Financial-Independence-Retire-Early(er). Achieved the first two letters of FIRE, now onto the rest!

Category: Education (Page 1 of 3)

The first of the “lasts.”

Scout with a ball in her mouth.
Ryan25 bought Scout this ball – the BEST THING EVER!!! (In her eyes…)

In lockdown, teaching from home, I look across at the shitshow that American education is becoming as schools try to enforce face-to-face contact in their worsening pandemic. I’m so thankful that we’re conducting things differently. I’m finishing up at the end of the year, which means I have a term and a bit to continue my job, while knowing that as I go along, I’ll be doing things for the very last time. Yesterday (and tomorrow) was the first of the “lasts.”

Parent/Teacher days.

Here’s how it usually works: Parent/teacher day runs from 10 AM – 8:30 PM. The regular school day is cancelled, with students expected to accompany their parents to their interviews in full school uniform. (That’s the kids, not the parents.) Teachers are set up on tables with 3 chairs in front of them, in the assembly hall, the library, the music auditorium, the computer labs… there’s a lot of us so it takes up a fair bit of ground.

The interviews take 5 minutes each. Parents arrive with a list of the times and teachers they’ve booked, then have to sprint from one area to another to find each teacher. We sit in alphabetical order, so if a family has booked Mr Anderson, then has Ms Zimmerman next, they’re going to have an invigorating stroll in front of them.

Last year we tested having food trucks, market stalls and music students performing. This was a big hit and it was going to be repeated this year. Then Covid struck.

Last semester, during the first lockdown, the school cancelled Parent/Teacher interviews. This semester they decided to go ahead with an online version.

Parents still book the usual way. The times are set out slightly differently. Instead of 5 minute time-slots one after the other, there is a five minute gap between each interview. This allows the teacher time to finish one interview, send an email invitation to the Meet to the next kid, wait for them to jump onto the Meet and then off it goes again. Because the interviews have that 5 minute buffer between them, we have 2 days instead of 1, running from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM.

Clear? I hope so.

Yesterday was Day 1.

OMG. It ran perfectly! It was so ordered and serene. Everyone was happy and calm, sitting in their lounge rooms instead of being breathless from racing from pillar to post. There was no need to almost shout to project what you’re saying over hundreds of other people talking. The interviews tended to be a couple of minutes longer than usual, so there was time for a bit of banter and mucking around. (At least, that’s what happens in my interviews. I like to start with a joke to get everyone laughing. Then the rest of the interview is fun.)

The five minute buffer in between also meant that I could quickly look up the next kid’s marks for the year, so I was ultra-prepared for each family, instead of having to keep a block of kids’ marks in my head if they were stacked back-to-back.

I knew that this was my last ever round of parent/teacher interviews. Unless I take on a short-term contract in the future if the school is desperate for someone, this will be it. When the last interview finishes tomorrow at 4:20, then that is a page that will be closed for good.

When you think about it, it’s rare in life to know when the ‘last’ thing will be as you’re living it.

It’s rare that we kiss someone knowing it will be the last time.

When the baby wakes one night, we never know that this will be the last time before s/he starts sleeping through the night.

Evan23, when he was in late primary school, went through a phase of wanting to sleep in my bed with me every now and then. I don’t know what was going on in his world at that time but he clearly needed the comfort of having me close. I let him, knowing that it would be extremely unlikely that this would go on forever. He wasn’t going to be coming home from a party when he was 18, tossing his car keys on the hall table and then sleeping in my room! Sure enough, one night was the last time he ever did it. I wasn’t aware at the time that that night was the last one.

It’s only after something hasn’t happened for a while that you realise that it was the end.

So I’m going to enjoy the next few months leading up to December 18.

Some of the ‘lasts’ will be sweet. “That’s the last grammar test I’ll ever have to mark!” I’m looking forward to that one. “That’s the last meeting I’ll ever have to attend!” That’ll be a goodie, too.

Some will be a bit sad though. “This is the last drama class I’ll ever give.” “This is the last time I’ll call the roll and finish with a different kid each time… . and the hideous blah blah blah.”” Kids love being hideous.

With the lockdown being extended, we may not be back in the classroom until the middle of October. Whenever it ends up happening, I’m planning on noticing each moment. All of the ‘lasts.’

After all, life is made up of these little moments. If you don’t stop and savour them, then what’s the point?

Have some fun during lockdown!

Pic of a red and orange fake flower
A fake flower from North Korea.

Melbourne is a few days into our second week of stage 4 lockdown – only 4 more weeks to go, baby! We can only have 1 person leave the house to shop for groceries a day; we must wear a mask at all times outside the home; you can only move around within a 5km bubble from your home – (pity half of mine is taken up by Port Phillip Bay!), and there are only 4 valid reasons to leave your home anyway. But there are still ways to have some fun with other people during lockdown.

Personally, being a bit of a home-body hermit, lockdown is going along swimmingly. Ryan25, my third son, is a quiet introvert and David26 is spending the week at his girlfriend’s place, so the house is chill and groovy. But not everyone in my world is taking it so well.

Some of my students aren’t enthused at having to endure another round of remote learning. The extroverts are struggling and some have distractions at home, such as little brothers and sisters. One of my kids, Joy, has a 3-year-old sister who insists on coming to every English class after I said she was very cute, which on reflection was probably a mistake on my part. Remote learning is harder for some kids, so I’m trying a few things to keep them engaged.

See the photo at the top? This was what greeted my year 7 classes today as they logged into our Google Meet. At our school we have to start each scheduled period with a Meet. We mark the roll, set up the lesson etc before we set them loose to do the work. Each teacher stays on the Meet (camera and mike muted) so that any kid who needs help with the lesson can pop back and ask a question.

I’ve decided to begin each Meet with something different. It only lasts about 2 minutes, so the kids are learning quickly that they don’t want to be late for English or they’ll miss it. (This means I can mark the roll quickly – heh heh heh.)

They logged on. I waited until about half the class was there, then I joined the meet. I could hear their comments as they looked at the image. “What IS that?” “It’s either a flower or a fruit.” “I can’t tell what it is…”

Then I sat down and said, “Hey everyone. This is a flower I stole from a restaurant in North Korea.” Their eyeballs bulged. I haven’t told them that I went there a couple of years ago. “Want to know the story?”

So I described to them how restaurants in North Korea look – wedding reception rooms planned by people with flamboyant taste and a penchant for disco balls, artificial flowers in arches and painted backdrops of improbable scenes – and then told them how one night, as we were leaving a restaurant after dinner, my Irish friend James grabbed a flower off the big table at the front of the room, shoved it into my hands and said, “Take it Frogdancer! Go! Go! GO!”

As we raced down 3 flights of stairs, him giggling like a child and me fearing at every step to feel a heavy hand on my shoulder, hauling me away to a North Korea gulag, I knew that ‘d never forget that moment. It was so out of character for me – I’m a bit of a rule-follower – but hey. I have a good story and a fake flower to entertain my students with.

Wait until they see the propaganda postcards in a future Meet!

Poppy.

Of course I use the dogs too. One lesson last week, the kids joined the meet to “discover” me reading the novel we’re studying to the dogs. Before I turned around to see them, I said, “I have to stop reading to you soon. My next class is a group of the ugliest children I’ve ever seen and I have to get ready to… OH! Hello!! Oops, is my microphone on? ” as they giggled in the background.

Once, by pure chance, I caught the best moment. Jeffrey was asleep on the back of the couch. I had the camera trained on him and then, just as I was going to grab my laptop and start talking to the kids, Scout jumped up beside him and Jeff fell off the couch and disappeared on the seat below. You should have heard the kids! Especially when Jeff’s puzzled face rose up over the top of the couch while Scout was prancing and wagging her tail.

This is all silly stuff, but it brings an element of fun into what is a stressful time for some.

It’s not just kids who are feeling it. I check in with my parents once a day (usually) and the last couple of phone calls Dad has been a bit flat. They’re in their 80’s, which is the group that are dropping like flies, so he and Mum are strictly following the guidelines. When I asked how their day has been, Dad sighed and said, “Fine. I mean, nothing actually happens. We watch a bit of Netflix, someone might call and we have a chat, your mother and I might go for a walk, but that’s about it.”

This got me thinking and I came up with a cunning plan. I rang the boys and we’re all into it.

At random times, but at least once a week from each of us, we’re going to send them something in the mail. I don’t want it to be every day, because that would quickly become routine, but every couple of days or so, there’ll be a little snippet in the mail to make that day a bit different.

I kicked it off with the magnificent drawing you see above. Mum loves going on walks, Dad hates them but since her fall he has to go with her. The picture is entitled “Mummy and Daddy going on a walk” and she has a big smile while he looks grumpy. (The orange thing is his moustache, by the way.)

I posted it to them yesterday. On the back of the envelope I didn’t write my address, just “I hope this is good enough to go on the fridge.” Mum is an artist, so she’ll probably get the shivers at how bad it is, but I think they’ll still get a smile from it.

I’m thinking I could send them some seeds to plant, more drawings, a poem or song lyrics – any more ideas, just stick them in the comments. I’ll be grateful. I’m hoping that it’ll be fun for them to receive the mail, but it’s also fun for us to think up silly little things to send them. It keeps the brain moving.

Patchwork pic of a dachshund.
Dog #1. Fourteen more to go!

On Monday, I had a brainwave.

It doesn’t happen often, so allow me to enjoy the moment.

I was showing the year 7s the patchwork dachshunds I’m making for a quilt for Ryan25. I figured, they’re kids, they’d like cute things. Then I suddenly thought of how quickly time passes when you’re in ‘the zone’ creating things. I know for me, when I’m making these dogs, 2 hours passes in a flash and I don’t give a thought to covid, lockdown or anything serious. It’s a total break from the world.

Maybe some of these kids would find the same?

I talked to them about creativity. How it’s an innate part of the human condition to find pleasure in creating something that has never existed before. How satisfying it is to put an image on a blank sheet of paper, to write a song that fills a silent space, to knit a beanie from what’s essentially just two bits of twig and some string.

I asked them to think about what they might create during the lockdown. Not something like playing a computer game to the finish, because that’s intangible. What could they create that they could actually hold in their hands? That they could point to, long after the pandemic has gone and say, “I made that during the second lockdown in 2020.”

Some of them looked bewildered. Some started asking questions about what qualified. And some looked thoughtful.

We have a catch-up lesson scheduled for Friday. If kids have finished all their work, we log on for a Google Meet and then they’re directed to do wide reading. But I’ve said to my classes – “Make sure you get ALL your work finished. Then after I call the roll on Friday, let’s have a show and tell of what you’ve been creating. I’d love it if someone waved a knitting needle with a few lines of knitting on it, or a half-finished drawing of your radiantly beautiful English teacher. Maybe you’ve baked a loaf of bread, (Amit danced around excitedly at that), or you’ve planted some seeds.”

I paused.

“This is NOT compulsory. I’m not your Art teacher. I can’t say, “Be creative. NOW!” But I want you to have a think about what you could possible do. Lockdown is hard. Making something from your hands makes tha time go by so much faster.”

One little boy asked, “But do we have to do it?” As he asked that I saw a mum in the background of another kid.

I saw her laugh as I said, “Did you hear what I just said??? NO. You don’t have to do it. But humans make things. I’m asking you to practice being a human.”

Anyway, we’ll see what happens. My goal isn’t for 28/28 kids…. actually that’s 56/56 kids (I have 2 classes)… to all magically develop a hobby to sustain them during these long lockdown days. This won’t grab everyone.

I’m aiming for a few.

56 kids is a fairly big sample. There’ll be a few who’ll think about what I’ve said and will cast around for something to show. Some of them will already be creating – I had a convo after the Meet with a couple of boys who wanted to show me their artwork and it was AMAZING – but others will try something they haven’t done before.

Others will come along to the Meets on Friday and maybe see something that someone else has done and be inspired. I don’t know.

But just think.

How cool would it be if even a couple of kids created something in the pandemic that they were proud of? Something that would never have existed if we weren’t in this situation?

How cooler would it be if someone discovered a talent, or started a hobby that they kept on doing even when the doors open after lockdown?

Again… I don’t know. But it’s going to be fun to find out.

Janis from 'Friends'.

What’s teaching from home in a lockdown really like?

Scout. She’s been waiting for a lockdown all her life.

I sighed, rolled over and picked up the ancient laptop that was charging beside the bed. I opened it, came to the FI/RE blog and started typing. It was good, I suppose, that for the first time in over 3 weeks I felt like writing on the blog. But why did it have to be at 1:17 AM?

Teaching from home has been going on for 2 weeks. It’s hectic, but also rewarding when you see how the kids have risen to the challenge and are producing some excellent work. It makes me laugh when I hear the media or many parents on Facebook or Twitter whinge about having to “homeschool” their children. They’re NOT homeschooling! Homeschooling is when the parent selects the curriculum, organises each lesson, supervises the work, marks the work and is basically responsible for everything. Here? ‘All’ they have to do is get their child/ren to sit down, open their laptop and do the work that their teachers have assigned them. Too easy!

Or is it? Readers attuned to punctuation would have noticed that I wrote ‘all’ they have to do. Some parents are discovering that their child isn’t the perfect, angelic student they thought they were. Some kids are difficult to keep on task. I call them my “bright, shiny object” kids or my “wriggly puppies.” These are the kids who, when I see they’ve submitted work onto the Google Classroom, I smile, knowing that their parents must have been standing over them every step of the way, battling with them to finish the assignment and turn it in.

I finished a quilt! This is for my sister-in-law Jen. It’s called The Outlander quilt.

So what does teaching from home actually look like?

First off, let me set the scene. Here in Victoria during our stage 3 lockdown, schools are technically still open, but only for the children of essential workers and for those kids who are considered ‘at risk’, (where school is their safe place away from home – the welfare team know who they are and are keeping tabs on them). Every other child is expected to learn from home. My friend who is a primary teacher heard one parent turn up on the first day of school attempting to drop her son off because “I’m an essential worker.” She’s a florist! She left, taking her son with her.

I teach 2 year 7 English classes and a year 9 Drama class at a very large secondary school in a leafy, comfortably middle-class suburb in Melbourne. We are a public school, but one that is highly sought after by parents who want excellent academic results but would rather put their money into buying a house in the school zone instead of paying exorbitant private school fees. (Can’t complain about that – it’s what I did myself, after all!) We’re one of the state government’s flagships for public education.

So around a decade ago, we began to accidentally position ourselves really well for this lockdown. We are heavily technology-based, with every student issued with their own chromebook, every classroom has an interactive whiteboard, and even the most technologically-challenged teachers (that’d be me) are used to using on-line platforms and methods of teaching.

So the actual nuts and bolts of online teaching isn’t really a huge problem. For example, anything I don’t know how to do, I can jump online and send an email to the other 12 teachers in the year 7 English team. Someone always comes back with a solution. If I, or a student, have a problem with anything computer-based, we have the school’s IT team available at the end of a phone call or email.

I love those guys! Technology and I have an uneasy, wary relationship.

The back of Jen’s quilt. She burst out laughing when she saw it – she loves a bit of Jamie Fraser! (Don’t we all?)

The real learning curve has been adapting the curriculum to online learning. A huge amount of work has been put in by every teacher at the end of last term and over the holidays. We’ve been adapting all of our lessons and assessments so that they can be delivered easily and clearly to the kids, as well as working out the best ways that they can submit each task for us to look at.

Some subjects are easier than others. English, for example, is easier than Drama or Music. But even English has it’s challenges. The first task in the year 7 curriculum for term 2 was a wide reading oral presentation. In normal times, the kids design a slideshow or powerpoint, then stand up in front of the class and deliver a speech, telling us all about a book they’ve read.

Easy enough to organise when they’re all in class. But how do they deliver this when they’re in iso?

My oven broke down two days into iso. I had to have tradies in the house, all gloved and masked, to install a new one. It looked like they were robbing the place!

Turns out that there’s a program called Screencastify where they can deliver their speech on screen while having their slideshow scroll by behind them, just as they would in class. The kids were given the first week of term to get their speeches written, their slideshows put together and to film themselves delivering their speech with their slideshow. Tuesday this week was the big day when they had to submit their work.

This all sounds good, right? Ha! Tuesday’s supposed to be my day off. I was working flat-out from 8 – 6. I didn’t have time to take a shower and get out of my pjs until lunchtime.

The emails! I’ve never had so many!

The work not filmed properly!

The work being submitted to me via email (where I can’t open it) rather than the Classroom! Seemed like hundreds of them…

My best sourdough yet! My new oven arrived just in time to start using my starter.

I have 56 year 7 kids. Twelve and thirteen year olds aren’t renowned for attentive listening at the best of times, but I was astounded at how many of them clearly failed to read the instructions given to them in emails, on the Google Classroom and in their daily lesson plans. So much time wasted in redirecting kids back to the videos I’d posted, showing them how to download Screencastify and showing them step by step how to submit their work properly.

Some kids did it perfectly first time, (the angels!), others needed a nudge in the right direction, (those adorable doofuses!) while others needed So Many Emails directing them to actually read what I’d sent them…(I probably shouldn’t say what I was calling this group of kids by the end of the day after the 600th email!) This is all stuff that when, if you’re in a classroom side by side with them, can be fixed with a 30-second talk. Communicating via email is a different beast.

We got there in the end. I only have 2 kids that I’m chasing up – everyone else has done it. Because I was online the entire day on Tuesday, I ended up marking the orals as they came in, so the kids got their marks on the same day. I even received an appreciative email from one of the parents. That made my day! Usually, when we hear from parents it’s not a good thing…

I thought I’d dress up for a Zoom meeting one morning with some friends. Everyone else was wearing make-up and had done their hair, so I did the same. Well, sort of. Never let vanity get in the way of a good laugh!

Meanwhile, in the first week of term, I was dealing with how to teach Drama online. Obviously we are going to have to use videos to assess any performance tasks, so I decided that for the first two weeks I’d set them a little video task and get them used to the process of filming, then submitting it to the Google Classroom for me to look at. They’d learn how to do it before the work they were handing in was work that would go on their reports.

The work I set for the first week of term was to get them to film themselves telling a 1-minute story – using only their hands. They were given this on the Wednesday and they had until Friday to get it done and uploaded onto the Classroom.

After a flurry of emails asking various questions, the videos started to arrive. A few of them were very basic, but most were superb! It was clear that the kids were itching to sink their teeth into something after 2 weeks of school holidays in lockdown.

Poppy an hour after she ate most of my sourdough that was rising, getting ready to bake. This was 30 minutes before the noxious farting began.

The stories that the kids chose to explore ranged from:

*a pair of hands representing someone drowning. (She had a glass of water off-camera and was gurgling into it as her hands slowly subsided.)

*two ‘people’ making a trade for a bike. This vid had subtitles to help tell the story.

*a hand packing a little car with a picnic basket, driving it into the country (parking the car under what looked suspiciously like a bonsai) and enjoying an al fresco lunch. This had a musical soundtrack, tiny little props and excellent editing.

* a boy who handed his video in late after I sent an email to his Mum had 2 hands talking. One was a student and the other was an irate parent telling him off for not doing a Drama asignment. This one made me laugh a lot!

*Hands dancing, teaching aerobics classes, being stuck at home in lockdown, being bullied, going on a hike and ‘hunting’ cats. I found out Darby has the most adorable kitten I’ve ever seen. At the end, when the ferocious kitten was joyfully ‘attacking’ the hand hunting it, its purring was so LOUD!

The dogs, banished outside once Poppy’s explosive diarrhoea started. Here are Scout and Jeffrey asking mutely to be let back in, with Poppy, to the right, having yet another poo. Don’t let dogs near sourdough! Fun times.

This week I’m getting the Drama kids to look around the house and put together a 30 second soundscape made up of ordinary household items. They can do things like drag something across carpet, bang pots and pans together, slam doors, record the beeps from a microwave etc. Then they have to put together a movement performance to this soundscape, film it and send it in to me.

This isn’t an easy task, but surprisingly, the kids have been much less angsty about it than they were the week before. I’m hopeful that as the weeks go on and we all get used to how the whole remote teaching thing works, things will calm down and people will be a lot less anxious. Anyway, I gave them this task yesterday and it’s due tomorrow. I’m interested to see what they come up with.

Next week – I’ll hit them with a script that will be assessed. In normal times they’d have 2 weeks to get a performance ready. Now, I’m giving them 3 weeks.

Lockdown games! See the red bowl up in the corner? Ryan25 uses it for popcorn. Watch for the next photo as I subtly hide it from him.

During this time, we’ve been directed to make the kids feel supported and cared for, while not overwhelming them with too much work. We have to keep in mind that while some kids will have a calm, quiet home to do their schoolwork in, most will have other siblings hanging around, often loud, younger ones. They’ll probably have parents also working from home, maybe all of them trying to work from the same dining table.

Also, kids are stressed about this rupture to our normal routine. In the drama videos, but even in our written English work, it’s amazing how often the kids have referenced Covid-19. We’re expecting kids to complete the work we give them, but we know that some kids simply can’t or won’t do it. We’ll follow up, but at the end of the day, if a kid refuses to do the work, a term off isn’t going to make a huge difference in the scheme of things.

Lockdown games – There! Hidden. It took an extraordinary amount of time for Ryan25 to find his red bowl. I kept saying, “It’s in the cupboard!” Oh, the hilarity.

Speaking of following up work that isn’t submitted on time, here’s a tweet I sent after the year 7 Oral Presentations:

The funny thing is, the next morning most of those late students were among the first to hand in the work given out for Wednesday’s lesson. I’m betting they had irritable parents standing over them making sure that they knuckle down and do what they’re supposed to!

As far as teaching in lockdown, on the whole I’m enjoying it. We teach some lovely kids and their “Thanks, Miss!” emails when I send feedback on their work bring a smile to my face. (Which, when you think about it, is a stupid thing to say. It isn’t as if I could smile anywhere else on my body!) Teaching totally online is a challenge that I never thought I’d ever do – it’s not as if I’m teaching in the remote corners of the Northern Territory, for example, where distance ed is a normal thing.

I’m not missing my near 2 hours in the car on a workday. I’m able to wake naturally at about 7 or 8 AM and start my workday in the sunlight. That’s nice. I like teaching with my dogs beside me. And they, of course, are LOVING having Ryan25 and I home all the time. They’ll be devastated when life returns to normal.

Do I miss the classroom? No, not yet. If ever. After all, I know we’ll be back in a few weeks. Term 2 won’t last forever. This will be an interesting blip in my career, not something that will forever change how I teach my students.

The last two weeks have been hectic. I haven’t worked so hard in my life and made so few steps during a workday! My fitbit has thrown up its hands in disgust at how few steps I make on an Assessment Task day. But as I said, once both we and the kids become more familiar with how this whole thing works, I’m sure that life will calm down, the emails will be fewer and we’ll all just get on with the job.

Because that’s what’s happening. Our students are being taught. They’re still learning – not just about academic things but about surviving a crisis, getting along with people and being resilient. They’re learning not just from their teachers but by all they see around them.

This will be a time in history that they’ll look back on, hopefully with fond memories. They won’t remember those English questions about the novel that they submitted or that Maths test on Chapter 12 that they did. They’ll remember that their teachers cared. That they got to know their families better than ever before. That by all of us working together as a community, we can slow down the spread of an unthinking, uncaring virus and save lives by not overwhelming the hospitals.

They’ll have some funny memories. One of my year 7 kids – let’s call him Max – started off his oral presentation standing in a bath. His voice was all echo-ey from being in a bathroom. I was wondering why on earth he’d do this when he got to the sentence – “Then Percy Jackson discovered that he was the son of Poseidon, the God of the sea.” His father stepped into shot and threw a bucket of water all over him. It was hilarious! Max kept going, voice quivering a bit from suppressed laughter. Towards the end of his speech, he mentioned Percy Jackson having a lightning bolt as a weapon. His Dad, out of shot this time, turned the bathroom lights off and on a few times. It was fantastic. Max’s face was a joy to see. He won’t forget things like this.

So that’s what teaching from behind a computer is like. I’ve learned a huge amount about tech. I’m doing bleeding-edge teaching in delivering lessons in ways I’ve never had to before.

I’ve discovered that remote teaching means that the school day doesn’t end at 3:10. Kids (and I) are online all day. I have to close my laptop at 5PM and walk away, or else I’d be teaching till 10 PM at night.

I’ve learned to be more patient with kids than I ever thought I’d be. I’ve also learned that kids are flexible and creative and will rise to the occasion if you give them the chance.

Anyway, I began this post at 1:17 AM and it’s now 4:48 AM. Fortunately, it’s my day off tomorrow because I’ll definitely need a nap after lunch after writing this! I hope that this has been of interest to people. It’s a funny old time we’re living through.

I hope you and yours are all well. Stay strong, stay sensible and stay home.

“Are All Teachers Poor?” A podcast.

Scout shaking herself dry - while still standing in the water.
A happy Scout at the dog beach on a Tuesday morning. Part-time teaching isn’t so bad…

Today was a good day. I knew that a podcast that I recorded just before Christmas was being released, so I got up, downloaded it onto my iPad and then took the dogs for a walk to the dog beach. Tuesdays and Thursdays are my school-free days, so I had all day to listen to the conversation we’d had.

‘What’s Up Next?’ is a podcast that assembles a panel of people to talk about various topics about financial independence and financial literacy. Our topic was “Are All Teachers Poor?” (this link lets you hear it), and I was lucky enough to share the conversation with Gerry, the Millionaire Educator, and Ed from Educator FI – two guys who really know what they’re talking about.

Crystal clear water this morning.
It was 9 AM when I took this. In any other year, I’d be in a classroom.

I never listen to podcasts when I walk the dogs. I like to be in the moment with them instead. So, we walked down to the beach, I took their leads off and we set off walking beside the water’s edge.

The sea was like glass. The colours were muted and beautiful. I was surprised to see quite a few people there with their dogs. When you work full-time you have no idea of how many people are freely walking around the place during working hours as if they have a perfect right to be there. We stopped and talked with quite a few people as we made our way onwards.

It’s a lovely way to start the day. The soft lapping of the waves, the squeak of sand under your feet, the incessant barking Poppy does until she’s convinced you haven’t brought a ball down with you… it’s a darned sight better than driving down a packed Nepean Highway to work.

Scout refusing to move - her legs are tired.
When her little legs got tired, we turned for home.

Once we got home I grabbed my iPod and listened to the podcast as I watered the veggie garden. I’d completely forgotten what we talked about – there’s been a lot happening in the Frogdancer household after all! – so it was as if I was hearing it all for the first time.

I really enjoyed it – and not just because the female panellist was so clever and insightful. (LOL – jokes. That was ME!!!) Ed and Gerry are thoughtful, caring people who are well-worth listening to and they know their stuff. I wish that Ed was on the admin team at my school!!

It’s now 5:40 PM and I’ve pretty much wasted the rest of the day. I’ve clocked up less than 6,000 steps, but you know what? Tuesdays are for ME. I’ll get the hang of this part-time malarkey. After all, it’s only been a month. These things need easing into, right?

I’d like to thank Doc G for inviting me onto his podcast. I enjoyed it very much and I hope other people, particularly teachers, enjoy it too.

Sometimes it’s possible to talk to co-workers about finances!

Something really exciting happened at work yesterday.

I walked into the Danger Zone, (our little area in our staff room), and came slap bang in the middle of a conversation that Beth, Emily and Laura were having. Beth is well along the path to FI. We’ve had many a conversation about investing and she’s going great guns.

Laura is much younger than us. She’s already looking towards the future, having bought a couple of apartments as investments. I guess it helps to be a Maths teacher when it comes to understanding the whole ‘numeral’ thing.

Apparently they’d started talking about passive investments and Beth shared how much she earned over the last 12 months from the interest on her investments and her super. This blew Laura’s mind and got her attention. Then I walked in.

“Talk to Frogdancer,” said Beth. “I’d still be spinning my wheels if it wasn’t for her. She got me started with this whole thing.”

“Beth said that she made ($Xnumber)* last year, all from doing nothing!” said Laura. “How is that possible? It’s blowing my mind.”

I grabbed my laptop. “I have a net worth chart,” I said. “I check it at the end of every month.” I pulled it up and showed her.”See? Once your investments hit a certain mass, they take on a life of their own.”

Laura’s eyes popped. “OMG, why isn’t my net worth going up like that?”

Beth and I both said, “You’re young! You haven’t had time to build it up yet.”

Laura and Emily both jumped onto their banks’ websites and pulled up their own net worths. Both have mortgages and Melbourne is a really expensive place to buy real estate. Both of them are over half a million in the hole.

“That’s totally age-appropriate,” said Beth. I nodded. “You’re just starting out.”

Laura looked at me. “Beth and my parents say that I should be salary sacrificing into my super,” she said. “I don’t know – shouldn’t I be paying down my mortgages first, though?”

“It depends what you want,” I said, pulling up a chair. “Mathematically, it probably makes more sense to start making some outside investments while interest rates are so low. But if you have a paid-off mortgage then you have security. No one can kick you out or make you sell it if you can’t make the payments.”

She nodded.

“I made the deliberate decision to pay off the house first because I had the kids,” I continued, “and security was the most important thing for me. I was always terrified that if I messed up, I’d lose the house and the kids would have nowhere to go. Three weeks after I paid off that house, I was starting to learn about investments.”

“How old were you then?” Emily asked. She’s another young Maths teacher. “What was your net worth?”

I laughed. “I paid off the house when I logged onto my banking and saw that I had $10 more in my savings account than I had on the mortgage. I was 50. So I guess my net worth was $10 just after I turned 50!”

“How old are you now?” she asked.

“56,” I said.

Her eyes widened. “In six years you’re worth **($myFInumber)???? You should write a book!”

“She already writes a blog!” said Beth.

“When I was your age, I pulled my super out, all 30K of it, to put a deposit on a block of land,” I said. “When we sold the block a couple of years later, we sold it for 30K less than we paid for it, so effectively my super was lost to the wind. A couple of years ago I calculated what that 30K would have been worth today if I’d left it alone. It would have been 200K.”

Laura and Emily’s eyes widened. They gasped.

“Learn from my mistakes!” I said. “Money put in for retirement when you’re young is worth a hellava lot more than money put in when you’re my age. It’s the second-biggest mistake I’ve made.”

“So how much do you need to retire?” said Laura.

“Don’t you need a million?” asked Emily.

“Close enough,” I said. I wasn’t going to dive into the 4% Rule just then!

“Right!” said Laura, turning back to her laptop. “I’m going to salary sacrifice into Super. How much should I be putting in?”

“You can put in 25K a year,” I said. “That includes all of the super that the Education Department pays. But you’re paying those mortgages and you probably don’t want to tie up every dollar into an investment that you can’t touch till you’re 60. If I were you, I’d start off with $100/pay. You won’t miss it and you’ll get used to putting extra aside. You can always increase it if you want.”

While Laura was out of the Danger Zone, talking to HR I pulled up a compound interest calculator and put in her basic figures, starting with the $100 depososit and then kicking in $100 fortnightly.

When she came back into the room she said, “I’ve done it! I’m now salary sacrificing!!” We all cheered and then I gave her a hug.

When I showed her the calculator she loved it, changing it to plug in her current superannuation amount, then taking a screenshot to send to her Mum, saying, “She’s going to be rapt I’ve finally started this.”

Conversations like this are so rewarding.

It might sound a bit corny, but it makes me think that all my struggles have been worthwhile if someone else can benefit from my experience and avoid making similar mistakes. Laura and Emily are young women who are full of plans and are going places, but as I said to them, this one little tweak to their finances will give them so many more options later in life.

“When you’re as old as I am”, I said, “you’re going to be really glad that you started doing this. You’ll have a lot more choices available to you than if you didn’t have this money stashed away.”

Yep, yesterday was definitely a good day at work!

  • *and ** I’m not sharing anyone’s numbers on the blog. But we definitely shared them in the conversation we had.

Refreshing your working life.

Anyone who’s been here on the blog before would probably know that I’m dropping down to part-time work next year, as a glide-path towards retirement. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, because as a rule I’ve been trying to earn MORE money ever since I left my husband with 4 kids under 5. To voluntarily drop from a full-time wage of over 100K down to working 3 days (but getting paid for 4 days) was stepping outside my comfort zone in a big way.

You’d think that now I’ve made the decision and set the wheels in motion I’d be all set and raring to go. I’ve got permission from my principal and I’ve let the timetabler know, as well as notifying the heads of departments that I work in, English and Theatre Studies being in different areas. I’m colouring squares on a calendar and I should be happy to see the number of days until the end of the year shrinking daily. As days tend to do…

But something’s happening at work. Something that’s messing with my head. People my age are leaving, either for new jobs or for retirement. They’re looking happy, saying things like “A weight has been lifted” and this is all making me feel restless and starting to question my life choices.

Two, in particular, have got me feeling envious. The main one is a woman who is retiring at the end of the year. She’s married to a teacher, they have no kids and for years she’s been one of the year 7 student managers, which is a very demanding position. She’s decided that it’s time to pull the pin and her husband is fully behind her decision, even though he has no plans to retire for a while. The thing is – we were in the same year of teachers’ college together!!!!

It’s hard not to compare. She’s happy. She has a gleam in her eye that I haven’t seen since we were at Rusden together…

The other person has taken a direction that, while I don’t want to do the same thing myself, is nevertheless very clever. She’s also the same age as me and our kids have been through both primary and secondary schools together. She heard about a part-time position going at a local selective secondary school which is all about running the admin for VCE classes, (years 11 and 12.)

In other words: No teaching. No marking. No meetings. No parent/teacher days. No yard duty.

And get THIS – if she stays behind for any reason, she can bill the admin and get paid for her time!!!!!

This is unheard-of in teaching. She’ll be able to leave work and not take any of it home with her. Ever.

I mean, I’m really good at separating work and home life and the only time I take marking home with me is when I correct the year 12 practice exams that they do over the September holidays, so I’ll have them ready for the kids when they get back. I learned how to smash out marking at school when the kids were young and I’d take marking home, then it would inevitably all go back with me to work the next day, untouched. But most teachers aren’t like me, and the thought of having their evenings and weekends being designated a ‘Correction-Free Zone” is intoxicating.

What I find enticing about what she’s done is that it beautifully solves the problem of burn-out. It’s a total change, but it’s an easier job in so many ways. It’ll be a total refresh of her professional life and will make a perfect glide-path to retirement.

When she was in the job interview, she was asked by the principal why she was applying for the job.

She said to me, “I could’ve replied with some high falutin’ thing about personal growth or something. But I just looked him in the eye and said, “I’ve spent the last 35 years telling year 7’s where to stick their apostrophes. I’m getting a bit over it!” “

Me? Well, I’m hoping that only working 3 days will be enough to refresh how I feel about my working life so that I’ll get back to where I used to be. Coming into work with a song in my heart and a spring in my step and feeling glad to be doing a job I enjoy. I hope that only coming in for 3 days a week will minimise the things that are sucking all the fun out of teaching, but still contain the things that I still love doing… the actual TEACHING part of the job.

Having 4 days a week to do the things I choose to do will hopefully be enough freedom for me to feel that the job is adding more to my life than it’s taking away. After all, every year I’m able to delay retirement is another year for my investments to keep compounding without hindrance. Old Lady Frogdancer will be better off in the long run if Present Frogdancer doesn’t start eating away at that money.

Next year will hopefully be like a breath of fresh air. The freedom to do things at home and the freedom of enjoying my job again. As I said to someone in the staffroom who asked why I was feeling so restless:

“I’m in my mid-50’s. In previous centuries I’d probably be DEAD by now. No wonder I feel like I’m ready for a new life!!”

Step by step.

I’m sitting here in front of my year 8 class as they are writing their “Persuasive Letters.” They spent their last lesson before this one filling in a chart with dot points that they were allowed to take in with them – a roadmap, if you will, of what they want to achieve and where they want to end up.

Writing well is definitely not something that happens overnight. It’s the result of years of learning about different techniques; reading and gaining new words and phrases to add to your repertoire; talking through new (to you) ideas to broaden your horizons and finally, writing writing and more writing.

All the theory in the world won’t help you if you don’t actually put pen to paper and do it.

The task is pretty simple. They had to pick a topic, like “Smoking in all public places should be banned”, or “The school system is fundamentally flawed” and then write two letters on it. Each letter has to differ in tone and audience, so in effect, they’re learning how to pitch their arguments in two different ways to appeal to differing demographics.

As you can imagine, this is easier for some kids than others.

Some kids are more fluent than others, or have chosen a topic they feel passionately about, so the words and ideas flow easily. Others have struggled. But look at them now… everyone is silently writing and all of them will produce their finished letter by the end of the period in 12 minutes time.

Step by step, they will all make it, even the kid who has just migrated from China, who is sitting there looking through his Chinese/English dictionary to find the right word.

It’s just the same with personal finance.

Some people are naturally drawn to the world of spreadsheets, portfolios and numbers. They come across the lessons of how to succeed financially and they’re off and running. They draw out a plan in about 5 minutes flat and set off, dragging their hapless spouse behind them.

Other people may need to have the lessons presented to them a few more times before they start to take any real action. They ‘get it’ intellectually, but they’re not motivated to actually put the lessons in action until something in their life changes.

My writing students have the external motivation of Ms Jones marking their work to get them to produce a finished product, and this may be true in the financial realm too. A job loss, a baby, a divorce… all these can cause someone to re-evaluate how they handle their money. But sometimes it’s a more internal, personal motivation.

For me, when I decided to strike out on my own and leave my husband – if you can call being a single mother of 4 boys under 5 as ever being “on my own!” – with only $60 to our names, it was with sheer gritted teeth determination not to fail and drag the boys down with me. I was in pure survival mode. I’d look at those little faces that were totally dependent on me and I’d vow to myself that we’d succeed.

And we did.

I knew where I wanted us to be and over time, we reached and then surpassed it. But it wasn’t done overnight. It took twenty years of small choices, both personal and financial, to get us there. Did each little decision have a huge impact on where we ended up?

No. But the cumulative effect of all the little decisions and choices, along with a couple of really big ones, set the scene for our “overnight” success.

The thing that kept me going, even when things in the early years seemed darkest, is that if I made more “good” money choices than bad, I couldn’t help but move closer to where I wanted us to be. Achieving financial independence is definitely not a sprint, so I knew I had time to correct our course and recover from any mistakes I might make. I had time to learn frugality and to pay off the house so we’d be safe.

Once that was done, I had the mental bandwidth available to go onto the next big step – investing. This led to FIRE. I was just starting my 50’s when I started working on my retirement. The goal seemed insurmountable. But step by step, I’m turning it into a reality.

Step by step. No need to get stressed about how long it’s going to take. Just set things in motion and keep going. You’ll get there.

Reaching FI = resilience. Where do we learn this?

Of course, there’s no generic answer to this question. We all travel through life in our different ways and we learn whatever it is that we choose to learn along the way. But I believe that there’s one quality that people who reach Financial Independence share and that is resilience.

Resilience is the ability to get back up after we’ve been knocked down. It’s the ability to set a goal and go for it, even though the way grows tedious and dull. People show resilience when, if the original plan doesn’t work or if they fall off the wagon, they tweak the plan and keep on going, rather than throw their hands up in surrender.

As a teacher and parent, I want both sets of my kids, (biological and my students), to enter the grown-up world as kind and resilient people. But how do we do this? Unfortunately, despite what many parents appear to believe, simply telling kids, “You can do it!” isn’t enough – in fact, it often has the opposite effect.

I believe that people need opportunities to “grow” their resilience, preferably way before they actually need to face real-life situations where possessing this quality is crucial.

One of the classes I teach is a year 9 English class. This year, my year 9’s are almost robotically good – who would believe that a group of 16-year-olds, awash with hormones, would be this dedicated to their lessons?? However, as the year went along the admin introduced a couple of school refusers into the class. Let’s call them Betty and Chaz.

These kids both have home lives that are problematic. Both are sometimes reluctant to come to class and the school is doing its best to get them to feel comfortable about school again and to get into the groove of following a normal routine. It’s a delicate balancing act – too draconian and you’ll scare the kids off for life; too lax and they’ll walk in and out as if they own the place, which isn’t good either way.

In effect, this basically means that you never know when they’re going to be in front of you on any given day.

In the last 3 weeks of term we do Poetry. I start it off by selecting some poems and songs that I absolutely love, such as Dulce et Decorum Est, Introduction to Poetry, Ozymandias, My Last Duchess, Starry Night, and Eleanor Rigby. I begin by telling the kids about the poet and any background abut the poem they need to know, (they love hearing about things like Robert Browning’s elopement, the background about World War One and about Vincent Van Gogh’s life), then we dive in and look at how the poets use language to get their points across.

The end result is that the kids have to write a poem, then read it out to the class and give a short talk about which poetic techniques they’ve used in their poems and what emotional response they were trying to elicit from their audience by using them.

It’s a bit daunting for most kids, but every year we end up with some fabulous work, sometimes from the most surprising kids. But what do you do with kids like Betty and Chaz who shy away from anything confronting?

Do you force them to do it? Do you let them skate away from it? Neither one gives them the chance to develop resilience…

About two weeks in, someone in the welfare staff sent me an email telling me that Betty was suffering great anxiety over the public speaking aspect and she asked me if I’d let Betty off doing it.

This is a tough one. Over the years, I’ve seen how debilitating anxiety and depression can be and I certainly don’t want a little poetry speech to make the problem worse. I know that she has a lot on her plate in her day to day life.

But then again… it’s only a little poetry speech. How will she learn to push through difficult tasks if we keep taking them away from her? I replied that I’ll have a chat with her after class.

Betty’s a lovely kid. She sits up the back with a couple of friends, hiding under a long fringe that hangs over her eyes, taking every chance to dive into the current novel she’s reading. She seems to enjoy English. After the next class I asked her to stay behind. I told her I received the email, but I wanted her to at least write a poem. I said up front that my goal was to see her do the task in front of the whole class like everyone else, but we’d take it a step at a time.

“Do you think you can write a poem with enough poetic techniques in it to be able to write a speech about it?” I asked.

“Yes Miss, I think I can,” she said.

At 10 PM that night she sent me an email.

“Hi Ms Jones, I’ve finished the poem, however I haven’t started on the explanation and I’m not sure how to explain the writing techniques I used In the poem. 
I’m actually really scared to present in front of everyone. Oral presentations are seriously my nightmares, so im extremely nervous. 
I genuinely don’t think im ready, yet I still want to give you at least something. Thank you for understanding. 
Yours sincerely, Betty. “

My reply?

“Coolio. We’ll have a chat after lunch. I’m glad you wrote the poem… nice work!”

Ok, first step done. She wrote something. I honestly wasn’t sure she’d even do that. Most kids like this *cough cough Chaz* just disappear until the task is finished and they’ll get an N/A mark.

As anyone who’s ever tried to teach somebody a skill knows, you seriously can’t teach anyone anything unless they actively want to learn and make at least some kind of effort. I could talk to Betty and Chaz until I was blue in the face about the importance of learning how to speak in front of others. I could tell them about how in practically any job I can think of there’ll be a meeting to speak at, a task to report on, a lecture to give, etc etc.

But if they don’t produce even the bare bones of what the task requires, I can’t help them. It’s impossible to steer a stationary vehicle.

But Betty isn’t standing still. She’s started to move. I wanted to keep her momentum going.

As luck would have it, we were heading into a double period. We’d be knocking over the rest of the speeches that day. Betty’s friend Zelda had already done her speech and earned an ‘Outstanding’. Maybe, while the rest of the class were performing and watching the speeches, Zelda could help Betty build her confidence and get her speech down? After all, Betty likes and trusts Zelda and they’re both very good writers…

So I grabbed the girls and set them to the side at the back. Betty was hesitant at first, but Zelda was all over it. As the class went on and kid after kid stepped up to the front to perform their poem and the analysis, Betty and Zelda were whispering to each other and typing. Zelda’s a little… shall we say… exuberant at times and when she got excited about something I’d have to ask her to pipe down, but apart from that it all went well.

By the end of the lesson they came up to me, Zelda beaming and Betty shyly smiling.

“How did you go?” I asked. “Do you have the speech written?”

“Most of it,” said Betty. “I just have to finish it off at home tonight.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to knock it off in tomorrow’s lesson?” I asked. “Then we can start watching a movie.”

Betty nodded. Zelda turned to go, then looked back and said, “Wait till you see her poem, Miss. It’s really good!”

As I drove into work the next morning I wondered if Betty would be there. We had two classes left before the school holidays and it would be very easy for her to simply ghost the class for two days and turn up again next term, knowing that we’d be moving on to new work.

Period 2, I walked down the corridor and scanned the class waiting outside the room. I saw Zelda… and Betty. She was standing right beside the door. As I turned the key, I smiled at her and airily said, as if it was all totally routine and there was no drama involved at all, “Are you ready to go?”

She smiled. “Yes Miss. It’s all done.”

“Coolio. I’ll call the roll and put the Dad joke on the board. While I’m doing that, send me your poem so I can throw it up on the interactive whiteboard.”

After calling the roll, I said to the class, ‘Before we start the movie we have one more poem to hear. Betty, you’re up!”

As she walked to the front of the room, I found her poem in my emails and threw it up on the board so we could all see what she wrote. Betty walked past me, outwardly composed but very pale. Her hands were slightly shaking.

She stood and faced the room and read her poem. You could have heard a pin drop. Even my two talkative boys at the back were silent.

Then she stood straight up, glanced at her cue cards and began her analysis.

She spoke about how she was paralysed with fear about this task and that the only thing she could think to write about was how she was feeling, as it was so overwhelming.

She spoke about how the poem explores anxiety, and how she wrote the poem both to explore it in herself and to let anyone reading it who also suffers from anxiety know that they’re not alone… that everyone feels anxious at times and that it’s perfectly normal.

She spoke about how she used repetition to show how waves of anxiety can roll over and over, and how she used a simile of a bird with no wings to explore the feeling of the anxiety denying her the freedom to soar and express herself – how a bird with no wings is no longer able to do what a bird is meant to do. How she used rhyme to hold the poem together and give it a structure, just as someone with anxiety tries to do every day.

She spoke in a clear, confident voice, looking out at the class and rarely referring to her cue cards. I glanced back at Zelda and caught her eye. Her face was glowing with excitement and pride. I’m sure mine was too.

When Betty finished, the class spontaneously broke into applause. I jumped off my table and ran up to her and gave her a hug. “I’m so damned proud of you!” I whispered.

You should have seen her face. She was glowing. She did it!

Yeah, I gave her an “Outstanding.” Not just because she had the backbone to actually do the thing that she was so scared to do. I gave her the ‘Outstanding’ because she stood up there and earned it.

Now, this is only a little poetry speech. It’s not going to change the world. But Betty showed that she has resilience. She was petrified of doing this thing, but with some gentle prodding from me, a willingness FROM HERSELF to at least produce something to work from, some encouragement and support from Zelda to help her see how she had to structure her speech to get her message across, she was able to do it. And do it well.

Resilience doesn’t mean that you feel no fear. It doesn’t mean that when you start you know what to do and have all the answers. Showing resilience means that you have an idea about what you want to achieve and you’re open to finding ways to help you get there. Resilience means doing things step by step, even if they’re difficult or tedious, but sticking to it until the job is done. Exactly the kind of things that people who reach Financial Independence do.

Want to see Betty’s poem? Here it is:

I am Scared. 

“But of what?” they declare. 

As I stood there, I had to accept that I was unaware. 

Thinking about it made my head ache. 

Thinking about it made my voice quake. 

Thinking about it made my heart break. 

Does anyone else have that feeling? 

When your palms are sweaty,

Then you can’t stop shaking. 

And your mind is breaking.

Why are my thoughts forsaking?

Is it just me? 

I can’t escape this feeling.  

I feel like a bird with no wings.

Unable to fly

But ready to try 

and willing to die 

Everyone watches. What have I got?

Please! I beg you! Don’t put me on the spot. 

Why don’t they understand?

as I begin to wonder, I go up and stand. 

“Why can’t you just face your fears?’’

Must I? Oh, dear…

It’s really not my day,

I guess that must be the only way. 

“Just calm down,” they say.

I struggle to talk. I cannot think to ask 

the polite girl next to me to help with my task.

My thoughts help me see

I’m just being a bother, Believe me

I’ll just leave it be;

I am scared.

Having another pair of eyes look over my figures.

On Monday the school had people from VicSuper come out to talk with people about their retirement plans. VicSuper is the default retirement company for teachers, so the vast majority of staff are with them. I don’t have my superannuation with them anymore, but I booked a half-hour slot during my lunch hour to have a chat with someone anyway. I thought that they wouldn’t be able to talk in detail, but I could at least have someone more mathematically gifted than myself to have a look at what I’ve set up and tell me if I’m on the right track or not.

Let’s call her ‘Ms VS’. It has a certain ring to it.

  • For the non-Aussies: Superannuation is the name for our retirement funds. Every employer is required to pay in 9.5% of every employee’s wage into a super fund of the employee’s choice. It guarantees that by the time people reach retirement, they’ll have at least some money behind them, instead of solely relying on the Age Pension.

When we first starting talking, I said to her that although I’ve been working full-time, I’m dropping back to part-time next year as a sort of glide-path towards retirement. I said that retirement might be 3 years off (when I can access my super) or it could be as soon as 1 year off, if I find that I’m still hankering towards total freedom over my days even with the reduced hours.

Apparently, from what Ms VS said later, this is pretty standard. She said that she normally doesn’t have people book a time with her unless they’re very close to retirement, when they suddenly become aware that they’ll have to rely on what they’ve put away in their super. She clicked her pen, leaned forward and asked me if I knew what I have in my investments.

Did I know what I have in my investments?!? Little did she know that she was talking to Frogdancer Jones. I’ve been reading blogs about net worth, share portfolios, savings accounts, superannuation and the like for YEARS. Hell, with all the US blogs I’ve read, I know more about American retirement accounts than you could shake a stick at!

I was primed, ready and prepared.

I had period 1 off that day so I had time to make a full list for her. Well, to be honest, I just took all my numbers from the ‘Net Worth Table’ I have in the cloud, which I update at the end of every month. Took me less than 5 minutes. I flipped open my notebook at the correct page and passed it across.

I don’t think Ms VS meets a lot of FIRE-y people in her line of work.

She was pretty surprised, not so much at my figures, though she said they were unusual, but by how I’d thought about the share market ups and downs and where I’d pull money from when the market tanks. She didn’t need to explain how the share market ebbs and flows; how risk can affect people in different ways depending on how close they are to retirement; how, if I retired earlier than 59, how I’d have to find the money to fund my lifestyle and what a safe withdrawal rate was, etc, etc.

Thank you, blogs and books in the FIRE movement! I looked like I had a financial brain!!

The talk about my actual figures only took up about half the time, so we moved on to talk about other things, which is why I wanted to write this. Some of what she said was scary, particularly for women.

I guess when we’re interested in FI and we read all the blogs and books and start to absorb the knowledge, we assume that most people are more financially literate than they really are. According to Ms Vs, this is far from the truth.

She said that when I mentioned that I was looking to pull the pin in the next year or two, she thought I’d be like most of the people who come to see her. They give no thought to their retirement, assuming that the compulsory 9.5% of our wages that our employers are legally required to put into Super is enough. Then, a year or two out from retirement, they decide to look at their figures, they have a heart attack at what they see and they come running to see what they can do about it.

I guess that’s not so much of a surprise – we hear this a lot about huge swathes of the population not getting ready for retirement in time. At the risk of sounding like a Nelly Know-it-all though: I just don’t understand that mentality. When I was in my 30’s and 40’s I deliberately ignored putting extra money into my retirement account because I made a conscious choice to pay off my house first. Security for the boys and I was my paramount objective. But 3 weeks after I’d made that last mortgage repayment, I was stressing over what I had to do to get my Superannuation account looking more lively. Maybe that’s the blessing/curse of being a long-term thinker??

“I see a lot of women in their 50’s and 60’s who come in after a divorce,” Ms VS said. “They’ve only got around 70K in their Super and they still have a mortgage. They’ve never dealt with finances in their lives before and it’s a scary time for them.”

I smiled. “I went through the divorce thing twenty-two years ago,” I said.

“You’ve had time to recover,” Ms VS said. “It’s really good to see a woman as well-prepared as you. Though I suppose you’ve had to be organised, being on your own.”

“I wasn’t on my own!” I said. “I also had 4 kids under 5 with me.”

Photo of my mini wire-haired dachshund, Scout.
Miss Scout – anyone who’s owned Dachshunds, like Ms VS and I, are part of a special club. 🙂

We talked a bit about where the boys and I started from, veered off into talking about dachshunds, (because why wouldn’t we?) then back onto finances.

“Have you ever taken what you’d consider being a financial risk to get into the position you’re now in?” she asked.

“OMG, yes,” I said. “Years ago, back when the boys were still in school, I decided to take a 15K pay cut from teaching by dropping a day and using that time to run a group of Thermomix consultants as a team leader. 15K was a lot of money to me back then… well, it still is!… but I was assured that if I worked hard I could pull in 30K. Turned out to be true, so I kept doing that for 3 or 4 years.

“Then, when I decided to go into partnership with a developer and draw up plans to put a couple of massive townhouses on my property, I took on a 750K bridging loan when I bought The Best House In Melbourne and still owned the original place. The interest payments took up over 70% of my take-home pay. I thought it’d be for 6 months or so but the council took so long to approve things that it was 18 months before I was able to sell the property with approved plans and pay off my new place. I was terrified the property bubble would burst, but it turned out that I sold at the peak of the market so, in the end, it worked out. It was a calculated risk – but it paid off.”

We talked about whether I’d seen a financial planner. I said I hadn’t and she said, “You’ve managed very well so far, so why would you hand it all over to someone else and pay them a fee to look after it for you? “

I said that before I leave work, I want to see someone to stress-test my plans in case there was something I’ve missed, and she thought that was a good idea.

As the bell for the end of lunchtime rang and I got up to go, she said, “It’s rare that I see someone who’s all over it like you are – and if I do, they’re usually Maths teachers.”

I’m glad that I was able to fly the flag for the Drama and English teachers for a change!

Monkey see; monkey do… or do they?

This morning, a few minutes ago, a little thing happened that made me think about the effect we have on the people around us. We don’t realise it but in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways, the things we do and say often rubs off on those around us.

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I always put at least one ‘Dad joke’ up on the board at the start of each lesson. I started doing this a year ago and the kids love it. If I start the lesson and forget to put them up, they always remind me. Admittedly, my year 9 class have asked me to stop doing this before the corniness kills them… but they never fail to ask for the Dad joke when I ‘forget’ to do it. They’ve already asked me to email them next year with a Dad joke a day when I’m not their teacher anymore.

After a few months of this, some kids have started emailing me with Dad jokes that they’ve found. A typical email might read, “Hi Ms Jones. I was away today and I was wondering what work I missed. To make up for it, here’s a Dad joke: ‘I saw a magician yesterday that turned audience members into wind turbines. I immediately became a big fan.’ See you tomorrow!”

I love it, especially when it happens in my own house.

Ryan24 called me into his room to read a Dad joke he stumbled across on a website. He said it was two Dad jokes in one. Seeing as it’s a joke on finance, I thought I’d share it with you. Are you ready for the glory of the Dad joke…?

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‘I’ve started buying heaps of stocks. Chicken, beef and vegetarian stock cubes. One day, I’m hoping to be a bouillonaire…’

I hope no one strained a muscle from laughing too hard.

It got me thinking though. People pick up on what you do. If they think it has value, they’ll copy it for themselves. Because Ryan24’s joke was a financial one, it got me thinking about how the boys are running their financial lives.

When they were growing up, we were living on a financial knife’s edge. You might not think it, but it takes a long time to claw your way out from the pit of starting a new life with 4 kids under 5, $60 in cash and a mortgage just under 100K. I wrote about it here.

Those boys grew up watching me living within the financial rules I set out for myself:

1. NEVER borrow anything. Always spend less than you earn. Actually, the only exception was when I landed the first teaching contract at my current school. It was for 9 months of full-time work and I knew we could afford to get a new(er) car. The Tarago we were driving was as aerodynamic as a loaf of bread and the skylight leaked every time it rained. Whenever I made a right-hand turn, a trickle of water would run down the back of my neck. When I traded it in for a 5-year-old Ford station wagon and took out a 20K loan, I said to them, “I don’t know if I’ll have a job next year, so I’ll be paying this off before my contract finishes, just to be safe.” The kids were Tom13 (now Tom27) down to Evan9 (now Evan22). They watched me do it.

2. You should have everything you NEED, but only some of what you WANT. This translates to their after school interests. I knew that with 4 kids and only my income, we’d never get ahead if I spent lavishly on everything that the boys might have wanted to do. So I got them to prioritise. They were allowed ONE after school class a week each. It could be anything they wanted – sports, music, art, dance, whatever. But only one thing at a time. David25 was David2 when he first asked for piano lessons. He stuck with those and is now putting the finishing touches on a Music degree in piano. Other kids tried a few different things before settling on what they liked. It was ok. They had to decide what they really wanted to explore and then focus on that. I think that’s a good thing.

3. Your money is a finite amount. Don’t spend on things you don’t value, but spend on the things you do. An example of this is overseas travel. I didn’t want my boys to miss out as I had. (I planned a big trip to Europe with my best friend when we were 15… but I didn’t get to go until I was 51; after the boys were old enough to be left alone.) When the boys were younger, I took them on holidays to Bali, Thailand and Singapore and also sent the 2 middle boys to the US with the school’s band. I had to forego a lot of coffees, new clothes and other fripperies to afford to do this, but to me, it was worth it. They watched me saving and planning for all of this.

4. ALWAYS have an emergency fund in place. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. When the boys were very small I had a few years when I literally had no money at our backs if a real emergency happened. I’ve touched on it a bit in my ‘About’ page. I don’t think they have any strong memories of those hand-to-mouth times, (I should ask them!) but what they DO know is that Mum always has some money put away for when we need it.

5. Christmas is important. Always make it a special day for everyone. I insisted that the boys always had Christmas Day with me. As Mum said to me, “You have all of the hard days – you deserve to have the fun one.” A. always used to pick them up at around 6PM that day, after we’d had Christmas lunch with my family. One day soon I’ll write about my strategies for Christmas Day when we were so poor. The boys didn’t miss out on a thing.

So given all this, what are the boys doing with their finances now they’re in their twenties?

At our “We’re out of debt (again!) celebratory dinner 2 years ago.

NEVER borrow anything. Always spend less than you earn. Interestingly, none of them uses credit cards, only debit cards, even though I’ve always used a credit card. I run all my expenses through a credit card, but I run it like a debit card so I rarely dip into the ‘credit’ part of it. They’ve seen how being free of debt has helped our family to become financially independent and I think they realise the importance of it. When we sold the old house to the developer and I was finally able to pay off the bridging loan of 750K that I was carrying on The Best House in Melbourne, I took them all out to dinner to celebrate.

Whenever they’ve needed to buy things like cars, they’ve either paid for them themselves out of savings or they’ve come to me for an interest-free loan. This month, Tom27 decided that he needed a new car. We talked about what he could afford, given his wage, so instead of buying a tinny but shiny new car, he bought himself a 5-year-old Prius. He was spending 18K, which is bigger than the Bank of Mum is prepared to lend. Initially, he applied for a loan from the car yard’s financing, but after getting home and doing some research and some Maths, he realised that getting a loan from someone else will save him over 2K in interest, so that’s what he did. Interestingly, the car yard tried to entice him by saying, “If you get the loan through us you can have the car tomorrow!!!” Tom27’s response? “I’d rather wait a week and have the two extra grand, thanks!”

You should have everything you NEED, but only some of what you WANT. I guess this follows on from not having access to credit, but they seem to be quite good at prioritising what they spend their money on. If they need cash for something, they’ll either sell something to free up some money (which is David25’s go-to), or they’ll tighten the belt and wait until they have the means to get what they want.

Your money is a finite amount. Don’t spend on things you don’t value, but spend on the things you do. Poverty and student life has forced Evan22, in particular, to take this on as a survival mechanism. If he spends all of his Austudy allowance on wine, women and song, then he doesn’t eat for the rest of the fortnight. He lives in Ballarat, so he can’t pop home very often for a free feed, so he’s had to learn to be very self-reliant and to balance his money.

Tom27 is an accountant, (yeah… I don’t know how that happened either…) and he plans out his expenses months ahead to ensure he has enough to do what he has to do, such as rent, petrol car payments etc, before he does what he wants to do, such as recording a new album, travelling overseas and going out.

David25 has a girlfriend and at first, a lot of his money went on eating out, flashy dates etc. Now, nearly 2 years on, he and Izzy spend a lot of time at each other’s houses, watching videos, composing songs and popping up to Coles to get a litre of gourmet icecream as a treat. Ryan24 is the king of slashing expenses to make his money go further.

Christmas is important. Always make it a special day for everyone. Well, everyone’s onboard for this one! David25 doesn’t spend as much on dates anymore, but when it’s their anniversary he pulls out all the stops to make the date a memorable one. He’s learned the art of prioritising in this regard.

We all put thought and effort into Christmas, probably even more so than birthdays. No one’s allowed to buy anything for themselves in December in case they muck up someone’s gift for them and we all sneak around buying and making things that we hope will really hit the spot. I love seeing the boys plotting and planning gifts for their brothers and grandparents – I feel like I’ve passed the baton onto the next generation.

So, given that they’re following all but one of the financial things I modelled for them as they were growing up, I guess you could say that the “Monkey See; Monkey Do” saying is pretty apt. Also, I’m putting it out there that when they get a bit older and start pulling in some real money, the Emergency Funds will come.

This wasn’t what I started off intending to write about – it began with Dad jokes – but I guess it’s a useful exercise to step back and observe the people around you and see what’s rubbing off on them. It seems my legacy will be a love of the Dad joke and a leaning towards the thrifty!

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