The teacher's teacher

In sixth grade at Harbord Primary, young Robyn Ewing's teacher wrote on her report card: ''A splendid citizen. Maths problems are the only weakness.''

From that day until she went to the University of Sydney, Ewing remembers thinking she was hopeless at arithmetic.

She has much fonder memories of school: sitting at the feet of her teacher-librarian listening to a reading of Stig of The Dump; and high school English teachers who opened Macbeth, As you Like It and Emma to deeper understanding.

But those comments were to sour her view of maths and probably shaped the kind of teacher she was to become.

''There was no way I was hopeless at maths, I was in the top class in maths all through junior secondary,'' Ewing recalls. ''But that comment on my report card really hurt my self-esteem in that area and if teaching is about anything it is about children feeling confident about their learning and about asking questions.''

That teacher's methods and his pin-drop silent classroom of neatly rowed desks and morning mathematical drills, are the antithesis of what Ewing, a professor of teacher education and arts at the University of Sydney, considers effective.

''He was the same teacher who fixed my drawing of a tree before it was put on the wall,'' she says, recalling this rebuke with some indignation. ''That was the only time my drawing ever went on the wall. Thank goodness I had other teachers to help me develop a confidence in other areas.''

Few people are lucky to escape the competitive school system without some tale of injustice. Even with Ewing's teaching credentials, her son, the youngest of three, was crushed when he came away from a school presentation night empty-handed. ''He is equally able and talented as his two sisters but he came away saying, 'Well, I'm obviously the dumb one'. He found it very self-limiting. It broke my heart.''

Seated at a table in The Bar At the End of the Wharf, Ewing is sensibly dressed, her hair neatly bobbed. She possesses a voice like sweet sherry, modulated from years of comforting small children I surmise, and it might suggest grandmotherly mildness if not for the fact that she is such a fierce and outspoken advocate for the arts, literacy and education.

Ewing holds unorthodox views on teaching and learning, her commitment to child-centred learning and teacher innovation challenging ''overly'' prescriptive approaches to our national curriculum, teaching standards, testing and reporting. Given her way, she would let teachers creatively adapt the curriculum to the passions and needs of the class they teach.

Is she subversive? ''I like to think I'm an innovator,'' she responds, selecting her words carefully with a hint of amusement on her face.

Ewing could easily claim hero status among the primary school set. Homework, she thinks, is a waste of effort. Teachers' comments on report cards are a superior indicator of a child's progress than grades and test results.

''Parents feel it is important because it instils great habits but unless the homework is meaningful I couldn't tell you how boring it is as a parent to be helping your child do spelling by 'look, say, cover and write' or the mentals set in a maths textbook. Enjoying reading with our children is what we should be doing, and taking them to museums, art galleries, plays and music performances as well as dressing up and dancing with them, doing things together, talking with them.

''I believe motivated and engaged children will do better in their NAPLAN tests, will be critically literate and numerate if they have opportunities to explore things beyond the surface level. I personally think the NAPLAN tests shouldn't be given the kind of importance they are given because they are only a snapshot of a limited set of skills, how someone is going on one day, at one point in time.''

A good teacher, Ewing says, ''doesn't fill your head with facts'' nor are they a glorified child-minder. ''Good teachers ask the big questions and give you the responsibility for finding out.''

Engagement is one of those fluffy education terms but it's obvious signs are a busy classroom, one in which the desks are grouped together for collaboration and where there is space for reading, drama and drawing.

''You know your child has a good teacher because your child wants to go to school, they are excited and motivated and that teacher understands who they are as a unique little person, because good teaching is about developing strong relationships,'' she says.

''I truly wonder if in the information age with the accessibility of knowledge means that people don't realise teaching is much more than content, that what teachers do is facilitate learning.''

Ewing selects a Moroccan chicken salad and sits on a glass of house red. On the run most days, she usually skips lunch and makes do with a coffee. The room is all glass and timber and reverberates with the occasional burst of laughter from a neighbouring table. Not that these jollities nor the panoramic views of Sydney Harbour cause Ewing to lose her focus. I can't even be sure she is savouring her meal. The hors d'oeuvres plate is virtually untouched.

A colleague describes her as being passionate about education. When she is not lecturing, she is mentoring classroom teachers. She has been working with teachers at Curl Curl North Public School since 1995, and addresses parent groups.

As vice-president of the Sydney Story Factory, a creative writing centre established in Redfern, she is the educational heart and soul of the operation, says its chief executive, Catherine Keenan. Since retiring as president of the Primary English Teaching Association of Australia, she has taken on the role of president of the Australian Literacy Educators' Association - so her opinions count.

In honouring Ewing this week with the Lady Cutler Award from the Children's Book Council of Australia NSW, the author Libby Gleeson described her as a great friend of quality Australian literature.

''She combines a comprehensive knowledge of children's literature with a passionate belief in the central role that the arts in general and children's literature in particular should play in the education of children, a wholehearted commitment to sharing her knowledge and passion with academic and professional colleagues both in Australia and overseas, and notably her courage to speak out strongly and publicly on the values she holds dear and which she puts into practice vigorously.'' Scholarly voices like hers, says Gleeson, need to be heeded.

We've chosen ''the canteen'' of the Sydney Theatre Company for it was here Ewing teamed up with Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton six years ago to conceive the school drama project, which places experienced actors in primary classrooms to improve children's literary and English language skills through the use of drama and quality children's fiction. What began in five inner-city schools in 2009 has spread to 22 schools across the state, the mentoring program bankrolled by the theatre's philanthropic arm. Ewing shares Blanchett and Upton's vision to use dollops of imagination and role play to turn classrooms into rocketships.

''You can use the arts to explore all of those curriculum areas and understand scientific and mathematic concepts. I find it problematic that we try and separate everything out so much into discrete subjects when we don't live our life that way,'' she says.

''Having an opportunity to do things to enact and embody feelings and ideas and situations is really important, and ties in with brain research that says to actively do something and then to think about visually representing it and then to think about writing it is really in tune with opening up the dendritic connections in our brain.

''There's a quote too from To Kill a Mockingbird: 'You can never really understand a person until you … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it or until you've walked a mile in someone else's shoes'. I think kids need opportunities to see things from different points of view and different cultural perspectives and understand that there is no easy answer and it's not always happy every after.''

Growing up on the northern beaches, Ewing's first impulse was to be an actor. She was a bookworm but also went to the local youth club for drama lessons and attended ballet classes. After school, she wanted to try out for the National Institute of Dramatic Art or do the drama degree at the University of NSW.

''My father said if I tried any of those options I could leave home now. Instead I went to Sydney University and did education. To the day he died, he said I wouldn't have made it as an actor. I do believe that that opportunity to engage in quality arts experiences as a child was really important for my learning and in the end it didn't matter because I got to use a creative and playful imaginative approach in my classrooms.''

As Mrs Cusworth - Ewing reverted to her maiden name after her marriage failed - she first taught year two at North Newtown Primary School. Even then she despised levelled reading schemes, and looked for stories with heart to read to her 33 charges. At the end of Colin Thiele's Storm Boy, she wept with her class when Mr Percival the pelican died.

Some of her first students followed Ewing to become teachers. Her daughter is one. Ewing's hope is that all students might recall their school days with fondness.

The story The teacher's teacher first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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