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  What Works - The Work Program

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Jo-Anne Fahey

I grew up in Ryde in the middle of Sydney and I didn’t realise I had Aboriginal people in my family until I was about 13. Even then, I only found out because I was doing a school assignment. I came home one day and said I wanted to go to Central Australia on a study trip and that I’d be learning about Aboriginal culture and what was happening in Alice Springs. My dad just said flippantly, ‘Well, if you want to know about Aboriginal people, why don’t you just talk to your auntie?’

I suppose in a way I had always known she was Aboriginal but, in another way, it never clicked with me until then. In those days, there was still a sense that non-Aboriginal people didn’t approve of mixing with Aboriginal people and, if it happened, it wasn’t something you talked about. Later, I found out that my grandmother never approved of the marriage in the first place.


So, my aunt and the cousins I grew up with are Aboriginal and I didn’t really know that until I was in my teens. At the time, I didn’t think they had any particular impact on me but I can see now that they had a huge impact. And that impact has continued to influence the way I view things and the way that I believe that we non-Aboriginal people should learn to understand Aboriginal people. We have a collective history and we’re all together in this country.

So, I guess I’m a product of the system and our joint history and, through my teaching career, the Aboriginal community has taught me a lot.

I started teaching in metropolitan south-west Sydney at St Claire High School. In my year as a PE teacher there, I had no contact at all with Aboriginal people. If there were Aboriginal kids in the school I didn’t know about them.

Then I resigned my teaching position to travel through the Northern Territory and Western Australia for four months with some friends from university. And part of the attraction was because of that school trip to Alice Springs when I was 13. I’d always wanted to go back there and learn more.

When I came back I did some casual PE teaching for a while but still didn’t have any contact with the Aboriginal community. Then I got a permanent position at Ambervale High School in Campbelltown and began to get interested in dance and teaching dance. We formed a dance group with interested students and started to go into competitions. Another teacher was interested in the Rock Eistefford so we aimed for that.

Some Aboriginal kids were interested in dance and they were already in a group and wanted to do some Aboriginal dance. So they came into the dance group as well.

Then I met a Torres Strait Islander who was a dancer and who came and did some workshops. First, he worked with the Aboriginal kids and then with a range of others, right through the school. Then he committed to helping with the Rock Eistefford and he gave up his Sundays for six months, for free, to work with these kids. He was a big influence on me.

About the same time we also started an ASSPA committee. It was all happening around the same time, and I guess because of my enthusiasm and the kids’ enthusiasm… I was interested in doing it in lunchtimes and after school, which a lot of people now seem to think is too hard. But, that was part of how I made school fun for me as a teacher.

And then we organised a trip to the Northern Territory. I had a lot of local people laughing at me, saying you can’t take a group to the Northern Territory, the boss won’t let you, and it will cost too much, and all that sort of thing. Well, we did go, we took 32 students and some staff members and we went for three weeks, two weeks of school holidays and one week of school time. It was in the middle of the year and we also competed in the races at the River Todd in Alice Springs. The kids actually won one of the races!

So from all that I learned that, if you try, if you have a real vision, you can get there.

And then, because we went that extra mile, there were other spinoffs. The ASSPA became very strong and Aboriginal parents were involved with the Rock Eistefford. There was a separate Aboriginal dance group and the kids performed at assemblies and presentation nights and other events. We had videos of things that the kids had done in the Northern Territory. We had lunchtime activities for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal kids to come along and learn things like beading. We had the ASSPA committee running things where Elders came in and talked about history to kids at lunchtimes. We ran camps where we took Aboriginal kids and we’d also take buddy camps, where an Aboriginal student would take a non-Aboriginal student with them.

So, this all became very high profile within the school. But, by the same token, in-class Aboriginal Studies wasn’t happening at all. Wonderful things were happening separate from class. That was probably where we fell down at that time, and I suppose I didn’t understand then that it was a key issue.

Then Aboriginal Education policy implementation started in our district and I was asked to do some guest speaking with the local consultant. There were regional camps for Aboriginal students and I went to those. I was building a lot of personal knowledge and understanding and acceptance in the Aboriginal community. Then we had the opportunity to employ somebody to do the policy implementation in Campbelltown district and I put in an expression of interest and got the position. I was pulled out of school to do that and it also coincided with having babies and so I was only part-time at that point. I was spending a day every week on policy implementation and a day at school.

I’d been at the school for 12 years by that time but, in the end, I was doing policy implementation for my two days per week and I wasn’t at school at all. At that time, most of the senior staff were leaving as well, so there was a big gap and I learned something else from that… you need to have a committee, so that the knowledge and experience is spread around. Otherwise, you get that cycle where everything has to start again as a result of staff leaving. So, these experiences led me to believe that we need a shared approach to Aboriginal Education in schools.

I did policy implementation for two years and then I took long-term leave and developed a tourism business on a farm south of Sydney. I won some regional awards for business excellence in heritage and cultural tourism and then I won a state award for the same thing. In the end, I won an award for outstanding contribution by an individual to regional tourism. I was putting a little Aboriginal emphasis into my tours, but there wasn’t a lot of opportunity.

Then an opportunity came up to express an interest in a position as a relieving consultant in Aboriginal Education. This was in the Liverpool District. And I was employed to work part-time with an Elder for 12 months, sharing the position while it was advertised. She had previously been a consultant and she was wonderful. I learned so much from her but she put me through some rigorous training. Now I see it as an apprenticeship with her and with the [Aboriginal] community.

They advertised the position three times but weren’t able to get an Aboriginal person. Then I was able to apply and I got the position. It’s a privilege to have it but I believe that one of the reasons I can do the job as a non-Aboriginal person is because a lot of it is to do with curriculum. When it comes to culture, I get Aboriginal people to take charge. There’s an Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer and an Aboriginal Student Liaison Officer for instance, and community people as well.

I think other non-Aboriginal teachers can see that they, too, can learn and work with the Aboriginal community. You don’t have to be frightened of getting things wrong because you can ask the Aboriginal people who know. But teachers need to make contact with the community and spend time with them. It’s a journey that you can’t just hand to someone on a piece of paper, it’s something that they actually have to live. It’s about doing, it’s not just about reading a book and being able to regurgitate something, it’s actually about living history and a living understanding of society. It’s not an easy task but it’s just so worthwhile for all of us, for Australia, for the future.


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