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ESL Teacher and Ostomingle Founder Renee shares her journey of resilience, positivity, and a little arts & craft.


When did you start at PLC SYDNEY, and what was your plan for after school?

I started at Branxton and went right through until I graduated in 2009. For the last two years of school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had many different things I was interested in, but I couldn’t pinpoint what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, which scared me to death. Everybody seemed to have these really clear ideas, and as a 16-year-old, I just did not know what I wanted to do. I planned to work as hard as I possibly could in Year 11 and 12, to open as many doors as possible. I kind of just fell into where I am now as doors just kept opening.

Please briefly tell us what you did after finishing school?

I studied a Bachelor of Arts Languages, which I don’t think exists any more, and an Honours degree. I did a major in French and Modern Greek. I had a lot of questions about what I was going to do with the degree, but it opened up a lot of different pathways. There is no one clear pathway for many Arts students, whereas if you do Medicine, you know you are going to be a doctor. I knew that I wanted to teach. I knew that I loved languages; I loved English. I wanted to do something along those lines. Teaching English to adults was suggested to me by one of my professors. I was doing a thesis at the time, so I did a Certificate for Teaching English to adults, and I did a Certificate IV. I have been an ESL Teacher for six years - I just love it. I continued teaching and continued studying, completing my Masters. Now I do linguistic research as well. I do a bit of everything.

What is linguistic research?

I specifically look at pronunciation and sound. A speech pathologist looks at how your mouth is formed when speaking - tongue positioning, your mouth and what your throat is doing. I look at the different ways that language is built, the building blocks of language, to find ways to improve how we teach and learn English. I use my classroom as my research, and my very understanding school and students are happy to be my guinea pigs. I have done a lot of research with them, and with our governing body English Australia, looking at ways to improve language learning and assessment in modern classrooms.

Who are your students?

My students are all over 18 - adults. We have many students who take a gap year after they finish high school; some students need English to progress and get promotions in their careers. We have lawyers, doctors and HR managers who can’t progress in their job due to their language skills. They come for six months or a year and go back to work. We have 80-year-olds whose children and grandchildren have settled in Australia. They are not working any more and just want to be close to them, and they need English to get around. It’s varied.

Covid has changed things, but what does a typical day look like for you?

Typical is definitely a strange word at the moment! In 2020 almost all my teaching was online, but we are back in the classroom now. I am a bit of an anxious person, so I like to get there early and after all those general admin tasks, preparing notes and marking then I am in the classroom for the rest of the day. For the past four or so years, I have been teaching Survivor English, a listening and speaking-based course. There are core requirements and the vocabulary in a language that I need to teach them, but because it is a communicative class, we go outside the classroom almost every day to learn through real-life experiences. In the classroom, I am a teacher in the traditional sense; however, I spend a lot of my time outside the classroom, which is fun. We have volunteered for bush care, we have gone to the zoo, we go to the local cafe. We are always doing something different and testing the skills which they need in real experiences. It’s quite different from a traditional teacher and definitely keeps me on my toes!

Could you share a time when you have made a ‘mistake’? What was it, and what did you learn from it?

When you sent this question through, it made me think for quite a while. I am not very good at saying no to people, especially my boss. In 2015/16, I had quite a few significant surgeries and being me I planned my return from the hospital bed. I am not great at relaxing and jumped straight back into work as soon as I was discharged. Of course, once you haven’t done anything for a while and start working full time, you are exhausted. After six months in a hospital bed (well, you can only imagine), but I doubled my normal teaching workload because my boss asked, and I said yes.

Biting off more than I can chew and more than I can handle is something I am still learning not to do! I have to remind myself to think about whether I can deal with the extra thing I’ve agreed to take on. Do I have the skills and experience to complete this task to the best of my ability? Or am I just saying yes because I want to please that person? Or because I feel that maybe, yes, I can do it? Having spent so much time in hospital and jumping back into work made me re-evaluate, especially over the past 12 months.

You have to make up your mind: do you want to impress your boss? Is it worth your physical and your mental health? Remembering to take some time for yourself is my most significant learning.

What is the most significant piece of advice you have received, and who shared it with you?

It was actually during my HSC. In Year 11 and 12, I was trying to figure out what my UAC preferences would be. I had everything on my list of degree options. I had everything from Architecture and urban planning (because I loved geography) to a Bachelor of Languages. I only put the language degree down because my Mum told me to put down my dream degree but it had a ridiculously high ATAR, which I thought was unattainable. My Mum said to put it down as you never know what will happen.

Trusting in myself was amazing. I was well and truly prepared not to get into that degree; I thought I would just get in as a second or third preference. When my mother opened the mail, she said - I got in! So the lesson is, trust and believe in yourself as much as, or more than, those around you. We all need an amazing support network around us and believe in what they see. Sometimes we put a very harsh light on ourselves, we criticise ourselves a lot, and we should look at ourselves as our support network does.

What has been the proudest moment in your life so far?

In 2015 I had abdominal surgery, and I now have a little medical device on my stomach called an ostomy. For years I didn’t know anybody else who was like me. It was not a taboo topic, but I mean, you have a big bag on your stomach, and nobody wants to talk about that - I mean, what would you say? “Hi! How are you today? Meet my bag!”

There are all these associations you have to be a member of to get supplies. I went to the AGM, and when I walked in, they told me I was in the wrong room. When I explained I was not in the wrong room, there was an instant outpouring of sympathy and pity for me. How could a young person have this condition, because traditionally, it happens much later in life? I was so overwhelmed by their reaction. I had never pitied myself, obviously being sick was not ideal, but I could do absolutely everything that I wanted to do - I went skydiving at 12 weeks post-op! I made an effort to say I can do all of this. After that meeting, I reached out to people I met on Instagram with the same condition and asked them to meet up for a drink.

A couple of months later, I formed Ostomingle, a support group for other people in Sydney with the same medical condition. After one of our first meetings, I got a private message on Instagram from the husbands of one of the women who had attended. He said to me how thankful he was for the group forming and that his wife was glowing when she went home, that it meant so much to him. I hadn’t thought (quite selfishly) about the impact it was having on everyone else until that point. I had created this group somewhat for myself because I wanted to create a community where I was welcomed and supported and able to share experiences. I didn’t think about the opposite side that these people didn’t have anyone else to connect with before either, and so receiving that message out of the blue still touches my heart because it wasn’t something I had thought about.

We talk about this later when you ask what PLC Sydney taught us? We were taught about charity and compassion, and it was just something normal. I wanted to reach out, and surely there were other people in my situation. Why are we not coming together? Why is there not a place for us to meet and have a drink just like a regular group of friends in Sydney? Why is this taboo? I am proud of starting this group and what has grown from that experience.

If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?

I am quite stubborn. I did a lot of rhythmic gymnastics when I was young and always say to my husband now that our children will never do gymnastics because I always complain about how tough it was, how hard it was on my body, mentally, physically. Still, it taught me to have so much perseverance. I competed with broken fingers because I had trained, and I was going to compete! In my twenties, physically, I was quite ill, but there was also quite a lot of joy around that time. So not to be cliched, but I would remind my younger self that struggle is just a part of life.

PLC Sydney entirely nurtured us. There was not a lot that was difficult. We were lucky. But if I look at my time in gymnastics, it also taught me that struggle will always be there. People say, “don’t worry; it will get better in the end”. In reality, it may not be better, but each struggle serves to remind us that we are always going to learn from it. It gives us an extra tool, a different technique to deal with it the next time something difficult comes up. Each step it might get a little bit easier. We will be able to deal with it and overcome it a little bit faster because it will always be there but learning that it will get better. We grow.

What are your favourite tools or activities for relaxation, balance or inspiration?

I think balance is a big thing for me as I am quite an anxious person. I love doing yoga and pilates, but I have always loved craft. I am not an arty person at all, but I love anything from knitting, to arts and crafts like a kit, drawing, decorating stupid things for Christmas - it has always been something I have loved doing, using my hands, keeping busy and focusing on a really simple task. Even the colouring-in books, which became popular several years ago. Really simple things like that, where you don’t have to think about it. Just giving yourself time: half an hour or twenty minutes to focus on something simple and achieve it. Taking a breath!

This year I have started listening to podcasts, and there is a fantastic podcast I tell everyone about called Listenable with Dillon Alcott and Angus O’Loughlin. For each episode, they interview someone with a different disability - it might be something they were born with, something they acquired in an accident or later in life, but there is so much passion in these conversations; there is love and pain. I always want to research more and start conversations with the people around me after listening to an episode. Podcasts that help me broaden my horizons - I have been lucky enough to experience a lot, but there is still so much that I do not know.

What role has your time at PLC Sydney played in your life?

It has taught me to be very resilient. As I’ve mentioned, this comes from gymnastics - I played other sports, but I was not very sporty. I was ok at gymnastics, and it taught me to be very strong, resilient and not give up when it became too difficult. When I was sore and tired, it was not an option to not push through, so I think I always carry that with me, whether positively or negatively. On the opposite side of that is charity and compassion - it was everywhere at PLC Sydney. Of course, there was religious education, but we did so much volunteering and charity in year groups. I used to volunteer with Mrs McCullum in the Transition Class with her beautiful students. It just brought me so much joy when I was in there. I always tried to push in there when I should have been studying, but I just felt I needed to be there. I was learning so much - whether I was helping a little bit or just there as a smiling face, it didn’t matter to me; it was important to me to be part of that community. Creating that community where we are safe, where we are loved, is something that I try to bring through my daily life and that I’m proud to continue through Ostomingle.

Could you share some of your most vivid, favourite or amusing memories from school?

One of the most amusing memories I have is from compulsory Saturday sport. Gymnastics wasn’t counted as a sport and so I had to do basketball! I definitely cannot play basketball, but we had a random group of girls about Year 10. We hadn’t spent much time together before, but we got on like a house on fire, and we never won a game the whole season. It didn’t matter as we had an absolute ball. Our poor coach would try to tell us what to do but we did whatever we wanted, we had no idea what we were doing. I always remember that whenever anyone says anything about basketball. Team things were really important for me at school.

Learn more about OSTOMINGLE and connect with Renee here