Teacher's back story leads to children's picture book

Author and teacher, Gavin McCormack, shares the experience which led to a delightful children’s picture book. You can win a copy – see below!

Are These Your Glasses? is a picture book for primary-aged children. The book was designed to eradicate bullying through isolation and exclusion in the classroom and playground. As a primary school teacher for almost 18 years, I have witnessed this scenario first hand and I believe that the solution to this problem is not educating the victims, but educating the perpetrators in how it feels when you are socially excluded.

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. Mum was a single mother who ran a market stall and found it very hard to manage. My grandfather tried his best in a role he knew nothing about, and on those long summer days he would tell me great stories. Most of them were probably fiction but they taught me great things. Later, I too would become a storyteller. The stories taught me never to stop believing, but more importantly they taught me never to stop trying. These are two of the great lessons my book teaches children.

Soon it was time for me to go to school. I’ll never forget my first day: nerves, excitement and pink custard. Primary school was a blur, but primary school soon became middle school. I plodded through with limited interest and a friendship group that could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Soon it was time for high school which encompassed the worst − but most influential − years of my life to date. My mother had moved to a small village where the demographics favoured wealth and education rather than street crime and drugs. But along with the wealth and the class came the feeling of isolation and inferiority. We weren't rich, I had low self-esteem and I was still wearing the patched-up trousers my mother had bought me three years earlier. 

Children would take it upon themselves to get me in a headlock, pull my hair, steal my lunch, steal my money and make fun of me. I seemed to be able to handle this and in a way it made me understand how it feels to be bullied. I found strength in helping other children and this is how I made my real friends. We were all victims of bullies and it made us stronger. We would look out for each other and the fact we had each other’s support made it easier to cope with the continuous torment of name-calling and physical violence. Everyone tells you to tell a teacher but when you’re in the thick of it, you feel trapped and helpless. We began volunteering at the youth club during the evenings and this was a huge stepping stone to where I am today. 

By this stage I was 16. I saw that working with children was a pure delight. Time would fly and the nights, instead of being filled with loneliness and the dread of the following day, were filled with laughter and the cacophony of children’s voices. Secondary school passed quickly and it was time to start thinking about the future.

My mother suggested that because I loved working with children, I should be a primary school teacher. I respected her and that turned out to be the greatest advice I would ever receive. I completed the documents and it was time to go to university.

Teaching seemed to be the best profession for me. I really wanted to make a difference. The children loved to hear stories and would often request I tell them a story at the end of each day. When I suggested we read a book together, they would insist I tell them a story from my imagination.

I have taught children from all over the world − in France, Spain, the UK and Australia, where I taught at a Muslim school in the western suburbs of Sydney. Through all those fantastic years, there was one constant. No matter what grade I taught and no matter where I worked, there was always the child who said, “Nobody will be my friend, I don’t have anyone to play with.”

As a teacher who really knew how it felt to be left out, I made it my mission to give teachers the tools required to tackle this issue through early intervention. I wrote Are These Your Glasses?, which tells the story of Sergio, a penguin who lives in Antarctica. He is left out because he’s a little bit different. The story is loosely based on my childhood and educates both the victims of bullying and the bullies themselves.

Sergio lives with his father in a small house by the ocean. At school, he doesn't have many friends because he is different from the other ‘children’. With his father as a guide, he learns some valuable lessons as he grows. These lessons help him to show great determination and strength as he tries to find true friendship. The book has been designed to inspire deep conversations within the classroom and home to educate children about how it feels to be excluded. It explains how we can overcome challenges in life by sheer determination and a great deal of care and love.

Children find it hard to explain their feelings. To tackle this, we designed the book so that the great southern lights, Aurora Australis, change colour and shape depending on the mood of the main character. This allows children to really understand what it feels like when we are isolated and, similarly, the elation and joy we feel when we are welcomed by a group and included. The book comes with free teaching guides for both parents and teachers and a mood colouring book can be downloaded free.

Talking directly about bullying is a crucial step in understanding how the issue might be affecting our children. Children must feel safe and confident to be able to talk openly. They must know there are no right or wrong answers, but it is important to encourage children to answer honestly. We can assure children they are not alone in addressing any problems. I found it helpful for the children to know that as a child I was bullied and I understood how it felt to be excluded and isolated.

As adults, it is sometimes hard to understand how it feels to be bullied. With social media and messaging apps in high demand, group chats, group invites and clicks are happening on the internet, away from the eyes of teachers and parents. We must remember that bullying through isolation and exclusion leaves no bruises, there are no visible scars or harsh words said. From my experience it is one of the hardest forms of bullying facing children today. It leaves them feeling low, lacking confidence, and deprives them of the mateship we all need.

Imagine for one minute that as an adult, you're sitting at home wishing there was something to do but it seems like it's going to be a quiet night in, alone. You check Facebook and all your 'friends' are having dinner somewhere − but you weren't invited.

As an adult you feel upset, but you get over it. You can justify not being included. Maybe they forgot? Maybe you were invited but you didn’t see it? More often than not it is an innocent mistake.

Now imagine you're six and nobody wants to play with you; you never have a partner to hold hands with on your way to class and nobody will share with you at playtime. The devastation can last a lifetime and seriously affect future confidence. As a teacher, I've seen it a thousand times.

We can stop this bullying that is so harmful to so many individuals each day, but we must act together. We must educate children from a young age about how it feels to be isolated − and how it feels when we are the ones who help another person out.

If we can begin to understand what our children are going through by building a safe environment for children to share their problems, we can help to tackle issues before they develop into scenarios that may have detrimental effects in later life.

Gavin McCormack is the senior teacher at Inner Sydney Montessori School, Balmain. Please visit www.aretheseyourglasses.com  To win a copy of Are These Your Glasses? send an envelope with your name and postal address to the editor before 10 June.

Questions such as these can really help to address bullying:

  • What does the word “bullying” mean to you?
  • How would you describe a bully?
  • Why do you think people bully?
  • Who are the adults you trust most when it comes to things like bullying?
  • Have you ever felt nervous going to school because you were afraid or upset? How could we help you to feel better?
  • Have you or your friends left other kids out on purpose? Do you think that was bullying? Why or why not?
  • What do you think we should do if we see someone with nobody to play with?
  • How does it make you feel when you make somebody happy? How does it make you feel when you make somebody sad?

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Gavin McCormack Image
Gavin McCormack

Gavin McCormack is the senior teacher at Inner Sydney Montessori School, Balmain

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