From stage direction to vocal projection

Many of Central’s lecturers bring to the classroom broad and deep skill sets and experience from several industries.  This is perfectly illustrated by ESL lecturer Anne Hairsine, whose life has taken her from cruise liners, to Dampier, to the UK, to Tasmania and even a spell in the heart of Papua New Guinea.  She’s had a theatre named after her and even finds time to work as a marriage celebrant.  I recently had time to catch up with Anne and delve into her rich and varied CV and find out a bit about what she has learned over the years about teaching…

What are you currently teaching at Central?

Mainly oral communication. I just love it because you are able to make a difference to migrants making a new start, in a new country. I have nothing but admiration for them. Communication, of course is not just about the words – we can tell a story just by using our face and bodies. But hopefully what we teach in this course can give them the confidence to tackle anything.

Do your students come from all over the world?

Absolutely. From everywhere. We are currently getting a lot from Europe, especially the countries currently facing financial issues such as Spain, Italy, Greece, Romania. A lot of them are highly professional, physios, doctors, psychiatrists and so on and are coming over here for the sake of their families. They have made these big sacrifices because they feel their children will have better opportunities here.

Do specific nationalities tend to struggle with specific sounds?

Yes. Whenever anyone tackles a new language, there are certain sounds in the new language that are not present in their first language. “Th” and “the” as in “breath” and “them” are the most problematic, but there are many others. Most languages have between 8 and 10 vowels and diphthongs and English has 22! Of course many people think if you can speak English you can teach pronunciation but it is like learning any new skill, you need to learn, understand and practice new techniques. I always use the example of learning to play tennis. You can’t just pick up a racket and play like Roger Federer.

Do you have fun exercises to tackle issues?

We certainly do. To make the (to the students) new sounds of /f/ and /v/ I say, “Bite your bottom lip, show me your teeth, make like a rabbit, and now blow… f f f .” A whole class imitating a rabbit is quite a sight and we all look so ridiculous we can’t help but fall about laughing. But once they practice at home and suddenly master the mechanics of producing the sound, it’s great. I think one of the secrets of why this course is working, is we have such good fun and laugh a lot. Who cares if we look silly? We are helping each other to communicate and learn the mechanics of producing understandable speech.

How long are they with you?

The courses all vary in length. We are starting a new Certificate IV course in 2016 – Pronunciation for Further Studies. We are currently designing the course and assessments and are very excited about that.

Anne with colleagues and three Central ESL students
Anne with colleagues and three Central ESL students

It sounds like if you have introverted people coming from a new country, the fact that you involve the whole group in collective fun exercises enables the more shy people to give it a go and have fun and relax.

Yes there are certain cultures that are traditionally a little more reserved. They start off seeing me as the guru at the front, while they are the student, but that dynamic soon changes and they realise it is all about collaboration and teamwork.
I also take them out to special events, preferably free ones, outside of class time. For several years WAAPA has put on a Shakespearean play in the courtyard of the State Theatre. I make sure they are familiar with the story before our visit.
The first year I did this, an Afghani student took several of his mates, and other students took their families to other sessions. I was thrilled because they took the initiative and shared their experience and knowledge. There are often events over at the State Library, the Art Gallery and the Museum and so the students become familiar with opportunities within the community.

So you enjoy coming here?

I certainly do. Friends often ask: “When are you are going to retire?” My standard reply is: “The day I wake up and feel I can’t be bothered to get out of bed!” So far, I always wake up and think “Oh, who have I got the pleasure of working with today?” It’s delightful. Makes living worthwhile. To give you one example, one Japanese girl is now working as a volunteer at Princess Margaret Hospital. She’s helping the teachers and consolidates the work with the sick kids after the teacher has left. In a recent feedback survey, she said how much the course has helped her because she now knows she can speak well and has the confidence to speak to the parents. It’s these stories that are so rewarding. Ones that prove that we are making a difference not just to the students, but also to our community

Was it a natural extension for you to move into this field from teaching drama for years with all the speech and presentation involved in the arts?

Not really. I blame my daughter Kate. I thought she was going to be based in Italy for some time and I thought, “OK, the dollar is at rock bottom. If I go over to visit, I may have to earn a living.” So I went and studied for the appropriate qualifications to teach English as a second language. Then I was given a month’s relief at Central and my colleagues saw that I really taught and didn’t just babysit the classes. So here I am, many years later.
I think learning both Italian and German late in life, has helped me become a better ESL teacher as I have experienced first hand all the problems of learning a new language and so can relate to my students’ difficulties and frustrations. I also learnt a lot about what worked and what didn’t, by attending schools in both Italy and Germany and like a magpie, filched all the good ideas.

What do you think about the saying that English is the easiest language to learn but the hardest to use properly?

I have prepared a half hour lesson where I explain to the students how, through repeated invasions of England over the centuries, English has absorbed the influences of many other languages. This has resulted in a totally frustrating, but eventually such a beautiful language.
Lots of students in their feedback say how they love the poetry we do – the flow of it and the imagery. Yes, you begin by teaching the students the mechanics of pronouncing sounds, but then you teach them how to create a smooth and lyrical soundscape.
We also have a good laugh at the broad Australian accent. Australians really are the laziest speakers in the world. We don’t open our mouths. I will often read with an Australian accent so they can recognise it and translate it. This is important for when they eventually go into the workforce.
I am a great advocate of vocal warm ups. Just as you need to warm up your body before any physical exercise, it is imperative to warm up your vocal and facial muscles, especially if you are going for an interview, or giving a talk. The warm up acts as a focus and you can practise all the problem areas.

What was your first overseas excursion?

I was head hunted for a tutoring job in San Remo, in Italy. Then I got a job on a ship as a Children’s’ Hostess which is where I met my husband. Sometimes we had up to 200 children in our care. It was on a ‘round the world’ ship taking migrants out to Australia and New Zealand. Having trained as a Physical Education teacher I was very efficient in organising swimming lessons and running events such as sporting carnivals and discos. And of course the drama interest was already there and a Christmas nativity and concert was such a hit, it became a weekly event.

Anne working on the ship
Anne working on the ship

How does Dampier fit in to all of this narrative?

My husband was a ship’s pilot with Hamersley Iron. We went to Dampier in the early days. That was a very different experience – primitive, no shops, everything had to be sent up from Perth by ships, no spare water. But that’s another story!
With a group of friends, we began the Dampier and District Repertory. One of our first projects was to organise an Old time Music Hall called ‘Fenacl Fanny’ (Fe –iron and nacl –salt.) It was a riotous success. Over the years, people camped overnight to get tickets for it. Our audiences varied, but often consisted of predominantly single men with no background in theatre-going, so the show had to be short ,sharp and good quality to keep their attention. Oh what a great training ground those conditions were! I guess that’s where I really began honing my theatre skills.

I believe you met the famous Red Dog.

Absolutely. He came to Fenacl and walked up on stage, sat down, looked out at the audience for a while, enjoyed a few pats and then left. He came to our home on several occasions. The procedure was, you opened the door, he came in, you fed him, he slept with our dog in the laundry, and in the morning you would open the door and off he would go. He just belonged to everyone.
He used to catch the bus from Dampier to Karratha and I used to pass him waiting on the side of the road on my way to school. One day, he missed the bus and so I stopped, opened the door and in he climbed and got out in Karratha. He was smart and just seemed to know the bus timetables. His original master was a bus driver. He had his own special seat on the bus. He could appear anywhere, and he’d go off to places like Tom Price. I do think however the legend that once he hitched a ride to Japan by ship is a little far fetched!

What do you think makes a good teacher?

I am going to use the term love. You have to love what you are doing. You have to love the students and you have to encourage them and rejoice in their achievements. I don’t think that’s putting it too strongly. Also, you have to be realistic and recognise every student has different strengths and weaknesses. An example that just came to me was when I once had twins in my class. One of them came to me and said, “It’s not fair Mrs H, I studied so hard for the exam and only got 62% and my sister didn’t study at all and she got 88%!”
So I said, “Have you watched her dance lately?” This confused her. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Dancing”, I said.
“You are such a beautiful dancer and you are always put right in the front so the others can watch you and keep in step at the front of the line. Where does your sister always get put when there’s dancing? Behind the potted plant, where you just see her hands waving.”
She looked at me and I then explained further:
“Look we all have gifts and yes it may not be fair how she breezed the exam, but you have other talents.”
I think that is crucial – to find and concentrate on students’ strengths and be realistic. You also have to keep an open mind and never become complacent. Complacency stifles creative thinking and prevents implementing new ideas.

You’re brimming with enthusiasm and I know you love what you do, but have you gathered any techniques to stay positive? Because I think to a certain extent, a person is what they think about.

When people ask “How are you?”  I reply, “Oh marvellous!” because life is such a precious gift. I don’t know whether you’re aware that five years ago almost to the day, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. At one stage, the doctors weren’t sure whether it had spread to my liver, because spots were found on it. I had thirty six hours to wait for the results. During this time, I had the opportunity to reflect on my life and realise how fortunate I had been. If the prognosis was not good, my only regret was not being there to see my grandchildren grow up and I was a bit cranky about that. Fortunately for me the spots were left over from a bout of hepatitis. I am always glad I had that experience where you actually get to reflect in a space where you’re not sure if it’s an end, or a beginning.

Having worked at sea and in remote country towns, it seems like you’ve always forged your own path. Did you have any mentors?

My Mother and Father were inspirational role models for me and I grew up within a loving extended family. We were taught that “Anything is possible… but you have to work at it. Don’t expect anything to be handed to you on a platter.” Plus, “Always be fair, honest, helpful and respectful of others.”

What about when you were teaching drama? Did you learn through the productions or through mentors?

I’d say a bit of both. Trial and error is a great way of learning but I was always smart enough to realise when I needed expert help. That’s another thing I learned from my parents. If you don’t know, just admit it and find someone who does. Don’t try to bluff your way through.

 

Was that your favourite job, working at Perth College?

It was certainly an incredibly exciting and challenging 22 years and together we, the school community achieved so much. We built a theatre and for the opening, the entire school was involved, over 1000 people. In 2002 when the school turned 100, I wrote the history of the school, set against the backdrop of 100 years of Western Australian, Australian and world history and once again the whole school community, – students, friends, parents and Old Girls –were involved in the production. I have been blessed with so many special friends from that period of my life.

So you’re good at living in the present then?

Yeah I think I am. The past is wonderful because you have fabulously happy memories of working with amazing people. And of course the best bit is you look back and think, “Wow, I made a difference to all these people.” But I do live in the present. Take for example what I do now. We have just had the Symposium and I helped a group of students to introduce and thank the workshop presenters. They were all very nervous and anxious to do well. On the day, as I watched them being such gracious ambassadors for Central, my heart was just bursting with happiness for them. It gave me just as much satisfaction as some of the more spectacular things I’ve done. For them to have the confidence to speak in front of a large group of teachers in their second language was very brave. So yes, I guess I live in the moment and just love every day.

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