Holistic ideal, health and proper socks
CHRIS NEILSEN is like your grandmother. She believes children should wear proper socks, parents should be able to say the word 'no' and that IT is not necessarily the be-all-and-end-all for the future.
She belies the Australian stereotype that anything goes. Anyone who toured the Australian International School in Kowloon Tong with her will get a sense that values really do matter in this school. Compared with some international schools it is even quite conservative. Skirts on this campus are not allowed to ride high up the thigh.
Yet Neilsen is not one of those unapproachable grandmothers. What underlies her drive as an educator is her passion for the child. The child-centred approach that reflects both Australian education and her own ethos is the other strong characteristic of the school she did so much to mould.
But the Neilsen era has now come to a close. At the end of last month the woman who has been involved in the school since its beginning a decade ago, and has led it since 1996, retired. She left quietly, when the school was closed because of the atypical pneumonia outbreak.
Neilsen was there at the beginning, when there were just 24 pupils in the school set up by a non-profit making foundation representing the Australian community here. First as head of infants and then principal, she led the school through its many moves - 121 Boundary Street, the Gun Club Barracks, the St Georges site, a former government school in Cheung Sha Wan - until the moving came to an end 20 months ago with the completion of its own purpose-built campus at 3A Norfolk Road, Kowloon Tong.
Australians grow up with sport as a central part of life. One thing that sets the Australian school apart from others is the size of its football field. Neilsen quips how the architects were told 'there's the field, now build the school around it'.
She is particularly concerned about children's fitness and body strength, and even goes as far as to say that promoting this is more important in the school than IT. 'There is a great need for this in Hong Kong, because of the circumstances the majority of people live in. Children don't get the opportunity to develop awareness of space, and develop all the motor skills they will need later, including for their health and fitness,' she says.
'I think differently on IT. It is important, but only in that it supports the learning process, not as an end in itself,' she says.
When asked to sum up what is the spirit of Australian education as reflected at AIS, she uses the word 'holistic'. 'Of course every education system says the same thing. But I think in reality you see more of it in the Australian system,' she says. For a start, it is freer from the teaching to the test syndrome that dominates Hong Kong and British education, and even schooling in George W. Bush's United States.
'The home-room or class teacher is responsible for every aspect of the child's learning, particularly at primary level,' she says. When they receive specialist instruction, in IT and Chinese, for instance, the class teacher remains present.
'At secondary level our whole staff meets to discuss all children. This is one of the luxuries of being a small school.' Small is relative. AIS now has 820 students.
Neilsen, who has a daughter working in education and one grand-daughter, began her teaching career three decades ago, specialising in the infant age group of five to eight-year-olds, first in New South Wales. She looks back to a time when teachers could spend more time planning activities for the classroom. 'What concerns me about education today is the demand on teachers to produce reams of documents which I don't think enhance teaching in the classroom. In earlier days, the bulk of planning was about hands-on teaching.'
She has greater concern for the lack of priority in many systems for moral and civic education. 'As education systems lose sight of that we are seeing the results today. We see children who lack self-discipline and control. Our generation is responsible for that.'
Children are left to make too many decisions, she says. 'But they don't have the wisdom to base their choices on, whether it is what they eat or how they should behave. Parents need to be brave enough to say 'no'. Teachers need to have an education system behind them that allows them to say 'no',' she says.
Schools also need to be strong enough to lead their parent community, not merely respond its demands. One of her passions has been for involving that community. Neilsen says that in the history of the school, more than 50 per cent of parents have participated, be it in helping in the classroom or library, listening to children reading, helping during sports events and excursions, or being active in the parents' association and information sessions. 'It is about encouraging them to walk through the door and be a part of it all,' she says.
Neilsen has handed the leadership of AIS to Sue McMillan, from South Australia. She, meanwhile, is now free to play the real grandmother back home in Queensland.