Jim and Jillian Dellit established this website to bring together their various endeavours, to engage with and contribute to the educational community and educational delivery. Jillian is continuing this work both in her own right, and to keep faith with Jim's life, 1947-2014, and their productive partnership 1970-2014.

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Conversations with Baby Boomer Teachers: Profile 31

Posted by Jillian in Aboriginal education, Biography, Education reform, equity, History of Education
August 31

When E2 matriculated in Western Australia her first career choice was Speech Therapy. She had for years and years pursued Music, Speech and Drama out of school hours and had studied Music at school. She matriculated with 11 subjects, including French and German. Her father, who came to Australia from Greece in 1922 at the age of 9, had achieved 10 subjects but not matriculated because he did not pass English.

There were no scholarships available for Speech Therapy, and no course she could pursue in Perth. She needed to move to Melbourne to study Speech Therapy. None was offered that year. Her second choice was Law, but family could not have afforded for her to do that.

She opted therefore, for her third choice – teaching. She took a bonded scholarship to Claremont Teachers College for a two-year training course in Primary Teaching. The course began on 14th February 1966 – the same day as the introduction of decimal currency into Australia, so her first allowance payment was made in the new Australian dollars!

It was a generalist primary course and she majored in PE. Her brother was good at sport and her whole family was active. They lived opposite the Leederville Oval. Her mother took them swimming and they attended the Australian Championships at the Oval. Her father, who had polio as a child, did not play sport but was interested and encouraged his children. E2 was interested in, and good at, sport.

On graduation, she was sent to a country school between Bunbury and Busselton. She met her future husband in Perth at around the same time.  After two years in the country and a further two years in Perth, they moved to South Australia. When E2 applied to the SA Education Department for a teaching position, she was offered, and accepted, Pennington Primary.

There was a migrant hostel at Pennington and many of its children attended the primary school, where the enrolment was around 1000.  As she became more settled, people would ask her why she didn’t negotiate a different placement. It did not occur to her that negotiation was possible. It had not been possible in WA. By the time it occurred to her she was engaged with the children and hooked.

At Pennington each year level had four classes. Initially, the background of the students was mostly Spanish, Dutch and English but soon the wave of people displaced by the Vietnam War began. Children stayed until their parents found their feet and obtained housing outside the hostel, although a number settled in the local district and continued attending the school. On the whole, the migrants from England stayed longer than those from other cultures.

When E2 was first appointed, the principal and deputy were at the end of their careers. The staffroom had four tables and teachers gravitated habitually to one of the four. One was the young teachers’ table, one the older teachers’ table and two were more mixed. The young teachers’ were very critical of the principal. E2 was one of the few staff members who could simply move between the tables and fit in with each group.

When the principal and deputy retired the school was designated “Class A” – a new category introduced to attract energy, ideas and high performance. The new administration rose to the challenge. The school became involved in the Disadvantaged Schools’ Project and introduced a new reading program. Teamwork was encouraged and opportunities set up for leadership in new curriculum areas and professional development as well as community liaison and English as a Second Language. Teachers volunteered to trial new curriculum.

E2’s first class was Grade 5. She then taught Grade 7. She was asked to take on a Community Liaison role 0.6 and classroom teaching 0.4. Her Community Liaison role took her into homes. The school ran a number of camps and excursions, which many families could not afford. E2 was able to negotiate deals with parents to make sure children has experiences outside home and school. She loved the nature of the community – the extended families, their ambitions and hopes. She looked for ways to communicate with grandparents, aunts and parents. She noticed that Aboriginal parents attended the school for sporting events but rarely other things. She worked with the Junior Primary Community Liaison Officer – and with a newly-appointed Aboriginal Liaison Officer to visit all families in their home. It was important that non-Aboriginal staff visited Aboriginal homes. The Aboriginal Liaison Officer  set up a program of home tutoring, which meant finding teaching students willing and able to undertake the home tutoring. It had two-way benefits. They also set up an Aboriginal parents’ program. E2 learned a lot about the variations in the Aboriginal Community.

She was able to set up groups that linked home and school – so teachers had greater understanding of culture and student need and the community understood more about how to support children’s formal education.  They set up strategies to deal with highly disruptive families, taking disruptive students home after episodes and negotiating their return, program, behaviour management and expectations.  She learned a great deal about behaviour management – and about identifying and using all the resources at your disposal.

After fourteen years, E2 moved from the school to work in the Disadvantaged Schools Program. She realised that Pennington had given her so much – a multicultural perspective, a knowledge of families and how to bridge students from where they begin to where they want to be. She had an understanding of aspiration. The Vietnamese families, in particular, had high ambitions for their children. Both they and their children worked hard and had clear Middle Class aspirations. She had also observed and come to understand the impact of poverty of the spirit – and the way it constrained ambition and achievement.

Working for the Disadvantaged Schools Program as a State-wide coordinator gave her further insights. The head of the unit delegated well and trusted staff to engage with clients and to challenge the criteria for funding. She observed the effect on schools of various leadership styles and practices – with wide variations in success. She spent time in country schools, including the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. She worked with a State-wide committee of principals and deputy-principals to decide on the program and funding allocation. This gave her an understanding of many perspectives and experience in problem-solving and collaboration.

A conference in Sydney, called in response to then-Prime Minister Hawke’s declared ambition that by the year 1990 No Child Will Live in Poverty, saw South Australia volunteer to be a Pilot State to implement measures to achieve that. This gave the South Australian Disadvantaged Schools Program a profile, exposure to scrutiny and a focus on curriculum change.

E2 undertook further study, obtaining first a 3 year Diploma, then a B.Ed before enrolling in a Bachelor of Business focusing on HR. It was now, however, 1991 and Australia entered a recession.  Jobs were lost and government programs began to close down. E2 returned to a school in Adelaide’s inner north, at that time comfortably Middle Class. She relished her time there. Her experience made her sensitive to the needs of disadvantaged students overlooked by some teachers –an Aboriginal girl, for example, whose ability was not respected by her classroom teacher. It made her aware of the way individual students could be disadvantaged within a relatively advantaged school.

She was invited to take, and accepted, a six-month appointment as a School Development Officer in the Elizabeth office of the Education Department. There she worked with John Connell, Brendan Ryan, Helen Ellis, Trish Moore and Robin Anderson – all of whom were, or went on to become, systemic leaders and influencers in education.

In the 80s and 90s, the South Australian Education Department had increasingly opened up school leadership positions to open advertisement. E2 had applied for Deputy Principal positions but her experience in Community Liaison work and Disadvantage was not recognised as significant to the mainstream. Now, at Elizabeth, her superintendent challenged that, telling her that she clearly had management and leadership experience that she could, and should, draw on to gain promotion.

She therefore applied for Principal jobs at the end of that year, and was successful in winning the Principal’s job at a Primary School in a rural town on the North Western outskirts of Adelaide. It is an area of extensive market gardens, producing a significant proportion of Adelaide’s fruit and vegetables. It had been settled by successive waves of immigrant workers. The longer-established communities were Greek, Italian and Turkish in origin, the more recent Vietnamese. 33% of the students when E2 arrived were of Vietnamese parentage. 75% of students had a non-English speaking background.

She was the first female principal at the school. This presented a challenge for the community. To get across the reality that she, the female in the team, was indeed Principal, she found herself explaining to one of the students in  Reception : “I’m the boss. He (the Deputy) is the 2nd boss!”

She found the school in poor physical condition. She set about fighting for the money to improve the facilities – in a climate of cut-backs and recession. Inside the school, she noticed immediately that there were no Vietnamese students on the SRC. The fight for change took on both scope and scale.

As she had done at Pennington, she set about engaging the various communities, but particularly the Vietnamese community. The school provided Saturday classes in Vietnamese language for students, so she set up a parent group to run at the same time, once per term while parents were waiting for their children.  They held meetings focusing on a range of curriculum and educational matters. There were 20-30 parents present each Saturday.

The group wanted to be involved in improving the school and raised the money to set up and equip a computing room. This also changed the composition of the School Council, which became more representative of the community and a power-house of support, cooperation and change.

Much work was also done with staff. Reports were identified as being an issue. E2 was able to argue for and, for the first time, gain, translation services for reports and also for parent-teacher interviews. Ten interpreters were present at parent-teacher interview nights and teachers would sit down with the family and an interpreter.

There was a Horticulture Centre in the local area and the Chair of the School Council instituted town Expos. He wanted the school to be involved. A teacher with calisthenics expertise developed a program with the students for presentation at expos.

It was a dynamic environment. The Cluster group to which the school eventually belonged was focused on change and improvement. There was a lot of learning for leaders, teachers, parents and students. E2 discovered she was good at change management. She could take people with her. Her  school was accepted as a Literacy and Science focus school and could (and did) apply for grants. Staff took on programs and projects, attending and conducting workshops, trialling and evaluating. The whole school changed. When she had arrived at the school there was no money and a $65 000 per annum budget. Now the school had a terrific ESL/Literacy coordinator and was winning prizes. The whole curriculum took on an ESL, Literacy and Science focus. All reading material was about Science. Newsletters and excursions focused on Science.

The ESL teachers and the teacher-librarian worked together to release a plan of resource support for the cross-curriculum program. The library underwent a major overhaul, resources sitting in staff rooms and personal desks were catalogued and made accessible. It was a curriculum and learning revolution, beginning with Science and moving on to other curriculum areas.

Much of the school’s multicultural curriculum, the emergence of Studies of Asia and multi-cultural studies and languages was documented for the State.

Eventually E2 moved on to roles in the Languages and Multicultural Portfolio managing Languages and other programs. After stints in Curriculum including managing languages and as Curriculum Superintendent she was placed for a year at a school in Adelaide’s north-western suburbs where she worked on a data program to identify what was being neglected in the curriculum. This work was built from the work and knowledge gained in curriculum including her Superintendent roles. She with also worked in partnership with the Health Department in the Healthy Schools Program, running 70 workshops for Principals and others across the State.


Change and change management have been the themes of her career. She discovered she was good at it – able to work with a wide range of people, take their needs into account and bring people together to deliver outstanding learning. She became skilled at reading situations and getting people on side. She enjoyed including all groups – parents, principals, consultants, teachers and communities. She learned to listen to their views rather than philosophising.

She always found it easy to work with students with speech problems. She had a good musical ear, but found learning music a bit stifling. She was, however, involved in kids choirs and choral music in WA.

Law interested her. There were lawyers in her family. It still appeals.

During her childhood, they had always had Aboriginal people in their home. Her mother regarded their treatment as not fair. Her father talked non-judgmentally to all people and was interested in them. He had friends who belonged to a church that spoke in tongues and she experienced this, finding out that one language was an old Biblical language. She grew up learning to accept and not judge. This stood her in good stead when faced with the diversity of migrant groups in the schools she taught in in South Australia. Acceptance and accommodation came naturally to her and enabled her to find ways of meeting the range of needs confronting her. It was these ingrained values and attitudes of her upbringing that formed the basis of her practice rather than the subjects she pursued throughout those early years, as important as they were to her at the time.

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