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Real-life drama

"Why can't you teach us something we need to know for work?" The question comes from my "vocational" English class, who take their title a little too literally and don't want to read a novel.

"Because I want you to think more deeply and form opinions.Because I want us to explore our humanity." I say. They don't look convinced.

I try again. "Because when you're at a party no one wants to hear you talk about your job!"

"Have you ever even been to a party, Miss?" one boy asks. "I can only picture you sitting at home planning more work for us to do."

Here I am trying to convince these young adults on the brink of beginning their working lives that we are so much more than our job titles and yet they cannot see who I am beyond mine.

Teachers often have an image problem. Picturing us in our out-of-school-lives - let alone having fun - requires a big leap of the imagination for many students.

And this image problem works both ways. It's easy to see our students as challenges: how do we get them to behave? To acquire a new skill? To complete a task? We can sometimes forget that they have out-of-school-lives, too.

One morning I enter the classroom to find only eight of my vocational students. The rest are off doing something that will definitely help them with their future jobs.

We begin by discussing the protagonist's father in the novel that I've eventually persuaded them to read. He is an angry man with a drinking problem who calls his son a "gutless wonder".

"He sounds like my dad - always at the pub. I have to cook my own dinner," says a boy - the same one who can't picture me at a party. "Except I'd be happy with `gutless wonder'; I get `I wish you'd never been born' and worse."

"Yeah, this kid needs to harden up, Miss," a girl agrees. "If he was in my dad's family, a fight would mean fence pickets and guns."

She goes on to explain that her grandfather was once a member of a violent biker gang with links to organised crime - think Sons of Anarchy - and her own father worked hard to escape that life. I chuck the novel to one side and talk to the class instead.

Each student has a story to tell about their father, whether they are present or absent. There is a lot of hardship and sadness in their tales, but never any self-pity.

I am fascinated, touched and above all honoured that my students are sharing such personal experiences with me.

I refrain from crying triumphantly, "See, this is what happens when you read a good book!" and just quietly cherish this moment in which my reluctant readerskeen jobseekers and I have interacted as fellow human beings. And just to prove that I'm not the boring old teacher they think I am, I extend the deadline for their essays.

Ellie Ward teaches English at a high school in a small coastal town in Western Australia

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