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The great American writer and activist James Baldwin once wrote that children can’t be taught by anyone who despises them, “and a child cannot afford to be fooled”.

It is a maxim UNSW student teacher Courtney Thompson put into practise when she began a 14-week placement at Sydney’s Matraville Sports High School this year.

“I always hated being patronised,” Courtney remembers of her own school years. “So, I try to avoid that when building rapport with the students,” she says, explaining that if you treat school students with respect they will respect you in return.

Courtney is one of about 70 student teachers involved in a unique partnership between the university and the school in Sydney’s south-east in which academics and students from UNSW work with Matraville students and teachers to deliver a range of educational activities.

The student teachers are based at Matraville for extended periods throughout each semester, observing how classes are run and with some of them also holding one-on-one tutorials with students.

The experience gives student teachers a taste of what it will be like when they join the teaching workforce, and it can help shape the direction their careers will take. In return, the partnership benefits the University, offering rich opportunities to enhance teacher training and academic applied research.

For Courtney, it confirmed her desire to work in education.

Becoming a teacher comes down to whether you want to make a difference in students’ lives or whether you want an easy ride.

“When I was in high school, I really wanted to be a doctor and I was offered a university place in medical science. Then I took a gap year on a whim to teach English in a primary school in Argentina and that was what made me first think that I’d like to be a teacher,” says the 21-year-old.

The 14-week placement at Matraville, which came in Courtney’s second year as a student teacher, wasn’t all smooth sailing. Like in all classrooms, some students were disruptive or didn’t want to listen to their teachers and for a short time Courtney “went home every day and cried”.

But then she talked to the teachers and learnt about the strategies they used to discipline and encourage students, especially those who had difficult family backgrounds or who came from non-English speaking backgrounds, enabling her to witness in practice the theoretical concepts she had learnt in lectures.

The one-on-one tutorial work Courtney did with several students made her think there might be a role for her as a student counsellor, something she feels she lacked at her own high school growing up in regional NSW with her single mother.

It also strengthened her interest in working with students from low-socio economic and Indigenous Australian backgrounds.

In the end, becoming a teacher “comes down to whether you want to make a difference in students’ lives or whether you want an easy ride,” she says. 

Courtney will do two more stints as a prac teacher before she graduates in mid-2018.

For now, it is a case of juggling the demands of university life and getting through each week on the money she earns from a part-time job.

“I just wish I knew what it felt like to have residual money,” she laughs.

Read more about the UNSW Matraville Education Partnership in UNSW Magazine.

Or visit the partnership's web page.