’t like to use the term “work-life balance” because work is a part of life, as are healthy pursuits and hobbies. I prefer to say that I forget to live life to the fullest! In all honesty, working with some parents has also been a challenge.

BTC: You worked in regional and rural settings setting for most of your teaching career.  Tell us about your experiences in these locations?

CM: Essentially this came down to country hospitality, giving everything a go and working as part of a team.

BTC: Go back to your years as a teacher what are your funniest teaching stories?

CM: One of the funniest stories was when I set a task for the students to teach the class anything the liked.  The principal’s daughter chose to teach us about gumboots and all the different names for them.  In her innocence she sounded out one of the names – s h i * k i c k e r s.  I didn’t laugh at the time, I had to try and stop other students from laughing, but I did later as I relayed the story to her parents. To this day, I don’t believe she knew what she said.

In a prep classroom, Little Miss Six was telling us about her birthday.  After asking her about her day and what she might do after school to celebrate she thought about it then said that she thought she’d go to the pool (after all she got two unicorn floaties) and then go to the pub!

BTC: What are your tips for teachers in general? And those deciding to live in a rural and remote setting?

CM: Look after yourself! I wasn’t good at that.  All of life is meant to be celebrated and experienced, don’t let one aspect rule your life.

For those embarking on living in a rural and remote setting regardless if you are an introvert or extrovert, get involved, say yes to things that you know will challenge you. It is a wonderful opportunity to develop your skillset and who knows you might even enjoy it!

BTC: What is one thing you wish pre-teaching knew about?

CM: You cannot fill from an empty bucket. You will never be able to do all that you think you have to. Teaching is like that, there will always be something that needs to be done. You can’t do it all. Work will never truly be finished and that’s OK, you are a human being, not a human doing.  Your job and the children are important but so are you.

BTC: In 2014 you decided to put together a project called Share, Teach and Reach could you tell about what this, why you did and how it has impacted on your life and the lives of others?

Share, Teach and Reach is a project which seeks to provide opportunities for the Badjao community on the water’s edge of Siargao city to break free from poverty and experience a renewed hope through education for a better future. It began by sourcing an educational space for the community and continues to work towards training and resources for teachers/tutors that will allow the next generation to go to school and raise their skill level, giving them the opportunity to step out of generational poverty.

In 2010, I visited the Philippines on an immersion trip where I spent two weeks living with the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, with a group of others.  We were taken to different parts of the country and my eyes were opened once again to the injustices and inequities of our world. Upon my return, I constantly thought about what I could do. In 2012, I returned and spent two and a half months, working with the sisters mostly in an impoverished area where they ran a tuition and nutrition program for undernourished children. In many cases, the children struggled with schooling as they were often hungry and they couldn’t concentrate. I worked with the sisters to establish some fun, interactive, play-based learning to ignite their desire to learn when they were able. Over the subsequent years, I have travelled to different parts of the Philippines and saw the same need arise.

I have been blessed with my education. In Australia most children have access to education, not all in the Philippines do. I was moved to do what I could. I didn’t want to teach there because as a resource when you leave so does the resource, so I thought the best way I would help would be to help educate the educators, whether they were teachers or not. To answer questions they have, to show them different ways of getting the same message across, and to share a love of learning. I’m not saying my way is the best or only way, it’s another way and they can and have taken It, and made it their own.

BTC: What motivates to keep Share, Teach and Reach going and putting your energy into this project?

CM: William Wilberforce, who worked tirelessly until his death for the abolition of the slave trade in England in the 1800s once said

“You may choose to look the other way, but you cannot say that you did not know.”

This statement has and continues to motivate me to do what I do.  I have been richly blessed with so much and God gifted me with a variety of gifts and talents, if I choose not to use them and to walk away I don’t believe I’m being the best version of myself or being who I was called to be.

BTC: How do you look after yourself? What does self-care look like for you? Is there a favourite place to go to unwind?

A: In my early years of teaching, I discovered yoga.  It became an hour in my day when I was too busy thinking about which limb went wherein each pose to think about teaching and all that came with it. I have since gone on and down my yoga teacher training for both adults and children and it is still a regular practice.  It helps me to practice looking after myself, I say practice because it is definitely a work in progress!

Aside from this I love getting out in nature hiking with friends, which is quite regularly during the cooler months of the year. I love the mountains and spending time in nature looking at all the beauty that surrounds us.

Self-care also looks like writing, whether it is writing a regular blog, spending half an hour in the morning writing about what’s on my mind or choosing a topic and just writing. It also means being creative, making cards, sewing, quilting or making eco-friendly gifts for friends and family.

BTC: Do you have any favourite Book, Blog, Podcast, Instagram Facebook accounts, that you follow that inspires you?

CM: The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman is a podcast about decision making. I wish I had found it sooner!  One of my greatest takeaways from this weekly podcast (and now a book) is this question that I ask myself when I am struggling with a decision- Am I being led by love or pushed by fear?

I’m a big fan and look forward to each episode.

BTC: Finally, what is the next step for 2021?

CM: I will continue to work on Share, Teach and Reach, in a new format, thanks to the world of Zoom.

I have also just accepted a position with the Lismore Catholic Schools Office as an Education Officer, so I’m on the move.

This year has also taught me that life can and does change in the blink of an eye, so I think there are many new discoveries to be made, opportunities to be grasped and there is life to be lived!