Union's multiplying mob

Film documentary to show the rise of Aboriginal teaching and education

Dinoo Kelleghan

Vic Chapman with young fan Joel Foster. Photo: Adam McLean/Fairfax.com

Vic Chapman, the first Aboriginal principal in NSW public schools, had to work for years in a public education system where an Aboriginal student could be kept out of school if non-Aboriginal school parents objected to the child’s presence.

Mr Chapman, who has been a teacher and Federation member since 1952, had to follow a Teacher’s Handbook that contained this racist rule until 1972, when it was expunged.

The stories of Vic Chapman and other members who blazed a trail for today’s Aboriginal teachers, and the outstanding contribution made by Federation members to the long campaign to uphold the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and advance the cause of Aboriginal education are being recorded in a documentary that Federation has commissioned Matilda Films to make, with directors Gillian Moody, Piers Grove, Xanon Murphy and Paddy Gorman. A recent project of Matilda Films was Blood on the Coal — The Queensland Miners' Story.

Deputy President Gary Zadkovich outlined the project: “The film will honour the great contribution made by many Federation members over decades of sheer, hard struggle for justice and equality for the First Peoples of our nation. It will feature as an important part of the Federation’s centenary celebrations next year.”

“It’s a historical journey and a great resource showcasing Federation’s social justice lineage,” Aboriginal Education Coordinator Charline Emzin-Boyd said.

Well into the 1960s, schools in NSW were segregated – some stubbornly clinging to segregation even after this was outlawed – and Aboriginal children were only required to be educated to be domestics and farm labourers, entrenching disadvantage.

In 1958, Federation called for an end to segregation. Three years later, Federation conducted a survey of conditions in Aboriginal schools, campaigning on its findings that unqualified lay teachers had substandard training that undermined their pupils’ learning prospects.

Federation’s documentary will feature interviews with longstanding Indigenous activists and salute non-Aboriginal teachers who advocated for Aboriginal education in decades past.

“Cathy Bloch, Gloria Phelan, Bill Leslie — teachers like these had a passion for justice,” Ms Emzin-Boyd said. “Jessie Street was a great advocate. When it was tough to be involved in Aboriginal education, these people were doing it.”

Also prominent among the non-Aboriginal member activists was Alan Duncan, Federation’s 1963 representative to the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, who headed the council’s Education Committee and helped found the non-profit Aboriginal Education Council (AEC) 50 years ago to support Aboriginal teachers’ aides.

“We’re talking to people like Aunty Joan Tranter who has travelled across the country for many years, representing Federation and the AEU,” Ms Emzin-Boyd said. “She and the others are so humble despite the inspiration they have given to others. And Linda Burney [Federation member, first Indigenous member of state parliament and first female Indigenous member of the House of Representatives] … they don’t flaunt the depth of their involvement with Federation: you have to prise it out.

“That’s what we’re starting to build on, these stories.”

The idea came from longstanding fellow activist Paddy Gorman of the CFMEU, at a Federation Aboriginal Friday Night Forum. “You should tell the story of Aboriginal education,” he told Ms Emzin-Boyd. “This is a really important story.”

“He saw that there was a story from the union perspective and also the story of Aboriginal teachers and what they achieved,” she said.

There are points of sadness in the work of these pioneers of Aboriginal education: Evelyn Webb (formerly Robinson), who qualified at Sydney Teachers College and went to teach in 1953 at Cabbage Tree Island, near Ballina on the NSW north coast, said in an interview that year, “It isn’t easy to get yourself accepted”.

Schools were often points from which the Aboriginal Protection Board organised the removal of light-skinned Aboriginal children from their families and at Cabbage Tree Island Ms Webb saw this happen, she told the Sydney Morning Herald in an interview.

When she retired in 2007, after teaching in several public schools and Grafton TAFE, the then education minister called her “a living treasure”.

Life Member Marcia Browning, who recently retired from full-time teaching after 45 years but still works part-time, describes her isolation at Lismore Teachers College.

“You certainly missed your mob there. There wasn’t anyone else in Teachers College who was Indigenous. I was lonely,” she said.

“And when I started teaching there were very, very few other Indigenous teachers; there was no such thing as a Federation Aboriginal Members List. It was wonderful when we bumped into another Aboriginal teacher — it felt like you were coming home! Now it’s good to see so many Aboriginal teachers and members in Federation.”

There are now 1250 teachers on Federation’s Aboriginal Members List, and 30 Aboriginal principals in NSW public schools.

The commitment to Aboriginal education is carried on through the generations. Corrimal High School teacher Joel Foster (pictured above), who became full-time just a few weeks ago and received the inaugural Victor Chapman Award last November, is a young non-Aboriginal teacher who leads a team of teachers in Aboriginal education at his school near Wollongong, working across the curriculum.

In geography, for example, in discussing country borders, he introduces the topic of the breakup of Aboriginal lands with the coming of English colonisers and the impact of this on Aboriginal peoples.

“Aboriginal education is for everyone, just like literacy and numeracy,” he said. “It helps us identify who we are, who we want to be and how we don’t repeat some of the atrocities of the past.”

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