A labour of love

James Matysek, Northern Peninsula Area State College, Qld.

26 March 2019

James Matysek was enticed into a teaching degree when he spotted a poster by chance. He quickly became a passionate and committed educator serving one of Australia’s most remote areas.

In 1990, aged 18, senior teacher and union activist James Matysek was living in Bamaga in Far North Queensland, stacking shelves at the local store, when he saw a James Cook University poster calling for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to undertake teacher training.

The photographs of black students at the university made a profound impression. “If these people are studying at a university [I thought] maybe I really could do that,” he says.

Matysek returned to Bamaga as a qualified teacher, with a strong sense of wanting to repay the community for his education. His plan to stay for five years became 20, and he is now head of student services across the Northern Peninsula Area State College’s three campuses and a member of the union’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocacy forum Gandu Jarjum.

In 2014, Matysek was named Torres Strait NAIDOC Person of the Year for his contribution to his people and community in education.

In his school role, Matysek heads up the engagement team, working with families to help make education a priority. “We work with families whose kids aren’t coming to school, where there are behaviour issues, and try to work out why they’re not coming to school.”

Matysek’s wish list for improvements includes increased funding and resources, and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curriculum but, most of all, it includes having local and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers as role models. “Children get it when someone from their own mob is telling them that it is possible,”
he says.

The quick fixes offered by Canberra or Brisbane, such as short-term teacher appointments or yet another program or “data hunt”, frustrate him. “Our context is very different here,” he says.

Being a member of the union has been the “one constant, reassuring comfort since the beginning of my career” and it gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators a voice, Matysek says.

“We unite to deliver our issues, our ideas and, most importantly, our solutions to government. It is simply a labour of love working together to bring about meaningful change, especially for Indigenous students and staff.”

Matysek wants to see all politicians and education departments better acknowledge women’s roles in leadership and their right to equitable pay and superannuation, aligning with NAIDOC’s 2018 theme Because of Her We Can. “I look back at all the major influences that I’ve had from women. [These] strong Indigenous women have stepped up and been leaders for us.”

By Krista Mogensen

This article originally appeared in the Australian Educator Autumn 2019.