Raelene Smith, former principal and Multiple Sclerosis warrior shares her insights from the education system and the importance of self-care.
“As a leader and teacher, I love recognising the strengths of others, building them up and seeing them shine. People matter and each person has a gift to offer a school community. Heart education is important to me – education that values and teaches compassion, care for others, justice, simplicity.”
Tell us about your childhood:
I grew up in the townships of Mt Isa, Moura and Emerald as my father was in the mining industry. By secondary school, we were living on a cattle property at Anakie. I loved growing up in the country – riding horses, making slides into the dam after rainfall, riding motorbikes, driving cars, making cubbies in the bush, camping with friends, and skinny dipping in the dams. The freedom was amazing as a child.
Tell us about why you became an educator?
My first memory of inspiration to become an educator was at age eight when I played teachers with my best mate. She had a blackboard and other teaching paraphernalia. Her younger brothers would be our students, but they weren’t kept long before they would take off outside. No behaviour management strategies back then!
Did anyone inspire you to become a teacher? Why?
I believe that many people and things inspire us to become the teachers we are. Each providing some sort of direction or opportunity for growth.
The three people who made a difference in my becoming a teacher were Mrs Elaine Thomas; my Primary school Principal, Mr Ken Mitchell; and my Geography teacher, Mrs Goh. They had high expectations of every student they taught and made us feel we were special and unique. They challenged and believed in their students. You wanted to make them proud.
Talk us through your experience in the education system:
I always liked challenges and preferred to not stay in the same year level or position for a long period of time. I liked the variety that teaching had to offer, the constant state of learning, growth mindset and the job movement.
I started my career as a teacher of years 3 and 4/5. At 23 I was encouraged by my Principal to become a Band 4 Teaching Principal of a P-7 school in a very small remote and rural community in North Queensland. I had seven children, one in each year level, a couple with special needs. Each child had their own individualised program and almost one to one computer ratio. The dual role of teaching Principal was a challenging one and the year spent was my steepest professional and personal growth up until that point of my life.
I met my husband during this year and we made our way out west. I was in the Acting roles of Band 6 for a few weeks and then Band 5 for the rest of the year teaching year 6/7. Again, rural settings. Soon after I became the Curriculum Advisor for small schools in the Western district – approximately 23 schools with 17 being Band 4-6.
I had my children and during this time and worked within Catholic Education at Our Lady’s School, Longreach. I have taken on numerous roles from supply and classroom teacher, APRE, learning support, School Curriculum Officer, non-contact provider, acting Principal. Wearing multiple hats at one time can be quite challenging. My final year I was APRE, SCO, LST and year 4 teacher.
Funny teaching story?
Usually, my funny stories involve animals and their interaction with the students. Our Prep class at Our Lady’s School in Longreach hatched chickens in their incubator. These chickens grew up with the students in our school. When the bell would ring for lunch, you would see them and the kids running over to the lunch shed. One of our year 7’s was eating a chicken chip from the tuck shop when one of the chooks ran across and grabbed it and continued running. She yelled at it, “Cannibal!” I was sitting in my office and happened to look outside the window to our main street and see the six ‘cannibal’ chooks walking across the zebra crossing. Why did the chicken cross the road…?
In reflection, what would be some important things you would do now as an educator:
I would set clearer boundaries and say no to more things. I would cut off the time I go home. In a country town, you feel expected to do so much outside of school. There is a gift of self-care to yourself in saying no.
Tell us about how your Multiple Sclerosis surfaced:
I didn’t listen to my body and stop. Pushing through manifested itself in the form of Multiple Sclerosis. I chose not to stop so it stopped for me. My legs stopped working so I relied on walking aids such as crutches and a wheelie walker. My eyes stopped working so I couldn’t read, watch television or view computer or phone screens. Riding as a passenger in a car felt like I was riding a roller coaster. Nausea and pain was my constant companion. I had no energy. I slept for many hours each day and my time out of bed was limited. All senses were on high alert and I was scared of loud noises. The heat left me incoherent on the floor awaiting someone to ice me down. My hearing was impaired, and it was difficult to be around many voices. As such, I isolated myself only allowing a few people into my sphere of pain.
I was sometimes relying on my husband to shower me or my children to get me to bed because I was falling over. I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be. It was an emotional and dark time where many unpleasant and a multitude of emotions emerged. Initially, we couldn’t see any improvements. I was lost and broken.
Besides the physical and mental symptoms that came with the disease, it initially broke me, stripping me back to nothing where I had to rediscover who I was now without being a teacher in a school and hands-on parent. I didn’t know who I was without being a mother and teacher.
In early 2016, my husband and I attended an Overcoming MS Retreat at the Gawler Cancer Foundation in the Yarra Valley, Victoria, and now use their research-based practices of seven essential elements as my framework for living.
Good nutrition. Regular meditation. Effective support. Moderate exercise. Power of the mind. Emotional Healing. Quest for meaning.
Self-care, a strong community support network and faith are pillars of my health.
What does self-care look like for you now?
Listening to my body. Eating nutritious meals and spending time outdoors. A swim in the ocean, sitting on the beach, walk in the bush or going for a drive feel so nourishing. Travelling. Meditation and prayer. Sleep, sleep and more sleep! Simplified home and lifestyle. All of that ‘stuff’ doesn’t matter. My homes are my sanctuary. Reading and journaling. Spending quality time with family and friends. Spending time in my vegetable garden.
The most important part of self-care for me is honouring my needs when they arise.
As a leader what legacy do you feel you have created in your students and staff?
What I hoped I brought was a sense of fun to learning, teaching and my interactions with others. I hope they felt nurtured. I like to think I taught with love and humour.
I have no regrets as I believe that each person, situation or event – whether it be a disease, a challenging parent, child or staff member – is an opportunity to learn and to grow. I ask myself, “What has this person or situation to teach me about who I am, what I value or stand for and what I could change or improve?” I view receiving the MS diagnosis as a ‘wake up’ as it has allowed me to truly recognise what’s important.
What’s next for you?
Living a life true to my values.
My values include healthy relationships in family and marriage. Independence. A faith-filled life. A physical, healthy lifestyle. Friends who support each other. Security in my home. A workplace that values my gifts, allows independent thinking and one that allows me to make a difference to the lives of others.
Each one of these values brings with them challenges and take planning, commitment and persistence. The value of the workplace is not something I have at this time, but I did have at Our Lady’s School, Longreach and with Catholic Education, and hope to one day have it again in another workplace. It will look different from what I did have, and I need to be at peace with that.
Teach … [verb]
1) To impart knowledge of or skill in; give instruction in.
2) To instruct by precept, example, or experience
Empowering you, the teacher, to empower our children, the leaders of tomorrow.
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