X was born in a small Italian town where she and her family lived in one room. Her mother died when she was 2. Her father had already left for Australia looking for work. X and her brother – 16 years older than she – lived with an aunt and their step-grandmother. They lived in poverty.
At the age of 4 she went to kindergarten. She has a vivid memory of, at 5 years of age, watching an Easter procession and commenting to a friend “I am going to be a teacher”.
Not long after, X came to South Australia with her mother’s sister, who became her step-mother. She went to Lockley’s Primary School with teaching still on her mind as a career. She progressed to St Mary’s College in Franklin St. Here her best friend wanted to be a secretary and X decided she wanted to work in a bank. In their final year, Sister Philippa taught them all subjects – and they all got A’s. X still wanted to work in a bank, but after the holiday period changed her mind. It was too late to enrol in teaching.She was however, directed to the “M” course. This was a training program designed to fill vacancies created by teachers resigning in March – after teacher placements had been completed, or by unexpected increases in enrolment not predicted by a school or the Education Department. The course was conducted at Wattle Park Teachers’ College. X enjoyed the course, met several life-long colleagues and did well.
Her family priest had written a letter to the Education Department asking that X, as the translator/interpreter for her parents, be appointed to a city school. She was appointed to Thebarton Demonstration School. where the Principal, Lois Lofler, won a Churchill Scholarship to London and encouraged a lot of creative activity. X learned heaps. In her class of 35, 28 students spoke no English. Most were Greek-speaking. It did not occur to the staff that this was an issue. The attitude of the school was that having two languages was an asset. Within 6-8 weeks the children would begin speaking English and quickly become bilingual. X has issues with English-as-a-second-language-based policy approaches that begin from a deficit view of student knowledge. In her experience a supportive school environment with high expectations that valued bilingualism produced strong and natural results.
X began as a student teacher at Thebarton Demonstration School and finished, eight years later, as acting principal. In that time a number of significant Early Childhood leaders passed through the school, including Barbara Denman, Ruth Rogers, Deidre Jordan and Trish Moore. They were great role models.
It was a time of school expansion and opportunity. X was appointed as Principal to a Salisbury school where there were a lot of children of Italian background and high levels of disadvantage. Here again, the children achieved great things. There was an amazing literacy teacher and, with staff working together, children performed way above their chronological ages. Staff spent a weekend with Marie Clay to consolidate their skills.
Around this time, the Education Department of South Australia introduced a new category of ‘Class A’ schools – those that were, by virtue of their size or composition, the most challenging in the State. When her school was placed in that category, X was given the choice of applying for the new job or transferring to another school. It was assumed in some quarters that an outside candidate was certain to win the position. X wanted to continue with the work at the school, and particularly with the staff she had built up. The process was daunting. In addition to an application and interview, a panel of nine visited the school and spoke to students, staff and parents. It made X strong and determined. She became politically smart. The staff were supportive. She won the job.
Her experience here reinforced and demonstrated her belief that all children can learn. They had students in Year 2 with reading ages of 11 and 12, including a boy who had been in their care from the age of 2, whose father was a pimp and who, in Year 2, had a reading age of 11 years 9 months. X attributes the success to a united staff who worked together to ensure individuals were stretched to their potential.
From here she moved to another Class A school in the process of amalgamating a primary and junior primary school. About 64% of the students at this growing school were of Vietnamese background.
One member of the school council was Mr. Doe, an amazing man with 12 children. He worked very hard to liaise with his community but eventually resigned because he believed that the school saw him as a representative, and as long as he was on the council, the school would not engage fully with the community. X set about rectifying this. She and the ESL teacher visited every family in the school in their own homes. One of the questions they asked was what arrangement would suit parents to meet with staff. The consensus was that Saturday morning would be the time that parents would most like to come to the school and meet with staff.
For most of the eight years X was at the school, therefore, the school held meetings for parents at 10 am on Saturday mornings. They discussed issues such as assessment, curriculum and literacy. The place was packed. Two more Vietnamese background parents joined the Council and one Cambodian background parent. She learned how important the community is to a school. She had, while at school herself, interpreted school forms for her own mother. She understood the impact of barriers to school engagement and the importance of community. This shaped her as an educator. She was able to build an effective, inclusive school experience for her school communities.
From here, X spent a couple of years working as Assistant to the Education Department Chief Executive. She met and worked with some amazing people and gained a wide network. Her passion for teaching never waned. She moved on to become Superintendent for a large district in Adelaide’s north-west where she remained for ten years. She saw the development of some great leaders – all of whom she can name. “They met” , she says, “and scared me silly”.
Within this working life X has fitted further study, diplomas, a degree, marriage and children.
What she does not discuss in our conversation, is the extraordinary achievement of her final school district in Adelaide’s North, in relation to literacy. When she retired, a couple of years ago, there was an extensive and deep focus on literacy that saw teachers engaged with individual student literacy, using student data, continuous professional development, experts and research. The NAPLAN results of participating schools were impressive. Her passion, drive, intelligence, experience and leadership made a big difference to students, teachers, parents and principals. It would be interesting to know whether she, in her turn, scares any of them silly. Her energy and knowledge is formidable, but entirely embedded in her teams and communities.
X has no doubt that her education and career choice influenced the way she sees the world.
She learned through early experience that education can change lives. It gave her a passion for social justice. It has influenced all her family. Her father encouraged her and was extremely proud of her achievements – particularly her Class A principalships. Her achievement was a demonstration of the family’s escape from the sorrow of her early years – still evident in the photographs that have survived from her early childhood in Italy.
Her own children have picked up her passion and commitment – giving up highly paid Criminal Law practice for Human Rights work or running kindergartens that make a difference.
She is also grateful to the Education Department, which supported her in her work and provided colleagues and leaders from whom she learned and who shared her passion and determination to make a difference.