Every Student Podcast: Kurt Fearnley
One of Australia’s greatest athletes Kurt Fearnley talks about his experience with public education as a student, teacher and parent.
03 December 2020
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Hi, I’m Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education.
Today I am with Kurt Fearnley who really needs no introduction, I could spend the entire time of the podcast giving the introduction to Kurt. One of our most respected and loved Australians, one of our great athletes, three-time Paralympic Gold Medallist and two times Commonwealth Games Gold Medallist. He won more than 40 marathons including New York, Chicago and London and a sport career spanning more than twenty years. In 2009 Kurt undertook the Kokoda Track, crawled the track to raise awareness for men’s health and he has been a member of a winning Sydney to Hobart yacht crew. 2019 Australian of the Year, best-selling author, podcaster and now television celebrity host of the ABC’s One Plus One. That is quite a resume Kurt. How is television? Is it treating you well?
I was always nervous about getting involved with television, I loved radio, I loved being able to tell a story and get people engaged in what is going on. I think it is really helpful especially if you are an advocacy is being able to tell the story that people can come along with you.
Something about television every year, every year I would sit down and I would think is the last bit of TV that I do. Then I was introduced to One Plus One and I was given the opportunity and from the very first episode I loved it. I enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed anything. I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed wheelchair racing. I am looking forward to my second season there and I am enjoying it far more than I could have ever imagined.
I know from my time at the ABC the power to telling Australian stories and if you look at the history of television some of our most famous programming Andrew Denton, you think of the impact of someone like Michael Parkinson, Ray Martin, it is the ability to sit down and have a yarn with people and talk with people and hear their stories and I often feel that by hearing stories we just understand each other better, we have greater insight into each other and it is like a community building exercise in many ways. I was delighted you got the gig and bright lights make up all of that, it is a whole new world from wheelchair racing.
I want to talk with you today about education. You are a graduate of the public education system here in NSW, and you often talk about and you have written about the important role of your teachers played in setting you on your pathway to success. For those who may not have read your book or heard you speak of your story talk a little bit about the important role that education played in defining you and setting you on your journey.
There are quite a few stories where pivotal moments in life where a teacher or educator was able to stand in and gently push me in the direction that I believed I needed to go.
It was 1985 where I went to Kindergarten and my mum talks about a meeting that she had with a department official in ’85 about how I was going to have to need to be transported into Orange, from Wiradjuri country, central west NSW, it was probably 50 minutes away from home each day. My family weren’t the most financial family, that was going to be to a special school, to a segregated education setting and the options were pretty limited to get me over there. My family were thinking about how that would happen. There wasn’t the opportunity, when you grow up in a town of 200 people, an hour away feels like a lifetime away. I maybe went into this town once every three months, that wasn’t my community, I didn’t know anyone in Orange that could have planting me on Mars. I know that it sounds strange now but it was so foreign to a five year-old that the thought of that would have been terrifying.
After this meeting my principal went into mum and dad’s house that evening and I do remember this, I do remember him telling my mum and dad and my mum and dad talking to him and him just saying ignore what you just heard. He said that I deserved to go to Carcoar Public, that he deserves to teach me, the kids deserved to have me, my brothers and sisters deserved to have me in the same school as them. Then my teacher who was Mrs Masters, I spoke to her just recently about the work that they did, how once they had that conversation they got to work and they cemented a few parts of the school so that I could access it. They weren’t able to apply for any funds because I wasn’t an approved student. I asked them why and they said because you are a little boy who deserved to. You are a little boy who deserved to come to the same school as his brothers and sisters and there was no alternative.
We speak about expectation a lot but for me expectation is everything and it can be not just the expectation to perform in class but the expectation you will get given when you feel that normality of entering a school with your brothers and sisters. The expectation of normality there and then time after time there were teachers, my high school teacher at Blayney High who would spend her lunchtime calling up somebody when I was starting to isolate myself when I was starting to figure out that I was somebody that was different within that setting and sport was the thing that was highlighting that difference. She spent her lunchtimes calling up every number that she could find to find Wheelchair Sports NSW who eventually introduced me to my coach who would then coach me for 25 years. That teacher and the advice that I received from such community minded public education teachers is the reason I would become a teacher and it is also four of my brothers and sisters would also find their way to public education as well. There was a real appreciation of the value and the powerful contribution that public education plays in the lives, especially in the lives of people that are potentially marginalised.
I want to come back and talk about your training to be a teacher and some of your teaching experience. Talk a little bit more about your discovery of sport and the support you had to help create the level playing field for you and that point of engagement with others for you?
Back in primary school I got involved in everything and spent the time crawling over fields and just doing whatever I could to be a part of it. I felt like I was the one that would adjust to get into everything. When you are little you can adjust. The ability in sport as a Kindy, as a Year 1, you can bluff your way through and if the people are willing, like your teacher is willing to alter the rules you can be a part of anything. Later on it became harder and harder to alter a rule to allow me to feel like I am participating in any kind of meaningful way. That is when the real adjustments had to be made instead of teaching basketball for four weeks my teacher taught wheelchair basketball. She went looking throughout the State to borrow five wheelchairs off people and brought wheelchairs into the school setting and she gave an education to everyone, that was 1992 that it was happening.
She found the wheelchairs from Wheelchair Sports NSW, borrowed them, found some money to hire them for a few weeks, gave me a taste of sport on an even playing field but also I think the lesson there was school-wide. If you put everybody in the same experiences and if you give them that even playing field with your kid with disability then everyone gets a bit of a lesson out of it.
Kurt you are one of the most amazing public speakers that I have heard and you gave this wonderful address at the Public Education Foundation Awards a couple of years ago that I remember being spellbound by. Can you reflect a little bit about the kinds of messaging that your sporting career gives you? The things that you have understood about tenacity, growth mindset, a focus on achievement that you feel are important messages for kids to be learning at school irrespective of whether it is sport or whether it is music or whether it is their academic pursuits, just a mindset towards achievement.
I feel like we have put our elite athletes into these programs about positive affirmation and visualisation and positive self-talk and we give them these skills to put context around misfortune and the strategies to be able to deal with the ups and downs that happen in sport. It is like this vacuum that you were allowed to learn messages through but I do wish we were talking about that more, that we were talking about the ability to tinker around the edges of how somebody is able to deal with day-to-day life because that can be put into the classroom.
One of the things that I have taken out of sport is that no matter what I do, no matter what craft I take or thing that I chase after I am going to believe that I am going to nail it. There is this idea that I am going to do as best as I can and I think there is success out there at the end of that. Then you adjust the expectations around that as well. For me learning how you learn and learning how your kids process things and recognising that there are lessons that you can be taught in a really trusting environment. You sit down with your coach and you know that this person not only has content to give to you but there is a trust that they are in it with you, so then you are invested even more and that is when we were able to really talk about those things, about you are going to wake up every day and you are going to tell yourself that you are strong, that you are resilient, that you are able to handle what is coming and if there is something that is an additional layer of hardship then you speak about it and we will get through it together, that kind of stuff. You kind of feel guilty that you were given all of those learning experiences and it is like somebody has given you these additional tools in the tool shed of experiencing life. You wish that there was a way that you could condense that and give it to every 10, 11, 12, 13 year-old.
Has it changed the way you parent those insights?
Ever since the moment that we have had Harry and Emilia, my two kids, we speak to them and have spoke to them since the first seconds that they have been here, I remember speaking to them and telling both of them how much we love them and how strong they are and how much we hope that they find the thing that they love and we have spoken about every single thing that whenever they fall over and there are tears we will pick them up and remind them that I know it is really hard right now but this is going to make you stronger, you are strong enough to get through it and I have no idea whether or not.
I know it is working because now Harry is six and he falls off a motorbike and he runs up to me and he is in tears and he tells me that he knows that is going to make me stronger but it hurts. I am not exactly sure what the outcome will be, I could be creating a little psychopath but he is definitely taking on the same lessons that I learnt and all I can learn is they made me strong. When I was crawling through the bush in Carcoar and I would come back home with the cuts and bruises of climbing over fences my mum would sit me down and tell me that this is going to make you stronger and that life is going to be a little bit uncomfortable and you are going to be strong enough to deal with it because you are the one learning who you are through this hardship, for me that was pivotal, that created me and that allowed me to become the person that I did become and I did become strong, I know that. That is one thing that is in my DNA that I can’t even question it that I know when there is a moment of hardship coming that I will thrive.
Mark Scott: Kurt you trained to be a teacher and as I have said to you in the past we are always available mate, when the television career is done you have got our number. Tell us a little bit about training to be a teacher and what you got out of the period of time that you spent teaching in our schools.
Training to be a teacher it was great, I did PDHPE. I did a Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Human Movement. The human movement part taught me more about my body for training so I was able to understand a lot of the things that I had already been putting in for my day-to-day life. The education part taught me how to learn. There were some challenges in there, I do remember and it is still happening today that I get emails from people who are training to be teachers who are people with disability who speak about how they are told that they are going to be failed because they can’t participate in certain elements of the teaching process. I had one of the most stressful days going through my degree and I was told I would fail because I couldn’t participate in volleyball and you needed to pass to become a teacher and I don’t know about you but half of my teachers couldn’t be volleyball players, they couldn’t participate in the sport but learning how to teach the sport, my argument was that if I can learn how to teach, if I know the practical elements then I think that I should be able to get through it. There was quite a process over a couple of weeks to negotiate my way through the degree and that is still happening to people with disability that while they are studying, I got the other week that was told that they wouldn’t be able to continue with their degree because of some element of not being able to practically participate. Those moments for people with disability, unless you are a fierce advocate of yourself, can be pretty crushing.
The benefit I received from teaching was it was those humbling but also being able to sit down and I taught mostly in Indigenous areas or remote areas because I grew up in regional and remote I always wanted to get back out to Walgett or Ungarie or West Wyalong so I always found it challenging that you would go into a room in the middle of the city and you would hailed as a sporting champion but if you go out to a Year 9 class in Walgett, that doesn’t matter, nothing matters except for how you are going to be received in that first 30 seconds and for me being able to relate to kids and especially if I was able to have kids in my class who felt like they didn’t relate to lots of people that they would see me as somebody that was different and really engaged I found that kind of energy infectious and that was the reason why I would continue with my degree and that was always if I could find that moment where I saw myself in a kid, especially in those ages who wanted to hide, that they would see something in me that they would want to show who they are. I found and I still find that is the reason why I am here.
I remember being at a conference of newspaper editors once and Bono was speaking at it and he said celebrity is an obscenity but if I am going to be famous I am going to put my celebrity to good use. You are probably, I think almost unarguably Australia’s most famous person with a disability. Since we have known you with the disability and watched your extraordinary sporting prowess as a consequence, so in a sense the nation knows you well, but you are using in a sense your celebrity and your profile, your voice, to be a powerful advocate for people with disability. What drives you now in that important work?
I always thought the cure to fame is the bush, the cure to fame is to be around family and be around people that are familiar and that just doesn’t exist anymore. The driving force behind advocacy is that if you are a kid who is, I was extremely vulnerable, I know that I am now strong but you don’t get a more vulnerable human than somebody that is financially at the lowest group that measuring could take and a kid who is calling to get anywhere I could have been overlooked a million times and I could have been lost and my life could have gone in a million different directions.
Thankfully there was a family unit in there that corrected for some of those vulnerabilities, they turned what could have been the isolating vulnerability into a strength. Now what is the use of it unless I do that to someone else? I would find that there would be no more selfish act in the world than if I would say thank you carry on, I am off here to retire into a nice and comfy life and it is hard to put yourself out there. The only times that I get hate mail is when I speak about progressing disability and you do get hate mail. You will get someone say you talk about something like the NDIS and someone says why should I pay for the fact that your parents weren’t responsible enough to abort you, that is the deep dark part of people that I will never mute, that I will never delete without reading because those words that are said to me online are said to a 10-year-old online, they are said to a kid somewhere across this country, in the playground, maybe not as dark as that but maybe. I need to read it because if I end up in that same space as the kid I need to let them know that I have had the same stuff happen.
For me the advocacy side of it, I always think of Donald Bradman that through recognition, it should be a debt to humanity so if you are the one that is receiving recognition I have always seen that as earn it from them, that is not a celebration of what has happened that is you have to justify it going forward and with disability the sole focus is always recognition that we need disability to be given opportunity, we need them to be given access to community and need people to be the open doors that they were to me.
When I look at the history of public education here in NSW, we have been going since well before Federation and I think we haven’t always met the needs of students with disability well, I think it is a complicated history but now we have got a renewed focus and breaking down barriers for students through our new disability strategy and we are trying to improve teacher capability and have a real commitment to embedding inclusion in all parts of school life. What do you think as you look back and you think through your own experience but also all the encounters you have had as a public figure engaged with disability what are the key things that you think we need to be thinking of in a policy sense and in a teacher capability sense to provide the best possible learning opportunity for all of our children to flourish?
I agree with you that it is complex and there are so many different stakeholders and so many different approaches to the question. I come at it as somebody who in an advocacy space around advocating for increased participation of kids with disability but I am also the dad of two non-disabled kids and as the dad of two non-disabled kids I want my kids to be in the same room of every variation of disability, they deserve it. That kid, my kid deserves to experience all different types of behaviours, all different types of life experiences so that they understand somewhat of the privilege of life and a variation of life.
From an advocacy point of view the hardest working people in our country are public education teachers, they are dedicated, hardworking, by far the majority want to make the lives of people with disability better but also they are the critical part of the creation of a high-functioning contributing person with a disability. My belief, my fundamental belief is that isolation hurts, that segregation no matter the short term benefit, I always think that segregation a day a week as a 5 year-old turns out to be two days a week as a 10-year-old, three days a week as a 16-year-old, five days a week as a 19-year-old. Segregation breeds segregation, isolation breeds isolation.
Also it may help with short term progress but there is no segregated life after sport, there is no safe bubble that is there when a kid turns 18. There are lessons that kids learn when they are a part of a real-world community that are just so incredibly valuable that is so challenging sometimes because of the ability of a teacher to resource that room and because of the hard fought often beliefs of parents of kids with disabilities where there can be a conflict between the protection but also challenging their child where they have been defeated by government funding, they have been defeated by services that are provided in life, they have got to the point where they just want something that is safe but it is one of those things that disability is never solved, it is never done, we all need to constantly battle and challenge the beliefs around disability forever. We will look back on 2020 in 30 years’ time and wonder, what were we doing, how weren’t we making these adjustments or how didn’t we understand this thing right now that may not even be on the radar, how didn’t we do it? Just like we shake our head and go how did a five-year-old kid, me, ever feel like I wouldn’t fit into Carcoar Public and all we can do is challenge and progress and hope that we are headed in the right direction.
It is compelling advocacy Kurt and I think you are right overwhelmingly I find certainly when I travel and sit in schools, mainstream classrooms, specialist settings, the passion, integrity and commitment of those public educators is noteworthy and we have these two elements in our strategic plan, this commitment that every student is known, valued and cared for and that every student is improving every year, that commitment to growth so that they can fully equipped individuals to flourish in a complex and fast changing world.
In a way I often think of this policy setting not all our policy settings today are where you would want them to be. If you were starting on the journey today you wouldn’t have put it together but as part of our leadership challenge with the awareness and the insight and the research and the understanding of experience to be able to move from where we are today to a better place and to ensure that we are providing every young person with the optimal opportunity and the optimal support and teachers who are trained and equipped to be able to deal with this.
One of the challenges for us it you talked about autism and Asperger’s we have a high percentage of children being assessed with disability now than at any time before which means that every teacher in every classroom will need to be equipped to deal with the complexity that we are seeing.
Thanks for your insight and your expertise and thanks for your commitment to public education and all you do and as I said earlier mate when those television lights turn off, the classrooms of NSW are open, the kids would be enthralled by having Mr Fearnley in the rooms as their teacher. Thanks for being with us today on Every Student Podcast.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Every Student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter @NSWEducation on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks again and I will catch you next time.
End of transcript.
- Secretary's update