All for one, and one for all

Maurie Mulheron

Teaching is a profession that exists to create the future. It is why so much of what we do is couched in the future tense.

As teachers we harbour hopes that the children and young people we teach will become knowledgeable, well-balanced and inquisitive adults ready to take up their roles as fellow citizens committed to making this world a better place.

We want them to grow into adults who care for others, for their families, for their community, for humanity and for the planet.

It is why teacher unions just about everywhere refuse to be straightjacketed into a role that restricts our work to simply “wages and conditions”.

Of course, salaries and conditions will always be our core business but we fight for improvements in these knowing the broader social context in which we all live and work.

This brings me to the marriage equality debate that is now dominating national politics. As a union, we will add our voice along with other progressive organisations in support of the campaign to allow consenting adults the right to choose marriage.

The stand we have taken, determined in our democratic decision-making forums, should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows our history, a history that we have an opportunity to celebrate next year, our 100th anniversary.

Let me offer just a few examples.

In 1932, in NSW the Married Women (Lecturers and Teachers) Act was passed forcing all women who were married to leave the teaching service.

Fifteen years of campaigning by Federation led to the Act being repealed in 1947 but not before it had destroyed careers and led to enormous financial hardship.

Federation campaigned for equal pay for women teachers. Indeed, the issue was first carried as a campaign objective back in 1920, before any other union.

Despite objections from some quarters even within Federation, it remained a critically important campaign. It was not until 1958 that the NSW Government agreed to equal pay for women teachers but, even then, phased it in over five years.

On championing the rights of Aboriginal people, the Federation has a proud history and the story will be told in a feature documentary being filmed this year in preparation for the union's centenary year.

Federation has always promoted peace, believing that all wars are fought against children.

Many of our members throughout the state were closely and actively involved in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. Young male trainee teachers who were draft resisters were supported by the union.

The list of causes that tried to make the world a fairer place and which the Federation has supported over the years is long.

Yet so many, once regarded as radical, such as opposition to apartheid in South Africa and support for the Green Bans movement that successfully preserved so many of our historical buildings, are now accepted as politically mainstream.

We are a union that champions equality, not out of any loyalty to another’s political agenda, but because, as teachers, we want our children to grow up in a world that accepts all and celebrates diversity.

After all, it is what we practise, model and teach every day in our public schools. Despite this, however, we know that there are young people in our schools whose life is not easy.

These are the students who come to school each day frightened. Frightened of the physical assault they may suffer, whether it be a punch or a sly push from behind. Frightened of the insults. Frightened of being ostracised. Fearful of the name-calling they will endure. Scared of what life may hold for them. Silent in class, rather than answer a question and risk having their answer labelled as “gay” by a fellow student.

Many endure this for years; every day, on the bus to school, in class, at recess, at lunchtime and on the bus home. We also know that for many, home is not safe either.

These students may be gay or lesbian or just plain unsure of their sexuality. We know that many will become deeply depressed, some will attempt suicide.

Of course, we also know that there will be many who will find support at their school but far too many do not.

We also know that many teaching colleagues are targeted because of their sexuality. Sometimes this could be an insult by students they teach or an innuendo designed to embarrass. Sometimes it is more.

We also know that many of our students come from same-sex families.

So, now that the government has announced a $122 million sham opinion poll on marriage equality, it may be time to pause and reflect on just what kind of society we want. For most of our history, as a union, we have tried to make the education system in this country fairer, more inclusive and celebratory of difference.

But we have done this in the hope that our society will also accept all and care for all.

This is why we offer our support for the campaign to achieve marriage equality because we know that there will be many students and staff in our schools who may turn up to school if the nation shows its support for the change, a little less frightened.

Some years ago, I learned to play the main theme from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on my five-string banjo.

I did it so I could sing the tune with new lyrics written by my musical mentor, the late Pete Seeger. I like to think his words could provide our union and, indeed, public education, with its anthem:

Build the road of peace before us
Build it wide and deep and long
Speed the slow, remind the eager
Help the weak and guide the strong
None shall push aside another
None shall let another fall
Work beside me sisters and brothers
All for one and one for all

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