‘Because of the resilience of the strong Aboriginal women who came before us, we can have it all,’ says Melissa Cole.
It is NAIDOC week and the theme, ‘Because of Her, We Can!’ resonates deeply with Haileybury Rendall School Head of Aboriginal Education, Melissa Cole
Cole is of Warumungu and Luritja descent and has worked in education for 26 years.
She grew up in Alice Springs, studied in Adelaide, then returned to the Northern Territory to teach Aboriginal students in urban and remote contexts.
What are your biggest achievements?
Personally, my marriage and awesome children Jarrod, Ryan and Tia-Rose. Professionally, working at Yipirinya School in Alice Springs where I mastered my teaching style using the Accelerated Literacy Methodology under the direction of Professor Brian Gray and Professor Wendy Cowie, who were the developers of the program. The methodology is explicit with defined roles for teacher assistants. It has very high expectations, isdriven by data and based on strong ESL (English as a Second Language) pedagogy, which really resonated with my beliefs about what a successful literacy approach for our students should be. I worked with an amazing team of teachers driven by one of my mentors Fiona McLoughlin, whose knowledge of teaching Aboriginal students is second to none.
Who do you most admire?
My husband, Anthony O’Callaghan. Like myself Anthony grew up in Alice Springs. He is a proud Arrernte man who joined the Army at 17. He is now the Deputy Superintendent of the Darwin Prison. I am very proud of the fact that he is working in this space as he has cultural knowledge and understanding that I don’t think a non-Aboriginal person could bring to the role. I know that he would not tolerate unnecessary violence or unprofessionalism from the staff and this reassures me.
Who influenced you growing up?
My parents and grandparents —am very lucky I come from a very solid family. Many of the students I have worked with do not have the same luxury. My mum has supported all of us to go to university and follow our dreams. My father, Owen Cole, one of 15 children, grew up in the Gap cottages of Alice Spring. He was the first in his family to go to university, has established many Aboriginal organisations and sits on many boards. My sister, Beck Cole, is a filmmaker; she and I both went to university and my son Jarrod graduated with a Bachelor of Software Engineering last year. That is three generations of university graduates. Not bad for a family from Alice – a place where there isn’t even a university!
Who do you think are good role models for young women in 2018?
I asked my students this question and all of them spoke of their mothers, grandmothers and aunties. To me this is a positive thing. Strong women lift you up socially and emotionally. I am happy they see the best in the women around them.
What was the worst piece of advice you received growing up?
Being told that I wasn’t good at English —I was always in the bottom reading group, never felt confident handing in my spelling tests, and had feelings of dread and anxiety because I just didn’t get how it all worked. Now I am an English teacher. I think that is why I have worked so hard to perfect the craft of teaching. I know that it was not because I was not good at literacy, I just had poor teachers. I can confidently say that I can teach any child to read and write. I am not sure that all teachers could say the same.
What do you stand for?
I stand for Aboriginal people being given a voice about what is needed in Aboriginal Education. I stand for our kids having the best teachers in front of them each and every lesson. I stand for high expectations for all Aboriginal kids.
I have just read the novel Tracker by Alexis Wright. Tracker was best friends with my father and was a constant in my life growing up; he is also my husband’s uncle. In the book he talks about a war on Aboriginal culture, rights and entitlements —I agree. If he were still alive I would say to him that, if this is a war, then education must be our weapon of choice.
Cole works with a team of educators, tutors, an enrolment officer, a student support officer, a nurse, a restorative justice leader, a psychologist and Clontarf Foundationpeople.
Because of Her, We Can!
Note: NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week is an Australian observance lasting from the first Sunday in July until the following Sunday. NAIDOC Week celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.