I became a teacher quite by accident, and by a very circuitous route. I left Exeter High School at 15 and did a metalwork apprenticeship at what is now the Forico woodchip mill on the Tamar River. A week after completing this, I left to work and travel in Canada and the US for a year.
5 months after returning, on 30 November 2003, I broke my back diving off a 45m cliff at Lake Barrington. My recovery was a lengthy one. Owing to all the bolts holding my spine together I was told in no uncertain terms that my days of manual work were over.
I had done poorly at school and didn’t think I had the brains for further education, but my mother insisted I had to try university and managed to get me signed up for an arts degree. Still in a full-length brace, I waddled into my first lecture in 2004. It wasn’t long before I discovered I loved learning after all, especially once I realised I wasn’t just passing but doing well.
At the end of my first year, I won one of five the Order of Australia Association Foundation Bursary. In addition to $45,000 over three years, my family and I got to go to Canberra and met the Governor General, which was a huge thrill. That was the point when I started to believe in myself.
I loved every minute of my undergraduate and jumped on the opportunity to do my Honours thesis under the historian Henry Reynolds in 2007. I examined Aboriginal representation in Tasmania’s colonial newspapers before and during the Black War. Going in, I hadn’t the faintest understanding of Tasmania’s Aboriginal history, but by the end of that year, I had become fixated on it.
I spent 2008 travelling, mostly through Asia and Europe, but came back ready to begin a PhD the next year. In Henry Reynolds, I had struck PhD advisor gold! In addition to being an unrivalled expert on Aboriginal history since colonisation, he is also a kind and patient mentor. And it would be hubris to suggest that my book, The Black War, would have been possible without him.
When that book launched in May of 2014, I fielded media calls from empty classrooms at Launceston Church Grammar School, where I was doing my first teaching practicum. Teaching was the last thing I had aspired to. While I enjoyed the lecturing and tutoring, I’d done at the University of Tasmania, my memories of high school included more than a few occasions in which teachers were reduced to tears. In my imagination, teenagers were the devil, but the reality proved to be quite different.
I particularly enjoyed my six weeks at Launceston Grammar, so I was over the moon when they offered me a job. I’ve been there since 2015, teaching History, Philosophy and Psychology. I worked full-time for the first four years, and then went part-time in order to pull my historian’s boots back on. I had declared myself finished with Van Diemen’s Land, but when the opportunity came up to write a book with Henry Reynolds, I just couldn’t let it go by.
Frustrated by the absence of any official commemoration or memorialisation of frontier wars or their heroes and victims, we decided to write the biography of Australia’s most accomplished resistance fighter – a man almost no one had heard of. Tongerlongeter: First Nations Leader and Tasmanian War Hero came out last year and a second edition will be released in November. Both as a collaboration and as a publication, the project has been the most gratifying of my life but not once has it tempted me to leave teaching. As a teacher, I get paid well to talk about stuff I love, to kids I like, by an employer that supports me! I’m sure there are better jobs out there, but this one will do me just nicely.