Bernie Shakeshaft's education had little to do with the written word; in fact, he says some of his best learning came from people who didn't speak his language, and he didn't speak theirs.
It turned out that his own "watch, make mistakes, and learn" way of learning also works well for other young people who don't fit into conventional education. For 15 years, Mr Shakeshaft has been building his own holistic education curriculum in the form of the BackTrack program, which works to help young people who have gone off the rails back onto a track of purpose and meaning.
BackTrack's methods have met with such success, in a field where success is rare and hard-won, that Mr Shakeshaft has this year been recognised by the University of New England with an Honorary Doctorate. As well as honouring Mr Shakeshaft's contribution to the community, it is implicit recognition that great educators don't necessarily draw on books.
Mr Shakeshaft has drawn on other traditions, as befits his temperament. He does not remember his school years fondly: today, he thinks, he probably would have been diagnosed with dyslexia.
"I quickly learned that it was better to be tough than to be seen as dumb," he says. "I don't think my education really started until I left school – and that opens up the question, what is education?"
He found his own style of learning when he went to work on the Snowy Mountains farm owned by Paul and Annette Roots. "They let me learn by watching and doing, and by letting me make a lot of mistakes. That's what worked for me. The main teachers of my life have been three or four old blokes, all from the bush, who let me make my own mistakes."
Later, working on a Territory cattle station with Aboriginal people, he encountered new ways of understanding the world.
"We might be lost trying to find a new bore with a thousand cows and calves. The sun is going down. No-one had been to this bore. But the old fellas, they knew where to go. They'd be watching which way the kangaroos tracks went, where the birds were flying. These blokes couldn't speak English; they had completely different lives to mine; but they taught me a lot about paying attention, and about how much Aboriginal people see that we miss."
The other vital ingredient of learning is, of course, interest in the subject. The start of Mr Shakeshaft's 'real' education began when, on the Roots's farm, he discovered horses, dogs, and the exacting work of training working dogs.
It's not a coincidence that dogs and dog training are integral to BackTrack's approach. The program puts dog training at the heart of its work to build "life-long lessons in trust, self-discipline and a growth in self-confidence" BackTrack dog jumps have been staged for audiences across the country. They been watched by parliamentarians and royalty.
"Having an interest in something, and someone to look up to, makes you want to learn. When we first started working with kids we had a cool bloke who could handle a welder – so the kids wanted to be welders. When we started doing ag stuff, they started walking around in cowboy hats. Now we've got a cool builder, and the kids are into building. They aren't judged on whether that ever works out, because while they are interested, they are learning something."
BackTrack's rise was slow, then fast.
For about a decade, many in the New England community knew something good was happening down at the BackTrack sheds, and BackTrack's excellent record of helping youths move on from bad backgrounds won the backing of police and courts.
Then word started to get out more widely, because young people out of kilter with society is not just a problem for Armidale. BackTrack's methods delivered success rates significantly better than most other programs aimed at helping young people. Recognition started to flow: NSW Youth Service of the Year in 2015; Australian Crime and Violence Prevention Award in 2017; the Spera Australian Rural Education Award and Youth Action Awards NSW Youth Service of the Year in 2018.
The release of Catherine Scott’s award winning documentary BackTrack Boys at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival introduced Mr Shakeshaft's educational philosophy to a wider audience. In 2019 the book "Back on Track", a biography of Mr Shakeshaft by James Knight, was published to a warm reception. In 2020, Mr Shakeshaft was recognised as the year's "Local Hero" in the Australian of the Year Awards.
BackTrack now has a much wider footprint than the New England. After 15 years of trial and error, Mr Shakeshaft and his team have consolidated the principles that yield the best results with the widest range of troubled youth. The team has now established "BackTrack Everywhere", to help communities grappling with their own youth challenges to get started on a BackTrack-style program, but in their own way.
Despite the accolades, Mr Shakeshaft remains laid-back — at least in public — stockman-booted and sweary: he would still slot right into cattle station life.
The guiding principle of his working life has been that when the work stops giving value – "you get bored, or you stop learning, or it's just not feeding the soul" — he closes the door quietly and moved on. "If you're at work for 70 per cent of your waking life, you'd better enjoy it."
He has now spent 15 years patiently helping young people who can be disengaged, explosive or sulky, or all three, which is work that few people would want to undertake. But he's not yet ready to close the door quietly and move on.
Mr Shakeshaft will receive his UNE Honorary Doctor of Letters honoris causa (HonDLitt) at a future graduation ceremony.