ACU alumna Ann Rennie is a passionate English and religious education teacher and writer who has just released a new book about her life in the Catholic education system and the lessons she’s learnt along the way.

Like many Victorian teachers, Ann has spent much of her time over the past two years connecting with her students via a laptop, ‘which pales in comparison to the real thing. It’s just not the same,’ she said. ‘I really miss interacting with the students in person.’

Standing at the front of the classroom is right where Ann wants to be, though she happily admits it took her a while to figure this out.

The journey to teaching

‘When I was younger I wanted to write, I wanted to sing, I wanted to perform. I graduated with an arts degree and wasn’t sure where to go from there, so I worked in the public service for a bit and did some amateur acting on the side before I headed overseas for eight years. It was fantastic. I was travelling, I was singing in a band on the Isle of Man, I was picking daffodils, it was all an adventure! It wasn’t real life.

‘I returned home to Melbourne to sing at my best friend’s wedding. I was also in my mid-30s at the time and it occurred to me that I should start growing up.’

I started a professional writing course, but I knew writing wasn’t going to feed me and I needed to be realistic, so I did a Diploma of Education and entered the teaching profession when I was 37. While this is later than some, this worked well for me – you get to bring all of your stories and life experiences to the classroom.’

Now, Ann is teaching at Genazzano FCJ College in Melbourne, which is the same Catholic school that she, her mother and her daughter – who’s also a teacher who studied at ACU – all attended.

Mastering education

Like most teachers, Ann is busy, but over the years she still made time to complete a Master of Educational Leadership, as well as a Master of Religious Education at ACU, believing in the value of growing her qualifications and knowledge.

‘I wanted to deepen my understanding in all ways. I felt like I only had a peripheral understanding of many things – I knew a bit about theology, a bit about social justice, a bit about the Church. Even though I grew up going to a Catholic school myself and I’m active within my own congregation writing a monthly reflective column, I still wanted to see the bigger picture and teach religious education with a greater richness.

‘I’m also interested in education as a whole, which is where the Master of Educational Leadership really came in for me. I wanted more breadth.

‘I really enjoyed my studies, particularly the unit where I got to focus on Australian religious poetry. I loved the research and I appreciated how the staff recognised and enabled me to follow through on topics that were beneficial to me as an individual.

‘Admittedly, it wasn’t easy to study and work full-time. If you’re thinking of doing a master’s, my advice is start sooner rather than later!’

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The writer’s life

Ann is a prolific writer and has published three books on prayers and reflections in the past five years and has a national column, Unguarded Moments, in Australian Catholics magazine.

‘I like being able to give back in this way, and it adds value for me knowing I can reach more people beyond just my school.’

As much as Ann said she enjoys the writer’s life, the classroom is still her home.

‘I love teaching, I absolutely love it. And my school is fantastic. Our students are keen to learn and do well.

‘But I suppose I do think, how can I enlarge my capacity post-teaching or manage teaching and writing at the same time? I want to use my English skills in a useful capacity. How I use my passion for English and religious education is something I discuss in my new book.’

Blessed: Meditations on a Life of Small Wonders is Ann’s latest work.

At the beginning of 2021 she had begun thinking of everything she’d had published over the years in publications like The Age and in Catholic media and wanted to bring it together, including new, unpublished work.

‘I wanted to anthologise my story in education, faith and life. So, while I share stories in the book about being at school and the Catholic faith, I also discuss Elvis, my first kiss, pilgrimages and Paris. I wanted to look at the small, the shy, and the incremental things in life; the small wonders that can get overlooked in our busy lives.’

‘For any teachers reading Blessed, I wanted them to see my foray into Catholic schools and understand why I’m sticking with the faith and am here to stay.

‘But mostly I want people to see I’m hopeful. And optimistic.’

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Hands up

Ann’s advice to pre-service teachers or anyone thinking about life in the classroom is put your hand up.

‘Volunteer! Volunteer for anything and everything and don’t be passive. Show initiative. Ask questions, be interested, be cheerful! You’ll have to work hard in your first year, but later on that will pay off. You need to figure out where you can offer your best self to a school.’

Going forward, Ann wants to keep writing and teaching, ‘and survive lockdown with my sanity intact!’

‘We teachers have to stay upbeat and cheerful. We are so important – I hate people saying “You’re just a teacher”. It’s so much more than that. We are on the frontline here for the next generation.’

Register and join the online launch of Ann Rennie’s book, Blessed: Meditations on a Life of Small Wonders, on Wednesday 25 August, hosted by David McLean from the 3CR Book Show and Michael McGirr.

This article first appeared in ACU Impact and has been reproduced with permission. Photos courtesy of Ann Rennie.