From the ephemeral hymns sang at weekend mass, to the expansive record collections of his three older siblings, music has always been a powerful force in Brett Wood’s life.
His taste in tunes developed – as it does in many kids – through pop songs on the radio. Before long, he was swept up by hard rock, punk, new-wave, and Australian pub rock. Then there were the bastions of the surf culture he immersed himself in: Marley, Dylan, and Neil Young, the latter of whom sung a line that would come to define Wood’s view on life and work: “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust”.
As his passion for music grew, Wood’s interest in school wained. “I topped my class in Year 1. Peaked too early.” In his teens, he got into plenty of trouble. Nothing serious, but enough to put him on the deputy’s radar. It wasn’t that he intentionally wanted to cause problems; they were merely a means of distraction from classwork he found fairly easy, but tedious and irrelevant.
Back then, the idea that Wood would become an educator himself was one that would not have entered the realm of possibility.
Then, not two months after he entered his final year of school, Wood’s father died.
He dropped out of school, and took a menial job. There he might have stayed if he wasn’t let go in January of the following year. School was set to recommence shortly after, so Wood made the decision to return and complete his secondary education.
That year, Wood took physical education class with a teacher named Bob Allen. Allen inspired Wood with the care and attention he devoted to his students. “He obviously loved his job, got to play sport with kids all day and had 10 weeks of holidays a year. Seemed like a good career choice at the time, so I decided to follow his example.”
“There is a fair bit of Bob Allen in how I work with students today.”
After graduation, Wood applied to the Brisbane College of Advanced Education (now QUT) to study a Diploma of Teaching. Graduating in 1984, he spent the next two years at Yeronga High, before a three-year stint at Woree State High School in Cairns, after which he came back to Brisbane and took a position at Browns Plains State High School in 1990. He’d teach here for the next 11 years.
Wood recognised that the schooling system was failing students like the one he had been a decade prior; students who, for whatever reason, were not being engaged by the curriculum. However, he took the problem at face value. “It’s like a fish never thinks about water: it’s just what has always been.”
Things started to change in 1996, when Wood helped establishing The Spot, a youth centre for disenfranchised kids in the Brisbane and Logan regions. He shared his passion for music through live music events. Seeing how the kids connected with these offerings, he began to expand: he created a recording studio, a radio station, all-ages venue The Hive, and Starving Kids Records, a record label that supported emerging Queensland artists, including The Medics, The Winnie Coopers, and The Paper and the Plane. Wood’s love for music inspired and engaged young people from all across the state, establishing a sense of community for those often branded as outsiders.
It was only a matter of time before all of Wood’s projects united and morphed into his most ambitious and impactful venture yet: Music Industry College (MIC).
Founded in 2010, MIC was designed to create education through a vehicle students could connect with. “I guess you could sum it up by saying we meet kids where they are at, and accept them for the individuals they are.”
It’s a music-based high school not framed by rules, but on the four pillars of Trust, Respect, Participation, and Community. Students don’t wear uniforms, are free to exhibit their tattoos and piercings, and are on a first-name basis with their teachers.
Classes are kept intentionally small to ensure students’s voices are heard. There’s an intentional lack of emphasis on “THE NUMBER” – Wood’s term for grades – and a greater focus on a personalised, contextualised approach driven by teacher autonomy.
Ultimately, the core of MIC is based on providing a school that serves the students, not the other way round.
“Chalk and talk is dead.”
The concept behind MIC was entirely unique in Australia’s educational landscape, and uniqueness comes with challenges. Challenges far greater than Wood envisioned. There was the issue of financing, and of finding ways to instil faith in the community that such a radical system had great potential.
Then, of course, there was bureaucratic red tape. Faced with arguments that “art can’t be taught”, or that “teaching children arts is no way of preparing them for the real world”, Wood had to explain that not only did he kind of agree, but that teaching the arts wasn’t the school’s intention in the first place. “…Rather, we encourage the individual student’s artistic expression. We guide, support, and point them in the right direction.”
It was the support of Fortitude Valley PCYC, who rented out their property to MIC below market rates, and the faith of the 27 students – and their families – who made up the first MIC class, that ultimately brought the school, and Wood, through these trying times.
MIC isn’t just teaching factoids; it’s instilling attributes key to finding success – in whatever form – into students who are not connecting with traditional education systems. Chief among them is courage. The courage to pursue their chosen futures.
“The endless support from everyone at MIC just got me through. If it wasn’t for that support, I wouldn’t have gone to university”, says Dylan, a student from the class of 2011 who is studying to become a teacher.
“Being in a small school with lots of support, being in a situation where I was treated as an adult, gave me the confidence.”
Dylan’s currently a teacher’s aide at MIC. Wood thinks he may, one day, run the school.
Other MIC students have gone on to study in such varying fields as law, medicine, film, psychology, and social work. Many others continue to chip away at the industry, hoping to join the ranks of successful graduates including Sahara Beck, JOY, and Thelma Plum, all of whom mentor students on an ongoing basis.
It’s not just the students who are taking lessons from the school. Wood admits that running the school has taught him “how much I don’t know. It’s important to keep learning about yourself and everything that goes with running a school”.
“I’ve learnt that kids are amazing and can achieve incredible things if we step aside and let them…If you build a mutually respectful and genuine relationship with your students they will learn anything. They will also teach you so much too.”
MIC has a ‘drop out’ rate of less than one student per year, a remarkable statistic Wood puts down to these very relationships. “In some cases, we’ve actually helped students find a job, apprenticeship, new school, or TAFE course when they have decided to leave. In those cases, I don’t see them as drop outs; they’ve just chosen a different, but still positive path.”
Today, the MIC has its own facilities, after purchasing a property in Fortitude Valley a mere four years after the school was established. Wood hopes to bring campuses to the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Cairns, and even Sydney and Melbourne in the future.
Most of all, he hopes to pass on the school to graduates, so that they may support and inspire students as Bob Allen did for him, and he continues to do for them.