Education alumna Leash Giles awarded national teaching accolade for her Tiwi reading program

Bendigo Education alumna Leash Giles is used to writing her own story. When other teens were headed to schoolies after VCE, Leash travelled to the Philippines with Catholic Education Office Sandhurst to immerse herself in local schools.

The following year, Leash returned to the Alternative Schoolies program as a youth leader, again expecting to head to the impoverished Southeast Asian country.

“Then a typhoon hit just before we needed to head off, so there were alternative arrangements made for the group to go to central Australia instead,” Leash says, explaining the two weeks she spent in Alice Springs became something of a plot twist. “I thought I wanted to travel to Africa to teach, but after that time I realised I could have that kind of experience closer to home. I was so glad I’d done it.”

Example three of Leash forging her own path came this year while teaching in the Tiwi Islands. When Leash couldn’t find books to inspire her students to get reading, she wrote and made them herself. But first, let’s turn back a little…

Education inspires a love of unique cultures

Having grown up in Bendigo, and completed VCE at Catholic College, Leash was thankful to remain in her hometown to study her Bachelor of Education at La Trobe, which she graduated from in 2017. The course also fulfilled her travel bug, when she went on a Global Education Practicum to Malaysia, “which was also an awesome experience,” she says.

Once qualified, Leash began teaching at Marist College in Maiden Gully, with a view to return to an Indigenous community. In 2020 she had the chance to relocate to the Tiwi Islands to take on a local Grade 3 and 4 class.

“Within the first five minutes of the first day there was a fight in the classroom, there was language barriers. It was definitely quite a culture shock,” she says. “The first day was sensory overload. I thought, I’ve just got to get through this, get home, figure it out, and get back here tomorrow.

“After a while I grew to love it and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It’s the kids. They are so vibrant and so unique. I love being with them every day, they’re a delight.”

After a year at the primary school, Leash moved “across the driveway” to Xavier Catholic College. The secondary school was seeking primary-trained teachers to help lift their students’ academic abilities. “It was nice to come in with a skill set that was really helpful to those kids and to then see them grow,” Leash says.

One of the biggest tasks was to improve the students’ reading skills, made challenging for the fact there were no books the teens could relate to.

“All the fiction was about mainstream Australian kids, or kids from other countries, doing mainstream things, and it was really difficult for our kids to relate to,” Leash says. So, after the all-clear from her principal, she spent the summer holiday developing a Tiwi-focussed reading program, writing and creating decodable readers about and set in the Tiwi Islands, which aligned with the science of reading and oral language. The stories feature the local footy, the front beach, and the local shops.

Leash then trained the other teachers in how best to use her books to get the teens reading. “It hasn’t been smooth or perfect,” she says, “And I have to give kudos to the principal and the school community for getting on board. But the students have progressed massively. It’s the first time we’ve got a group of kids who are quite confident readers, and the question now is, where do we go with it from here?”

For Leash, that answer is back to Bendigo in time for Christmas. But she’s leaving the Tiwi school with a resource to build on and grow with. She’s also leaving with a National Excellence in Teaching Award for her remarkable effort and results. “I can’t believe it’s happened,” she says, after being nominated by her principal and Catholic Education NT, then undergoing questionnaires and an interview to be given the prestigious award.

Leash hopes her story – and her stories – inspire other schools in unique cultural regions.

“One good thing would be for other communities to hear this story and then make their own contextual resources,” she says.

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