By Joseph Robertia
For many Alaskans, Australia is a world away, best referenced through the “Crocodile Dundee” movies, or Steve Irwin’s “Crocodile Hunter” fame. But for Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School teacher Jason Daniels, Australia is as real a place as Alaska, not just seen through a TV screen. Daniels recently returned from spending more than a year Down Under as part of a teacher exchange program, and said it was the trip of a lifetime.
“My wife, Heather, and I so enjoyed the Australian people, culture and landscapes. Any amazing thing you’ve read about Australia is probably true. It’s truly an inspiring place,” he said.
Daniels worked at Wodonga South Primary School, an open design/pod school, a little more than a year old. He said that it was staffed with some of the kindest people he’s met anywhere.
“From day one they took me under their wings and made sure that if I fell, someone was there to pick me up. I was always met with a smile and a kind word — usually a question about what it’s like back home,” he said.
Just as Alaskans may hold stereotypes about Australia, so, too, did the Australian imagery of the 49th state revolve around what had been seen on TV or in movies.
“Many of the Aussies thought we are part of Canada. I am glad I was there to correct them. Some of the kids thought we lived in snow all year and we have polar bears around town and we drive sled dogs to work. They only have TV and movies to go on,” Daniels said. “I did find it amazing, however, that Heather and I watched many shows on Alaska. I think Aussies have a fascination with Alaska. Many people we met had either been or are going. Most want to go someday.”
Daniels and his wife did their best to see as much of Australia as they could when not at work.
“During our stay, we traveled around Victoria, New South Wales, Far North Queensland, Tasmania and the Darwin region of the Northern Territories. Heather swung on a giant jungle swing in Cairns, we swam in the Great Barrier Reef, we held a saltwater crocodile in Darwin and watched the jumping crocs in the Adelaide River.
“We hiked to Wine Glass Bay and walked through Hastings Caves in Tasmania. We climbed aboard the Whale Wars TV Show boats for a
tour and met some of the crew. We camped in the outback in the center of NSW and were driven out of the dunny (outhouse) by a deadly brown snake.
“We hung out with 17 other exchange teachers in Melbourne and other areas of Victoria several times. We caught Barramundi fish from a boat in croc-infested waters. I golfed through a mob of 70 to 80 kangaroo. I climbed the Sydney bridge tower and we walked along the harbor into the Opera House,” he said.
Those were just a few of the highlights, Daniels said, and added that even when he and his wife stayed at home, they still were blown away with the majesty of the views and the mystery of the unique wildlife right off their doorstep.
“Every day my wife and I would sit out on the veranda and sip coffee as we looked out over the valley of pastures and gum trees below. We listened to the sounds of the kookaburra and magpie birds around the house. We viewed kangaroos nearly every day in the backyard. We took a few echidnas for a walk around the property. I caught and examined some of the strangest bugs I’ve ever seen,” he said.
While there to teach, Daniels said that the learning experiences continued for him at the school. Daniels was confused by familiar items at first, not unlike Gavan Brown, the Aussie teacher who took Daniels’ place at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary, who said he had a tough time learning differences, such as the light switch gets flipped up to go on, rather than up for off as in Australia,
“I learned many new words in school. Gray lead equals pencil, rubber equals eraser, and texta equals marker,” he said.
“The students also come to school with Vegemite sandwiches sometimes. Not something I would choose to eat,” he said, referring to the dark brown paste made from yeast extract, which many Americans would only know as a lyric from the 1980s band Men At Work.
The core subjects are taught similarly, Daniels said, but the Aussies don’t have curricular materials.
“So teachers have to scrounge for their resources from other sources. We are lucky to have good resources here,” he said.
They are keen on inquiry-based education and tailor their science lessons around this idea, Daniels said.
“There is a science framework in place, but the students create much of the questions and direction under the various topics,” he said.
Daniels said that, much like the Aussies understand learning is about more than standardized testing, they also value the mental well-being and happiness of their instructors.
“I really enjoyed their sense of fun and collegiality in the workplace. They are aware of staff welfare, and that we have a stressful job at times and there needs to be times built into the year that teachers can get together in different venues and enjoy each other as people, not simply colleagues. They seem to have a grasp on that,” he said.
Daniels said that he was thankful for the experience and all the ideas that were exchanged. He hopes to share some of his ideas on this side of the equator, and hopes he left behind some imparted education, as well.
“I learned many new strategies, methods and ideas from my colleagues Down Under,” he said. “I hope they feel the same about me, although I’m pretty sure I was the bigger beneficiary.”