Mark Hopkins, PRACE Education and Training
Audio interview with Michael Chalk, project officer
Television interview with Insight on SBS
“Reading Between the Lines”, Tuesday 23 August, SBS TV
I suppose you’ve got to go right back to the start. I was fifteen and a half when I left school, and I can relate to a student who struggles. It is hard when you go through school, and you are the class idiot and you can’t do the basic things. It wasn’t my own decision to leave school, but my parents didn’t see the point of me trying to accomplish VCE when my report card would turn up with UG “ungradeable” on it. My father was of the opinion that we would be better off taking me out of school and learning a trade or something. It’s very hard in the country when there are just no opportunities. The nearest TAFE was forty minutes away and I didn’t drive.
It was difficult growing up in a country town. You tend to know everyone. The hardest time for me was when I left school. A lot of people saw me on the street and said, “Where have you been?” I was vague, and tended to hide from society, because I was ashamed of the circumstances I was in. So when I came to the city, through contacts I found some employment. It was an average job, but you’re gracious enough to take whatever you can get. After a few months I knew this type of employment wasn’t going to be the future I wanted. So I decided to return to school.
It wasn’t easy at first, going back to school and trying to study again, but I knew I had to do it. I had to be committed to it. I was working a shift job, so I would leave after a twelve hour night shift then go to school; but by eleven o’clock I was falling asleep and my teacher would wake me up and would send me home. Then I made the ultimate sacrifice and attempted to find another job, which was very scary for me. I finally achieved getting another job so I could start night school. I reduced my work hours from twelve to eight, money was a bit of an issue, but for me it was about looking toward the future.
I would apply myself for two to three hours a night over the week plus go to school as well. I was continually reading and writing with all the work going to my teacher. I have a lot of very thick folders at home with all my work in them. Sometimes you get frustrated and you say to yourself, “I’m not improving,” but then you’ll go back and look over your work from a year ago and I could say to myself, “Yes, you are improving!”
Turning up for two hours is a good start, but you really need to try and do more at home. I enjoy writing; it’s something I can do to improve my English. I find it a bit of escapism, and I quite enjoy it. The more you do, the more you will improve.
I have been lucky. I’ve done a few adult literacy courses before. I had a lady at TAFE. Her name was Sophie and I spent five years with her, and due to family reasons she couldn’t continue to do nights any more. Then another teacher came in and the chemistry changed. Her approach was very different and unfortunately it didn’t suit me. After three months, she told us all that she had to leave. Then we got a fill-in teacher. We kept getting multiple teachers and the chemistry wasn’t there anymore. So I decided to have a break.
You never give up though, and I had a break for a little while, and then I said to myself that I needed to go back. I started to ring around and track down some places. I went back to the TAFE again, but they concentrated on ESL (English as a Second Language) now. They didn’t have a level of adult literacy that suited me.
A lot of the places I used to know, or looked into, had changed their ways or shut down. Someone I called recommended PRACE to me. So I gave them a call and had a conversation in regards to what I was looking for and after the conversation, I enrolled. On the first night I was nervous but after I met Tina who was the English teacher my nerves quickly disappeared.
Tina’s great. She is a fantastic teacher and I would say we have a very good friendship as well.
I don’t expect to be a genius or anything, but for me to have a constant source of work, I needed to improve my English, because whatever you’re like at spelling or reading in today’s society you’re going to have to use a computer or do some sort of paperwork at home or at work. It’s a part of life. You can’t hide from it. I made a commitment to myself. Believe me, there were nights I’d rather have watched TV or played computer games, but at the end of the day they’re just excuses. You have to be committed to what you do. I’m only kidding myself if I turn up and don’t do the work, or if I don’t commit to the program.
You’ve got to ask yourself what you want, and I don’t just want to be picking up boxes or driving a forklift for the rest of my life, because I know I’m getting older, and one day my body won’t be able to take it anymore. Whether those dreams turn out to be true, who knows, but at least I can say I gave it a go!
This is why I came back, because I want to self-develop. It would be great someday, if by some miracle I could turn around and help kids who were in the same situation. Deep down, I know how it feels, how tough it is. It’s great when new students come in and give it a go. It helps when you have someone like Tina, who is grateful for the work that you do and she encourages you. I feel comfortable giving her my work. She doesn’t give me too much help. She likes me to figure things out for myself, but she’s also there if I get stuck and she will help me out. I think for anyone who is thinking about returning to school, you’ve got to be committed. It’s about me developing enough so that one day if I want to try and look at a promotion at work or if I would like to try something else, I’ll be able to.
In 2009 I had the confidence to go back to TAFE and completed a supply chain management course. In class, academically, I could answer all the questions right. I got through it and I passed. I think they were a bit intrigued by me, because in presentations they would give me 100%, but putting things on paper was the tricky bit, but ten years ago I couldn’t have attempted anything like this and I wanted to do it on my own. I don’t want to ask for assistance because I know that in the real world, I’m not going to get it. In the workplace I’ve got to do it on my own. It sounds vicious, but it’s the reality.
Improving my English has also helped me in my workplace in many different ways. It gives you self-confidence. I have been the HSR (Health and Safety Representative) for over three years now. Sometimes you’ll have to read things out. I was terrified of that kind of thing in the past. Now I’ve got more confidence to do things like that. I will get the paper first and read through it. At least I can read through it now. Maybe there are a couple of words I mightn’t understand, but I will use technology that tells me the word. When I left school, I couldn’t put two words together. I was illiterate. It’s difficult for anyone who’s a young person, who doesn’t understand the world and is faced with the biggest uphill battles. That’s why I can see people like that getting depressed and down-and-out. It’s building confidence in yourself. I was very fortunate in that I had good parents who supported me all the way. A lot of kids don’t have that support. I was lucky in that respect.
Anyone who’s contemplating an adult literacy course, just go for it. You meet some great people in an adult literacy class. I am really comfortable because everyone there understands the problem. It’s not like going to a normal school, everyone’s got the same problem as you, and there’s a real bonding that goes on. Don’t be nervous, because the people around you have similar stories to you, and they understand. So I say make the most of it.
I’m turning forty this year, and I’ve got a long road ahead of me, but no matter what happens I won’t stop learning. I’ll just keep going.
If anyone is thinking about it, I’d say there’s no harm in trying. Not everyone’s going to say it suits them, but I think everybody’s also got to set themselves a goal too, to give themselves an hour or two every night. It’s hard because people have families and commitments, but you’ve got an hour there somewhere. Lock yourself in a room, use technology to help you, like an iPad, and just commit to it. It’s a slow process, don’t get me wrong, but you’ll see some reward. Not a piece of paper, not a promotion, but just in yourself you’ll start seeing some reward.
I’ve met too many people who’ve had this problem at school, and they’re so down. One of the students who is there now, John, he doesn’t realise it but the change I’ve seen in him is fantastic. I remember when I met him two years ago, and he could hardly read. Now he’s at the stage where he can read a basic book. It’s the start of a chain reaction; he’ll get better and better. He’s sixty-three. Why does he do it? Because at the end of the day he says, “You’re never too old to learn.” That’s so true.
Technology has been one of the big factors for me in the last ten years; I believe whatever you can use in your life to make your life easier you should use it. I didn’t just work on my reading and writing but also explored technology that might be able to assist me. I started using Dragon “natural speaking” technology. It would enable me to speak into a microphone and the words would come up on the screen. These were the days before smart phones or Siri. This gave me great independence and actually started to make me feel like a human. These days I have many apps that help me with my English.
Through the years of experience I have been able to help many of the students with understanding the benefits of technology and I have seen so many of them smile. To see the joy on their faces when they also had the chance to have some independence of their own was very rewarding. There’s a woman in my class in her fifties, who gave me a present because she said, “Understanding how these programs work has changed my life forever.”
We all wish we could click our fingers and make our problems go away and I can remember the times at school and the struggle I had, but when you’re knocked down enough in your life, you have to get up and get back in the ring and have another go. There is a dark side to it, you have moments where you just want to sit in the corner; emotionally it gets to you. You’ve got to try and pull it all together and believe there is light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s not easy at times. But it is fantastic to have the support of a place like PRACE and a teacher like Tina.
So don’t hide from it any more, give it a go. Some people would say that winning is everything in life, but ask yourself this question. What determines a winner, someone who comes first or someone who has a go?