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Inside Teaching : April 2011
inside teaching | April 2011 MY BEST TEACHER 24 to her brutally honest account of her childhood. Pressed several times, he replied only that, ‘The fish sauce recipe is wrong.’ Eventually, though, he gives her his honest response. ‘Do you know why Buddha sits on a lotus flower?’ he asks. ‘There is nothing more beautiful than a lotus flower. Out of watery chaos it grows yet remains so pure and unpolluted by it.... My children are lotus flowers; you grew out of the aftermath of war, you grew out of Cabramatta during its murkiest time and most importantly you grew out of me. I am mud, I am dirt. I am shit.’ Would she agree that her father has been one of her best teachers? Given their history, she says, it’s a loaded question, but her careful answer is that he has. ‘Everyone who knows me thinks I’m a freak in my desire to achieve, to learn new skills and techniques, business skills, my desire for self-development, whatever,’ she explains. ‘I wouldn’t have that hunger, that desire not to give up, if it wasn’t for Dad. I’m quite ferocious in that sense. He taught me to be a high achiever, and not to take any crap from anyone.’ While Nguyen’s father has been one of her best teachers, outside of school, he’s by no means alone. I ask about her mother. Has she been one of Pauline’s best teachers? ‘One of the most precious things Mum has taught me is respect for tradition and culture. If I ever asked why we did something in a particular way she’d always explain it was the Vietnamese way and the Buddhist way.’ Then there’s her brother Luke. ‘He didn’t need a university degree to make a reality of his dreams,’ Nguyen writes in Secrets of the Red Lantern. ‘His success just goes to show that a little street wisdom and a whole lot of clout can also take you a long way in this world.’ What does she mean by street wisdom? ‘He’s perfected the ability to get along with people, understand people and get the most out of people. Luke is so resourceful. The fact that he didn’t go to university affected him, because my parents gave him a hard time, but in the end it wasn’t important because he learned anyway, and I’ve learned a lot from that.’ And then there’s her family. ‘My kids have taught me so much more than I teach them. Having kids has been a massive wakeup call for Mark and me. We realised we had to change the way we ran our business and the way we run our lives to make a better future. That’s the responsibility of parents, but it’s also the responsibility of teachers and school leaders. Mark has distilled this in The Urban Cook: Cooking and eating for a sustainable future. It’s really a teaching book. I think what Mark explains in it is that the more we give back, the better it is for everyone.’ Learning isn’t a straight path, though, as Nguyen explains, illustrating with a story from when Mia, her eldest daughter, was in daycare. ‘I was this high-achieving parent, you know, wanting her to thrive academically, in daycare. The director took me aside and explained what Mia needed was the foundation – self-respect, self-esteem, the ability to express herself socially and emotionally. “The academic stuff will come,” she explained. ‘I grew up with this focus on the academic, but the teachers I value the most were the ones who focused on self-awareness, care, compassion, who had passion, all those things you need to be a successful human being. I don’t mean successful in your career, but successful as a person. That’s what should lie at the heart of a school’s and a teacher’s philosophy, and what should be enacted in the things they do. Education is what you grow with, what your teachers, family and friends teach you, and that all comes back to the ability to relate, don’t you think?’ Secrets of the Red Lantern by Pauline Nguyen with recipes by Luke Nguyen and Mark Jensen is published by Murdoch Books. The Urban Cook: Cooking and eating for a sustainable future by Mark Jensen, available this month, is also published by Murdoch Books. Photo by Grant Macintyre.