Meet Sum Ambepitiya, one of the four teachers we chatted to in the new issue of frankie.
Tell us a little about yourself. My family came to Australia from Sri Lanka when I was two, and I grew up in outer-northern Melbourne. I don’t live there anymore, but it’s very deliberately where I teach, because of the significant Sri Lankan population at my school. It’s important for me to be visible and available to these kids, as someone who understands the unique pressures they face.
What do you teach? I teach English across all high school levels. It was by far my favourite subject at school.
How has the classroom environment changed since you were young? I had a very singular high school experience at an all-girls select-entry school. In my first weeks as a teacher, I was shocked at the cheeky way kids were challenging me, or being what I thought was ‘disrespectful’. I’ve come to understand that it’s just a different way of engaging, but no less respectful or warm or loving.
What makes a good teacher? Empathy and compassion are crucial. The students we teach have their own lives that don’t get put on pause when they enter a classroom. It means everything to a student to know they’re seen and valued, even if they’re not the top of the class.
How do you see issues like race and sexuality play out in the school ground? For a lot of kids, these issues are only interesting or worth interrogating if they apply directly to them. As English teachers, we’re constantly trying to introduce texts that give students insight into perspectives that are different from their own. When they’re given context and room to understand, they can be incredibly empathetic. It takes a while for that to translate from the classroom to the playground, though, and that’s where the harder work is.
What’s your take on technology in the classroom? It’s exciting to teach a generation that has always had access to all the information in the world, but students need to learn how to evaluate the sources they access, to evaluate bias, and to understand how to read critically.
What’s the hardest thing about teaching? When a student wants to do a presentation arguing against marriage equality, abortion, or something else that affects me personally, it’s hard to bite my tongue. I can’t hope they’ll consider other perspectives unless I introduce them gently and with good intent – without being reactionary, or telling them what to think. I get sneaky when I can, like incorporating feminist punk music into teaching the Iranian revolution.
And what excites you? Watching them turn into little adults warms my heart so much. I love going to their formals and graduations, beaming and weeping with pride. When my first year 7 class graduates, I’ll be a complete mess.
Interview by Sophie Kalagas. Sweet snap by Hilary Walker.