Making change stick

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20 February 2024

Actions and rewards that create improvement dominate the reflections of our new educators as they look back on their year’s work.

Alex Leon, Teacher, Mount Stromlo High School, ACT

Cultural integrity priorities

In the wake of October’s Voice referendum, ACT teacher and Worimi and Lardil woman Alex Leon is continuing her activist work with the AEU. She was the ACT branch representative for the Voice campaign and worked closely with national movements such as Unions for Yes and Yes23.

Leon is helping bolster the AEU Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander committee Yalukit Yalendj to increase support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and staff.

“All educators require a secure and trusted resource to ensure cultural practices are preserved, cultural integrity upheld, truths communicated, and they feel adequately supported rather than overwhelmed by it,” she says.

A matter of culture

She’s calling for cultural integrity to be prioritised, so that teachers feel more confident about embedding it into their teaching.

“Sometimes people assume that, because I’m Aboriginal, I know all the answers. Or they see me as the ‘go-to person’ for guidance on events like Reconciliation Week or NAIDOC day. I love that people want to make sure they’re doing the right thing, but the responsibility shouldn’t fall on me because I am the Aboriginal staff member. That’s what cultural load is, and it’s very draining,” says Leon.

“I am on my own journey of cultural understanding too. While I’ve grown up on Ngunnawal Country (in the ACT) and feel connected to this land, it isn’t my ancestral land.”

She’s keen for the union to boost support for all teachers and staff on protocols to engage with the local Aboriginal community and Elders, and ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members receive the support they need.

In her advocacy work for Voice, Leon also visited AEU members at schools to speak about the referendum and ran information sessions. At Walk for Yes, she spoke to more than 5000 Canberrans as a lead campaigner for Yes23.

“I talked about who I am and where I’ve come from and what Voice meant. While we might live in Canberra, an affluent place with readily available resources, that’s not the case for many regions across Australia. We can’t have tunnel vision and be ignorant to that,” she says.

“I also called out the politicians from the ‘no’ camp about using fear and misinformation and making something political out of an issue that is a human right and about social justice.”

She said she appreciated the opportunity to network with communities in Canberra, including meeting Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Heritage lessons

Leon’s rich family heritage informs her life and work. Her grandmother was an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leader in the Gulf of Carpentaria, involved with medical and legal organisations and the Royal Flying Doctor Service and she was Mayor of Mornington Island Council at age 83. Leon’s mother is an ACT primary school teacher.

Leon’s father, a senior advisor for the National Indigenous Australians Agency, finished school at Year 10 but later obtained a university degree in his 30s. In July this year, aged 60, he successfully completed a PhD, Unconscious bias in the Australian Public Service: Implications for Indigenous employment.

Then there’s the connection to Hollywood Golden Age actor Errol Flynn. Her dad’s grandfather, Lester (Charlie) Leon, a Worimi man and activist who “advocated for our mob to be able to go to non-segregated schools”, was mugged while working in Tasmania after receiving his first ever pay cheque.

“The man who gave him his hand to help him up was Errol Flynn. He took Charlie to dinner, and that was the start of their friendship. He invited my grandfather to go over to America with him,” says Leon. “But my pop said he couldn’t leave his Country and the work he was doing for his people here.”

A grip on the future

While Leon’s mob hails from Denham Country near Mornington Island, she’s put down roots in Canberra and bought a house there with her partner.

Leon says her heart is “very much in education”, particularly in ensuring cultural integrity.

“I’m definitely going to be in an education space but for me, and as I think of my Elders, we all have activist blood in us. Education is such a key to healing our Country, but a classroom makes such small ripple effects.

"I’m passionate about Indigenous issues all the time, not just for a subject on this day.”


  • Alex’s live Instagram “ask me anything” sessions, Mondays 3:30-4:30pm on Instagram @voiceyarns
  • Lester (Charlie) Leon 1900-1982

Jake Freeman-Duffy, Assistant principal, St Marys North Public School, NSW

Behaviour as brain science

Brain science has come into sharp focus for Gumbaynggirr man Jake Freeman-Duffy. He’s been urging teachers to rethink their reactions to learners who are having a “meltdown”.

He suggests thinking about what might be going on in their brains.

“When a child’s behaviour is problematic, they’ve switched from operating from their frontal cortex to their stem, for survival mode,” he says.

“What they need is someone to be present, listen, and not necessarily to talk at them. Step back and let them get back into their frontal cortex without being pushed. As a teacher, you need a lot of patience and self-discipline not to react.”

Freeman-Duffy got a deeper insight into brain functioning from two leadership courses he recently completed – the Art of Leadership, and Stronger Smarter. They inspired him to revamp his presentation to beginning teachers at the New South Wales Teachers Federation (NSWTF) in September.

“I’ve changed it completely from what I used to do, which was about how to set up behaviour management in their classroom. I want them to get a deeper understanding about why that child is behaving that way. I also cover curriculum differentiation,” he said.

A new start

In Term 3, Freeman-Duffy and the other stage 2 teachers at his school tried out a proactive behaviour management approach from the Life Skills GO Flexihubs program.

Instead of teachers starting each day with a roll call, each student taps their name on a touch-screen computer and indicates how they’re feeling: happy, calm, tired, or angry. Teachers glance at those check-ins before the class forms a circle.

“There are five steps: you greet the person to the left, then right of you by name; we talk about school values; I ask them about their expectations for the day; we share school announcements and the day plan; then finish with a 30-second game to get them in a nice laid-back mood. I also ask ‘what went well?’ in circle time.”

The process took 10 minutes initially, but now it’s “very quick”, says Freeman-Duffy.

“A lot of students don’t want to talk about their issues, and I completely understand. This system allows them to give an honest rating of how they’re feeling and not get questioned about it.”

This term, the program is being expanded, to stage 3 but in “baby steps”, he says.

Another highlight of last term for Freeman-Duffy was in joining other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and students for a cultural immersion day run by the education department’s Kimberwalli section.

“There were 110 students from the Colyton Learning Community schools. The whole mob were there.”

The pay they deserve

He also appreciates the power of numbers in building a collective voice of teachers, as illustrated recently in New South Wales.

Freeman-Duffy was relieved at the breakthrough in New South Wales teacher pay negotiations in September, with the announcement of a pay
increase across the board. It makes New South Wales government schoolteachers the highest paid of their peers across the country.

“A lot of (union) members I spoke to were happy with getting the pay they deserve for the work they do. They’re over the moon, particularly some of the beginning teachers on the old band system who were stuck on the same pay for two years,” he says.

Thanks to the union’s advocacy, the New South Wales education department eased rules to convert more temporary teachers to permanent. Freeman-Duffy congratulated two stage 2 teachers at his school who had been working temporarily for between two and five years. That was particularly welcome as St Marys North is still short of casual and relief teachers.

Speaking of roles, Freeman-Duffy says he’ll sound out possibilities for a secondment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander outcomes, wellbeing, or partnerships well beyond next year. But, what’s more urgent on his agenda is to find a part-time diploma or graduate certificate in neuroscience to help him demystify the “black box” of young learners’ brains.

Kelsey Hawthorn, Teacher, Marsden State High School, QLD

Rewards bring results

Consistency has worked a treat for Marsden High teacher Kelsey Hawthorn to better manage her Year 10 students’ behaviour in Term 3.

She’d been struggling to coax them to complete their practical lessons on time and as a team, so she tried a new way to lift their engagement.

“I set the expectations in the theory lesson before our practical cook. As a class, we agreed that if they didn’t work together to finish the cooking and cleaning on time and follow instructions, the practical cook in the following week would be cancelled,” Hawthorn says.

“Students were unable to meet the set expectations and, because I felt I’d done everything else I could to improve engagement, I had to be a bit mean and follow through by cancelling the following week’s cook.”

When the students next took part in a practical class, they followed instructions, cleaned up together as a team and held each other accountable for their shared role in the classroom clean-up procedures.

“After the lesson was done, I gave them some rewards to say, ‘I am so proud of all of you for stepping up to the plate and working together’,” says Hawthorn.

Career path options

The students’ improved focus may also be attributed to Hawthorn’s mentoring, which helped them choose subjects for next year and think about their lives after school.

“I tell my students not to measure themselves against other people or they’ll always feel two steps behind.”

As for her own career, Hawthorn, 27, is happy to have gone straight from school to university and then into teaching.

While some of her high school friends are now having their second child, Hawthorn is at a “different stage of my life”. She and her partner recently became proud parents of a “fur baby”, a Scottish collie pup. She’s also considering applying for leadership opportunities at her school next year.

Hawthorn was pleased to be a union rep “sounding board” for Marsden’s head of department (technologies) on its proposal to the local consultative committee to trim practical class sizes.

The committee includes representatives from across the school’s staff, plus unions representatives. The enterprise bargaining agreement allows site-specific negotiations.

Streamlined approach

And, at a recent national conference for home economics teachers, Hawthorn showed leadership when sharing her streamlined approach. Rather than handwriting feedback to students on assessments, she fills in a checklist. If they want more details, she’ll talk them through it.

She will also find out soon if her application for a role on the Queensland Teachers’ Union workplace safety committee was successful.

“I wasn’t sure about the selection criteria, which asked for a policy statement, so I procrastinated on my application. That comes down to my ADHD.”

She was diagnosed with the condition earlier this year and since taking medication has noticed improved working habits and says she is on a “more even keel”.

While Hawthorn is looking at leadership options, she wants to stay in the public school system.

“My passions are more suited to the public sector,” she says.

By Margaret Paton

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Summer 2023