Episode 45 - Wine with BJ Murray


Welcome to another episode of Wine with Teacher, where I have a wine with an actual teacher. I'm your host Ceri from @ourcreativeclassroom on Instagram and on today's episode I have another of my favourite teacher-lit authors, Brendan James Murray, whose book, 'The School' has truly touched many teachers hearts. It has been shared all over Instagram, you can find him online at @bjmurrayauthor.

Welcome to the show.


Thank you so much for having me I appreciate it.


Right, it's that time again to pause the podcast pour yourself a well deserved glass of whatever you like, and join me. Let's have a wine - or a whine.

Coming up in today's episode we're going to be chatting about Brendan's writing journey and creating The School, as well as teaching for 11 years, he will be back on the show again in December so if you miss anything personal or if you have any questions - I can ask them then. And he will also be on the cover of the Wine with Teacher magazine!! Brendan, are you excited to be on the cover?


I'm very excited to be on the cover we, my wife and I were reading the magazines, the other day and we love to them.


First question on the podcast I normally say Tell us about your teaching journey but I would love to hear about your journey into writing and publishing The School.


So, I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember... I was one of those little kids who was just obsessed by writing stories all the time and I was probably driving some of my teachers mental with giving them these stories, constantly, and I talk in the book about a friend of my mom's whose name is Teresa when I was in primary school gave me a gift which was an old typewriter, and that was the most amazing thing ever. And I was always smashing away at those keys


That bit was so relatable because I was always told that I wrote too long stories, and I had to go back and edit the spelling mistakes, and I also had a typewriter so when I read that I just connected with it so much!!


I don't know if you have this problem but because the typewriter keys were so hard, still to this day I absolutely bash the keyboard and my students are always like Mr Murray, are you angry while you're typing so hard and I have to tell them the story about got the typewriter.

But, I suppose from there I went to university. Initially, I sort of had a sort of course change along the way but I ended up studying professional writing before I studied teaching, I decided that writing would always be part of my life because I love it so much and, and went from there.

And I think that when you consider yourself a writer, like I do as well, but when you, you consider that a part of your identity. You can't smother it down, because it just, it has a way of popping back up.

So, when I was studying at university, you had to choose your minor or your major, and I chose creative writing and screenwriting and it was the freakin best part of the degree, because it was your passion, and as teachers we get to bring that passion, then into the classroom


100% And you can see, when kids get into it, how much they love it and you see that, that same joy that we had when, when we were kids and that we still have now and it is a wonderful, wonderful thing to say.

So once I've actually transferred have sort of gone off on a boring tack here a little bit of a tangent, I love it. So I decided that I would go into a Bachelor of Education Bachelor of Arts, but I sort of made a promise to myself that I would never leave writing behind and didn't bring that with me as an English teacher so from there I commenced the career of teaching English but also writing as a hobby, I suppose you could call it but I feel like that, the word hobby isn't quite right because I just, I loved it so much and I'm so passionate about it and it's so much a part of who I am. And I think it complements, teaching very very well being, being a writer,


Being a writer, there's a sense of creativity that you bring into the classroom and that you also bring into a lesson planning. And like we know in writing, you have to have a hook, you have to have something that captures the reader. So with our lessons where we're literally like writing a lesson every day that we get to teach it's like writing a story.


Exactly right. And I feel I feel that sort of when, when I'm in that moment where I've got a whole heap of work to do and it's a big pile of correction or some planning. I'll always go well I think I'll do the planning, it's kind of a little bit of procrastination of the correction because you are in that position where you can be really creative and think about ways as you said that you can poke the class in and, and it can be a really fun thing for teachers to do.


Now one of the inspiring ways that you hooked your class and then you spoke about it in the book was using Peter Carey's collection of short stories. You've made me want to go out and buy this book, and study these chapters because of the conversations that you spoke about and the discussions that you had with your students. So what is it about his writing that really captured you?


I think it's a few things he, he takes you in those short stories into a dream world almost, it's almost like you feel like you're, you're in this ultimate reality that's almost our reality but not quite. And there's something really beautiful and thought provoking about that. The fact that the stories have got such a range of interpretations and I say that to give this a will, this story is so weird that you're going to read it, you're going to say what the hell is this about, but rather than being challenged in the sense of thinking our god, how am I going to figure out what it means, we can say to the kids. "Well, You're completely free to apply whatever meaning you want to this." So it's this sense of, of almost magical realism surrealism wonder dreamlike quality and also the freedom to interpret that having students want to


I love that, that open-ended-ness and that way that you get to see how your students perceive the world but also perceive that story like what connections are they making. In the short stories which one has resonated with you most?


One that I absolutely love to teach is called report on the shadow industry, and it's this little story about this society which seems very much like our own society, but you can buy boxes of shadows, literally, and everyone becomes obsessed by it.

Everyone's buying shadows and looking into these boxes and all they're talking about it, these shadows and the narrator is not quite sure what people are seeing when they look into these boxes and again it's that sort of, there's a kind of wondrous beauty to it but there's something dark and disturbing about it, and it's kind of it's a story about addiction, it's about consumerism, it's about imagination, there's so much going on.

And what I often like to do as a fun thing as I say, well, let's read the story again but wherever it says shadowboxes let's replace it with mobile phones. And that's, that's a very fun activity that always resonates with the kids,


I feel like it's sinister social commentary, I don't know. We're on a little bit of a tangent, but have you seen the TV series, in particular the UK version of Black Mirror?


I'm a big black mirror fan perhaps unsurprisingly! 


Both Black Mirror fans. I mean I love the old genres of like alternate realities and dystopian futures, and black mirror has a way of making you think about everything that you are consuming in life and the role that technology and also like external validation plays on with our mental health.


Definitely. I mean it's a little bit of a spoiler but I'm gonna say it anyway they carried up this brilliant thing at the very end of the story where suddenly he says I'm here I've created another one, and you suddenly like oh hang on I'm holding this book that I've bought, and he's saying in reminding us that even this this book that we're reading is this consumer product that we, that we've shelled out for, but again it doesn't have to be a story that consumers and it can be a story that all sorts of other things and kids will bring fascinating interpretations to that story and have a lot of fun with it.


Some of your previous works are the Drowned Man, about a murder in World War Two, and also Venom, about Taipan anti venom. The school is a bit of a contrast how did you come about writing about your career?


So, I was approached by a publisher who'd read Venom and she really enjoyed the book which was lovely and wanted to have a coffee with me and talk about the possibility of writing something, and we had a few coffees and a lot of conversations and eventually we came to this point where she suggested or write something about my experiences as a teacher.

And initially I was very reluctant. So for a number of reasons, I didn't know for a fact teacher of working teacher could write about the profession. I worried about the career implications there.

I also worried to a degree that, that it would be hard for me to tell the difference between what was interesting for the casual reader and what was not. Because education for us it's all interesting, but for someone who's not a teacher, it's a bit harder, I suppose to figure that out, whereas with my previous books that were nothing to do with my own life to me was quite clear as an outsider what parts are interesting and which aren't.


I find that observation interesting in your audience is your audience, teachers would you say that they are the main people who are reading this book?


Well, certainly the most of the contact I've had from members of the public have been teachers, probably because they want to say that they're resonating with what's been written, but I also really hope that non teachers will read it because of course we want people to understand what it is we do and the challenges we face and what this job is like,


I always think that now that teacher-lit is becoming a genre that it would, it would be great to know if they're not just parents, but just anyone within the society who wants to understand teaching, who are connecting and reading the book so fingers crossed.


Very much so. And I think it's that idea that there may be some reluctance as a working teacher to write something or or to get your voice out there.

I think it's really important and I would say to your listeners get your voice out there you know if you're keen to write or if you came to create a podcast or even just get out there and put your views out there and the conversations that you have with the non-teachers in your lives were the ones doing this job were the ones who need to be talking about it and not turning it over to politicians or non teachers to do that for us.


In the book I love the way that you presented the very realistic challenges that we face, but also you balanced it with the uplifting parts of the job, and quite complex parts of the job where you're trying to describe how relationships are built and how trust is formed between the teacher and the student. How did you find that balancing those perspectives?


Very challenging - because on the one hand, the last thing I would ever want to do would be write a book that somebody might read maybe a young person, for example, and think, I would never want to be a teacher, that's the last thing I'd ever want to do.

At the same time, if I were to write a book that was just all the positives and all sunshine and roses, then it becomes inauthentic, and teachers read that and they say well that's not what it's like or people read it become teachers and they say, What the hell was that guy write about in that book that's not that's not what it's like.

So I was. I'm a really big planner, when I write a book I plan, meticulously it takes me a very very long time to do that and as I was working through the plan, it was very much thinking about, Okay, where were the negatives were the positives, let's not clump too many of the negatives together without having some positive stories to break it up, and I think that's what that's what teaching is like I mean we have difficult periods, but usually that there's a positive that will break up that difficult period or even on any given day it might have been a hard day there'll be something lovely that happens or a little, little achievement that you say a student, enjoy so it was about being honest with the audience, but also celebrating the joys of the job because I do really love this job and I think it's a fantastic, fantastic profession,


That's something that's spoken about in the wine world teacher, well being club is where acknowledging the hardships or the other challenges that we come across, but we're also say, damn, we love teaching, and it's okay to acknowledge, if you're having a hard time maybe with getting on top of your workload or with relationships within the school, I know there can be some complexities within staff and that's just different personalities and that is in a lot of other professions, but also taking the time just to feel grateful that we get to do this job...


Definitely. I mean, the truth of the matter is I can literally say right now just behind my laptop, my big to do list, which I'm already behind on of course and it's got things crossed out and I've written new times in because I didn't get around to doing it.

And that, that's always there because there is so much work to do within this job, but it's very, very rewarding work, and you, you get to make a positive impact on the lives of young people, and what more of a privilege, could there be than than that I think to have the opportunity every single day to make a young person feel good or feel that they've achieved something feel that they're growing as a person, that's something that we should and I try really hard to never take for granted.



And even just making them feel safe, some of the past people who've been on the podcast teachers have just said, How rewarding and fulfilling it is to know that when their students come to their classroom, they know that they're safe there. 


Definitely, definitely. I mean one of the things I really engage with in the book is that many many many young people in Australia and around the world, that obviously running that Australia, primarily have extraordinarily challenging lives, they face, everything from economic hardships to violence to illness, very serious illness that I also wrote about in the book. And for some of them that this, as you say the safest place, the most predictable well structured place that they go every day is to school, and that's a really important role that education as an institution plays in the lives of these young people.


Now this isn't a criticism on universities but just an interesting note. Did you feel that you had a lot of trauma informed practice training to prepare you for the complex lives outside of school that that students had?


no, no, when perhaps things have changed but certainly when I finished my teaching qualification is very, very little of that. I'm quite open about the fact that I feel that my pre service training was, was far too theoretical, and that's something that I hear echoed from virtually everyone.


I was just about to say you are not alone.


And it's interesting because at the time, there was one point a while back where I sort of got in, but I try to avoid getting into arguments online but I ended up in a little bit of debate with some academics who were sort of arguing that I didn't really get it, sort of saying that, well, you know, you need to have a sound theoretical base of understanding and you know you need to learn the practical skills on placement rounds and so on.

And look, perhaps they're right I don't claim to have all the answers but I can only speak to my experience and the experience of the people I've spoken to and certainly well things like behaviour management had just how woefully unprepared we were for the behaviour management challenges of the classroom, things like de escalation I mean we know as teachers just how vital, the skill of de escalation is. I never heard the word "de-escalation" in four years of a Bachelor of Education.

I also never heard "vicarious trauma" or "trauma fatigue" like when you're working with students who have such severe needs that are so different to the lifestyle that you had growing up or the students around you growing up you know you were never exposed to that, we need to be given the skills so that we can support those students...


and it's hard to teach this stuff, I mean, I suppose, things like, I remember doing some like role plays of parent teacher interviews where you're doing a parent teacher interview with another undergrad and they're pretending to be the angry parent and it just didn't really work, like it could probably work if you're paired up with someone who's like an awesome actor and really fits into the role but I think we need to find ways of teaching that to a higher standard to pre service teachers.


I won't touch that one, but I can say the the interactions with some parents were surprising but I, when I first entered the profession. And I agree that there's some trading there for de escalation in that situation.


You love teaching. I think that comes across in the book. Do you still consider this profession, one that you'll be in lifelong because you also spoke quite courageously about the systemic changes that are needed for the joy of teaching to return. So, how long do you think you're going to stick it out?  


Well at the moment I feel that I'm going to be in this career for my whole life I intend to teach until I retire, that, that is 100%. My plan and that hasn't changed in the amount of since I've actually started teaching I've always felt that way, but I also believe that probably every teacher has said that at one point or another, so So there's always that fear that you could be worn down, but I hope that I will be teaching until I retire.


And do you have any advice around building up teacher resilience to the workload or to burnout or to coping with difficult staff or parent situations so that interpersonal, do you have any advice for resilience around those kinds of issues?


I mean it's a really hard one, and I suppose it has to be, it comes down to the individual person, but the first step, certainly were well being is concerned is just being aware of your own well being and checking in with yourself and putting yourself first. The thing that I find is one of the really powerful emotions that leads to overwork and problem burnout is that feeling of guilt.

I often have that feeling of guilt, you know, it might be a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon and my wife and I are out filling your coffee, having a coffee and suddenly have that feeling of guilt like I should be working through my to do list where I shouldn't be doing this or I should be doing that. A

nd I think recognising that that feeling of guilt is actually unhealthy and it's your it's your enemy. And if you're enjoying your life if you're having a weekend of not working. That's not a bad teacher, that's a good teacher because you're going to be happy and healthy and engaged on Monday morning when you walk into those students and not a burnt out kind of angry grumpy because you haven't had a break.


I definitely think a lot of it comes back to mindset, and in the well being club I noticed guilt is at the centre, it's at the heart of so many things like going in on weekends or staying back so late, or just like feeling like you have to prove yourself or prove that you're a good teacher by sacrificing your time or your energy or like time with your loved ones as well so it's just really being firm with your boundaries but it all comes back to that mindset of choosing to look after yourself.


Definitely and it's the the metaphor, which is perhaps an obvious one, but when the oxygen masks come down and when the planes crashing and they say well put your own mask on first because you can't actually help anyone else until you look after yourself and there's just so much truth in that in so many areas of our lives.


I think both of us aren't saying that it's all on teachers to look after themselves like there are systemic changes needed you commented on them in the book, can you share a couple off the top of your head.


Absolutely, I think at the moment, I've made no secret of my belief, I should, I should say first that data has its place, standardised testing has its place, so I'm not saying that we need to completely eliminate those things I would want to be misinterpreted, but I absolutely think that the balance between data collection and accountability and standardised testing, the balance between that and the human aspects of the job, because this is ultimately one of the caring professions that balance, we've got wrong.

And I think when and I hope it happens and there's certainly a groundswell from from teachers in terms of wanting this to happen, when the pendulum starts to swing back towards that recognition that this is a job about caring, this is a job about human beings. We're going to see teachers who are having to do less work, a fair amount of work for our pay, we're going to see happier teachers and we're going to see happier healthier kids who are more engaged in learning.



One of the things that I connected with in the book was that you have experienced anxiety as well throughout your life, as have I. How has that anxiety impacted you as a teacher, And how do you manage it.


So I think a lot of actually, this is actually the main area where non teachers have reached out to me many parents I wrote in some detail in the book about the fact that there was almost a whole year when I was in primary school where I was, you can use the word school refuser I don't really like that term but you hear that, basically, I didn't go to school for virtually a year. And I was very very sick but nobody ever figured out what was wrong with me, and it was approached as a medical problem whereas today it would be probably approached in a different way and it's become clear with time that that was very severe childhood anxiety, and that has continued into into adulthood in different ways I've gotten much better at managing it of course.

I think from a positive perspective, as a teacher, it makes you very empathetic to those types of kids, particularly kids who might be missing a lot of school, because they're anxious or because they feel they don't fit in or they're self conscious or whatever it might be so. I think I've used those experiences to build rapport with those kids and to notice those kids and to support them. That's one part of it for sure that's been really positive.


I definitely had a student who was very anxious about the health of their loved ones. And I shared with that student how affirmations can help us because they're reiterating a message into our brain they're building the neural pathway and they're saying, my family is safe, so I created an affirmation keyring that they put on their bag, and they could go and look at it during the school day, and it just, it helps so much, and I just I'm thankful in that way that I was able to offer her a strategy that had worked for me as well.


Definitely and what one of the things we can reflect on what a beautiful young person, that must be because what that is showing you worrying about the parents and that way it's someone who deeply cares, that's that depth of caring that that kid has and. And that's something that I find quite moving when I say those types of kids.


Now you've been in Victoria, for what I believe is the world's longest lockdown. How have you been coping, and is this inspiration for another book?


I don't know if I don't know if it's gonna inspire me to write another book. Certainly, we as I said we my wife and I have had it far better than many people in the sense that, despite the lockdown, with our jobs are safe, you know, teachers are always required so we didn't have that sort of financial anxiety, but yeah it has been hard being away from our families and, and that type of thing.

Of course, we, we recognise that we need to play our part in ending the pandemic and looking after people and all the rest of it so we sort of say it in that in that way. I in some ways, perhaps have handled a better than better than most because I'm very much a homebody I'm quite happy to be on the couch with my wife is much more sort of outgoing and gregarious and and she she's, she's fed up with not being able to go out and and see our friends and things like that, and you know I am too, but also we've got, we have our three month old daughter at home and absolute silver lining has been that we've been able to be together as a family.

So I think we've made the absolute best of it that we can in the circumstances, from a teaching perspective, certainly, there have been many challenges there but we've all, as educators, I think we've learned a huge amount about how flexible we can be and how technology can be used so a long and difficult period of time, but many have had a tougher and of course, nobody's had it tougher than than the people who've been sick and some people have died so I think it's really important that we remember that and put it in that context.


You have made it to the end of the podcast, it's your final question, Brendon What did you want the school, the book to achieve going out into the world.


So, I wanted to show people how amazing young people are, how amazing young people can be. And I think you mentioned earlier touched on the fact that venom the drowned man in the school, a very different which they are in their subject matter but what I think makes them really similar, and probably what will make everything I write similar because this is what I'm passionate about is really moving human stories of what what people have achieved what people have been able to overcome.

I mean I think of what I've learned, writing it, I mean story about a girl who, who came to Australia from from Kenya and some of the extraordinary things she experienced there and the extraordinary compassion that she showed in the face of real violence over there. A boy, very very sick boy, very serious illness and and how he responded to that and how he approached it just stories that lift us up and in and inspire us and move us about who we are as, as people, so that when people say to me things like, I fell in love with the characters, I love hearing that, I mean, they're not characters really they're real people that that's, that's when I know I've achieved what I wanted to achieve, because they've cared about those, those young people and, and I suppose that, that's what I want to do I want to reach people on an emotional level, and make them see how amazing and be,


Have you ever heard of the word - Sonder?.

I have!

So that's like one of my favourite words I don't think it's I think it's my recently been put in the dictionary but it was originally from maybe a blog or a book, and it's acknowledging that like everyone around you is leading a life that is as complex as your own, and you die, everyone has their own narrative and I think that's the perspective of a writer is that you look at everyone and you realise that they're thinking and feeling something completely different to you.


Yeah, and that you as you're walking down the street, the centre of your own universe, you're actually just an extra in someone else's story. And in some cases, a very very very minor extra. Yeah, it's a, I love looking at the world like that and thinking about that, and everyone has got a fascinating story. Every person if you sit down and talk to them, it's there to be shared.


That's what the podcast is, that's what the magazine is, it is and going on the golden tour like meeting the teachers that I met in Perth, every one of them has something close to their heart and that they're passionate about and that they want people to know and it's all based on where they've taught, which kids, they've met. That's it for this episode. Thank you for tuning in, Brendan did you want to say anything before we go,


I just thank you so much for, for having me on. I love your work, keep it up and yeah it's been good fun.


Thank you for writing the book, go out and get it, it is cold, the school, it has pictures of broken pencils you can't miss it. Is that time again to raise your glass and say cheers. Cheers.

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