The ‘recovering teacher’ who’s written a portrait of small-town teacher lifeAugust 26, 2023
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The Things That Matter Most
Allen & Unwin, $32.99
“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth,” Doris Lessing famously said, and Gabbie Stroud’s move into fiction with Things That Matter Most is a testament to this. Stroud, who calls herself a “recovering teacher”, has written much on the ongoing teacher shortage, including her brilliant 2018 memoir, Teacher, and the 2020 follow-up, Dear Parents. Her 2016 essay, Teaching Australia in Griffith Review was shortlisted for a Walkley Award, making her one of the leading voices calling for reform in the education system.
Gabbie Stroud’s novel illustrates the complexities of a teacher’s duty of care. Credit:
Things That Matter Most opens in the fictional rural town of Boltford, split by a bridge running it into “this side” and “the other”, like many towns with a certain socio-economic demographic that raises eyebrows.
We meet Tyson at the gates of St Margaret’s Catholic Primary on his first day of teaching after moving for the job. He knows how desperate schools are for teachers: “Any warm body would do – even a queer one.” He eyes the Catholic statues warily, imagining them making accusations against him.
The story unfolds through the lens of four employees of the school. Along with Tyson, there’s Sally-Ann, the devoted and popular first-grade teacher who may be the incarnation of Stroud herself. She wonders if her desire for a baby is an excuse to leave the strained profession she loves. Bev is the prickly, tough-as-old-boots admin who’s been around since “dinosaurs roamed”. She knows the school from front to back and is fiercely protective of it as events threaten its existence.
And there’s another veteran of the school, Derek, the sixth-grade teacher struggling with symptoms of his own burnout. As the assistant principal, he’s caught up in the upcoming standards registration, a legal challenge from the family of a former student, and a pesky journalist, also a school parent. One of his students, Lionel Merrick, and his little sister, Lacey, are a constant presence whose plight becomes of increasing concern to the teachers .
Stroud captures the claustrophobia of small-town life, with Sally-Ann trying to go to a spin class and bumping into ex-students and parents of her students. “Everywhere she went, she was a teacher, representing teachers everywhere, representing St Margaret’s.” The characters undertake satisfying arcs, with a few incendiary events drawing them to their extremes. The story ends on a foreboding note that feels like it’s making a point and takes away from the sweetness of the conclusion.
For someone entering the teaching profession, Things That Matter Most is both unsettling and comforting. It introduces a would-be teacher to the pressures of extracurricular requirements imposed by endless “reforms” and collecting data for the sake of accountability, not something you learn about when you’re trying to get around the word “pedagogy”. But it’s comforting to see the web of support within St Margaret’s, between the teachers and their love and care for their students.
“Teachers are guardians of a great many stories,” Stroud writes in Dear Parents, and Things That Matter Most gives her a chance to explore those stories in more depth, such as the Merrick kids, whose story illustrates the complexities of a teacher’s duty of care.
The bridge through Boltford takes on a heartbreaking significance towards the end but also serves as a metaphor for the heart: “big enough and wide enough for those seasons when emotions (come) in a flood.“
Stroud dedicates the novel to “teachers who have loved and lost”. It’s a visceral call to action for the education system, a desperate reminder to focus on the things that matter most or risk the continued haemorrhaging of teachers from our schools.
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