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One teacher on his school and the many ghosts who haunt it

Brendan James Murray is haunted. Well, to be grammatically correct, his school is haunted, but Brendan is tormented by the ghosts that wander the halls.

The ghosts of children with unfulfilled potential, ghosts of others who couldn't be reached and the more literal ghosts of pupils who died in the world outside the confines of the school gates.

There are also the kids who are ghosts in the sense that they are an ephemeral presence in the classroom: you never know when or if they will turn up at all, and when they do often cause havoc.

Murray writes about them all in his new book, The School: the ups and downs of one year in the classroom.

His book starts with these ghost stories, and like all good scary tales, it is overcast, tense and foreboding. 

"I wanted to show that certainly in government education when you're working with people who might come from backgrounds of trauma or backgrounds of disadvantage, that one of the real challenges of the job is that you're exposed to that," he tells Education Review.

"New teachers discover that very, very quickly, and for some of them I think it's quite a hard thing for them to deal with, particularly if they come from a more middle class background.

"It's a big part of the emotional toll of the job, because you really worry about and care about these kids and you know they're often in difficult situations."

Early in the book we read about Murray's own schooling. We find him as a boy, bookish and quiet, and the prey of a vicious school bully.

"The bully that I write about in the book, I think he – and these are just my reflections years down the track on my childhood memory, so it's hard to say – but I think he fell into a slightly different category and a much rarer category of an almost sadistic kind of bully that you see very, very, very seldom as a teacher," Murray says.

Murray writes of the ongoing harassment he suffered at the hands of this particular child. He writes of one shocking incident in which he was nearly killed by his bully, who hurled him down a concrete stairwell.

"He was a foot taller than me, probably twice my weight, athletic. I knew there was no point running," he writes.

"Jude shoved me in the chest with sudden, explosive might..."

"As I flew, no part of me was in contact with the ground."

Murray was suddenly caught by another older student as he crashed head first towards the concrete, and in his reflections he feels lucky to have come away from the incident with his life.

It's a wonder then that he felt that teaching was the occupation for him, with memories of his own schooling still fresh well into adulthood, and stranger still when you consider that he now teaches at that very same school.

"In terms of my relationship with the school, I suppose, growing up, I had a bit of a mixed relationship, if I can put it that way; a mixed experience of school. I was quite academic, but school wasn't my favourite place to be a lot of the time," he says.

But he uses this particular ghost to give him the ability to deal with both the bullied and bully alike as a teacher.

"I think, for one thing, you're a lot more attuned to students who might be bullied, or I hope that I'm quite attuned to that. I think I pick up maybe some signs or some clues in my students that others might overlook. I feel like any kind of experience of bullying you might've had yourself as a child is going to help you in that way.

"At the same time, when dealing with bullies, I think you have to be careful not to discard kids and dismiss kids as, 'Oh, this kid is a bully. Let's label them and let's therefore assume they're a bad little person who someday is going to be a bad big person.'

"You have to recognise it for what it is, which is a professional opportunity to show that young person that there is a better way to be and a better way to behave.

"Often bullies are seeking a feeling of power and we can show them that there's much better ways to have that sense of fulfilment by doing more constructive, positive things," he says.

The book is not all horror story, however. Murray thinks deeply about what he does and dissects the trade when thinking about some of its old truisms, like 'don't smile 'till Easter'.

"Don't smile 'till Easter is an interesting one, because I first encountered it at university and it was used in a flippant way," he says.

"But then people are serious about it. There is this sense that if you begin a year with a class being tough and being firm and policing boundaries really strictly, you'll be able to control that class far better throughout the duration of the year."

But this idea highlights a more problematic issue at the heart of education. 

"I think that it highlights, in my view, the really minimal amount of training and advice that new teachers get in terms of what is really one of the hardest parts of the job, which is behaviour management."

The massive pressure that the HSC and ATAR brings yearly gets some mention as well as the usual, and some unusual, tales from a school year. 

It is a book about the job and the teachers who make up a school. And we get a picture of the emotional toll that can be exacted on people who choose the profession.

"If you care for the kids, and the vast majority of teachers I know really do care about kids in general, and then specifically care about the kids who they're teaching at any given time, it does take an emotional toll on you," he says.

"Because you take on some of those worries and some of those concerns about their futures and you recognise that you're a person in a position to direct them towards a better future if you do your job well, and if you can get them engaged, and if everything goes according to plan. There is that emotional burden that we carry."

But part of the job is about finding ways to carry that burden, as approximately 50 per cent of people who join the teaching workforce leave within the first five years because of it, he says.

Murray is that teacher who lives and dies with his students. And ultimately this book is about them and the love he has for the job.

"I've said to a number of people that writing this book is the best thing I've done as a teacher. I mean that. It's not an exaggeration when I say that, because it's made me really stop and really think about the kids in my classroom and be aware of just how much they bring into the classroom each and every day, what their experiences might be: their backgrounds, their feelings.

"I think that's something that we try as teachers to remember every single day; that kids have a life outside of school. But really stopping and writing this book, and I suppose deep diving into the backgrounds of some of my former students, brought that into a really sharp focus for me," he says.

Murray teaches because he loves it and it jumps out of the book. But perhaps a small bit of him teaches to exorcise his own personal ghost. The one of that child who flew down the concrete staircase, weightless, and who, for a moment, was neither dead nor alive.

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