The Change Makers: Teachers with an outside edge

Careers outside the classroom have given these three teachers a wealth of experience – and an edge as educators.

Gavin Gant

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If the Hulk were more fact than fiction, Gavin Gant would be green.

The Chemistry and Physics teacher at De La Salle Catholic College Cronulla spent the last of his 14 years as a radiation chemist at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), measuring the doses of gamma radiation used to sterilise medical equipment, quarantined objects, and human organs for transplant.

It is now 10 years since he traded his Lucas Heights office for a school science lab, where his past career has helped him to effectively teach high-energy particle physics and other topics.

“Students are very astute, especially the ones that I get to teach,” he said.

“I think they have appreciated over the years having a real-world insight into the application of the chemistry and physics that they learn.

“It’s always nice when you have students who excel but when you see that spark of passion for science awaken in them, and they just want to learn more and more and can’t ask enough questions, that’s exciting.”

Mr Gant was a ‘house husband’ for a year while he completed a Graduate Diploma of Education at The University of New England to make the career change. He is now completing a PhD in Science Education at Curtin University, to research the difficulties students encounter when they study Chemistry.

“I find that teachers, without exception, are so open to sharing their experiences and resources.” Gavin Gant

“Most students find it a very challenging subject to come to grips with because it’s highly abstract,” Mr Gant said.

“There’s continuing decline in students choosing to study the complex sciences which will be detrimental to Australian society in the long run.

“It’s a scientific world. Science also provides excellent training in critical thinking. All Australian citizens in my view should be scientifically literate so they can make informed decisions and guide their politicians to make appropriate decisions for the future.”

Mr Gant said he appreciated the support of colleagues when swamped with content for five senior classes while still a new teacher.

“I find that teachers, without exception, are so open to sharing their experiences and resources,” he said.

“The caring and supportive nature of the staff toward each other and toward the students at this school in particular is something that I had never experienced before. It’s great to work in that kind of environment.”

Samantha Corso

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Business executive Samantha Corso’s future changed the second she began work as a teacher’s aide after the birth of her son.

The Year 4 teacher at St Joachim’s Catholic Primary Lidcombe had just finished a Masters degree in Business Administration and was the General Manager of a packaging company she had worked at for 12 years, but felt a need to do something different.

“I had always worked for small corporations or businesses that were run by directors, and all the profits basically went back into their pockets,” she said.

“I knew that when it was my time to leave I wanted to do something that was good for the soul.

“The minute I walked into the classroom I remember the kids stood up and said ‘Good morning Mrs Sam and may God bless you’, and I just felt this overwhelming feeling of ‘This is what I want to do’.”

Mrs Corso has taught for the past four years and become responsible for extra-curricular activities like chess, choir, and Minnie Vinnies – the St Vincent De Paul Society’s social justice initiative for primary school volunteers – at St Joachim’s. Her marketing experience has surfaced in meetings to write the school’s vision statement and when building relationships with the student, teacher and parent community.

“It doesn’t matter how you feel when you walk into the classroom, the energy that the kids give off just lifts you.” Samantha Corso

“As a primary school teacher you’re a generalist so you teach a bit of everything,” she said.

“I love teaching Science and my other favourite is Maths. With HSIE (Human Society and Its Environment), because I was born in New Zealand, I’m actually re-learning about British colonisation and our Indigenous people.

“In my previous job, if there were issues with customers or problems, you’d walk into the office and feel down for the rest of the day whereas with teaching it doesn’t matter how you feel when you walk into the classroom – the energy that the kids give off just lifts you,” she said.

“Every day is a day full of energy which I love. I’m hoping it’s keeping me young!”

Though going from a Kindergarten class to a Year 4 class in her second year at the school was a steep learning curve, son Anthony, 9, has proved an asset when relating to students his age.

“When you start to talk about characters in [children’s collector game] Skylanders, the students look at you and go ‘Oh, you actually know what you’re talking about’. It’s nice. It comes in handy.”

Richard Berto

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Shipwright Richard Berto returned from a working holiday with his wife to find work as a boat builder had dried up.

“They stopped building ships and large scale boats in Sydney Harbour. It became more of a tourist hub than a place that had industry on the waterfront,” he said.

“It was all different and I was at a bit of a crossroads in my life and thought I’d try something different.”

Fast forward 15 years and the Technology and Applied Sciences teacher at Good Samaritan Catholic College Hinchinbrook applies what he learnt building boats for wealthy private owners and the Australian Navy to building students’ confidence and trade skills.

“You learn a lot working on a boat,” he said.

“There’s metal, woodwork, plumbing and electricity – a combination of a lot of things. It helped me as a TAS teacher because it’s quite a broad subject too, with Metalwork and Woodwork and VET (Vocational Education and Training) Construction and Graphics.

“I’m always telling stories. The students know that I’ve had life experience and I can tell them that it’s good to study hard. It was physically hard work as a ship builder and like a lot of trades it’s something it would be difficult to do as an older person.

“We follow a curriculum and syllabus but I try to make my lessons life-related so they can see that there’s worth in what they are doing. When kids can see something tangible that they’ve built they get a massive kick out of it.

“It’s taken them 28 weeks to build and, at the end of the day, they have that object to keep.”

Mr Berto, who has also has built wooden surfboards for enthusiasts of the sport, said variety in each day was the best thing about being a teacher.

“Every day I learn from other staff members and I learn from the kids too. There’s a cliché, but it’s true.” Richard Berto

He has built 100-foot ships but counts his degree – a Bachelor of Education/Bachelor of Technology at Australian Catholic University – as a bigger achievement.

“Once you’ve done a trade often you think you’re not smart enough to go to university,” he said.

“I had been out of school for 10 years so going back and getting my degree was probably one of my biggest achievements.

“I don’t think I would have had the confidence to be a school teacher leaving straight after school because it’s difficult to stand in front of a class as a 21 year-old and tell an 18 year-old what to do.

“Every day I learn from other staff members and I learn from the kids too. There’s a cliché, but it’s true.”

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