School principal and Western alumna, Nicole Wade, is perfectly placed to set the right example.
One of Nicole Wade’s family stories concerns her barefooted grandmother, a proud Nyoongah woman from the West Australian wheat belt, beating the champion athlete Shirley Strickland during their school days.
Strickland went on to win medals at three Olympics, but “Nan” Joan Eggington was precluded from representing Australia; her people were denied citizenship until the 1967 referendum.
Her granddaughter clearly inherited the fleetness of foot. Nicole remembers being chased by the principal when she fled home after children at Villawood Public School called her ugly because of her dark skin; “Running from the principal was the family joke because of Nan.”
The sense of not belonging bit deep. By 16 she was pregnant, but her son’s arrival somehow sharpened her focus and she enrolled at Dover Heights Distance Education Centre.
At 19, just five days after her second child’s birth, a daughter, Nicole sat the HSC biology examination. She achieved a UAI of 94.5 and was dux.
Among many opportunities available to her, Nicole opted for a Bachelor of Education (Primary) at Western Sydney University.
“I felt that I could have chosen many different universities and many different pathways but Western Sydney was the really obvious choice. It was part of my local community growing up in Villawood”, she says.
She blossomed, winning the Neil and Betty Hunt prize for outstanding academic practice and teaching performance. In her final year she was awarded a University Medal.
Now 38, Nicole is a community leader in ensuring Indigenous voices are heard in determining their own solutions rather than, as she says, “having things done to us” by mainstream Australia.
She is principal of Campbellfield Public School in Minto, where the school population (including 43 Indigenous children) has doubled in her five years in the job. The school has a diverse enrolment but Nicole’s success, both as a role model and in championing diversity, has prompted out-of-area applications from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents seeking recognition of their children’s custodial and cultural education.
“Our Student Representative Council came up with its own Statement of the Heart – every child at our school, regardless of background, should know Australia’s true history and be taught Aboriginal history… they wanted Aboriginal voices included in every decision that’s made within the school community,” she says.
“And if 10 to 12-year-olds can get the idea…this positions our future to be in better hands in terms of listening to Aboriginal voices and having that perspective in decision making.”
Nicole acknowledges Associate Professor Geoff Munns and former Senior Lecturer Terry Mason as pivotal mentors. Terry, she says, being Aboriginal, made her realise she could use her culture, heritage and history in the classroom. “They were something like a weapon in that they provided great drive, a great knowledge base, a great understanding of the system,” she says.
“Being part of a marginalised community, you actually have a deep understanding of some of the complexities that children face coming to school.”
Nicole reconnected with Associate Professor Munns five years after graduation when, as an assistant principal at Busby Public School, she participated in the University’s Fair Go Project to develop a student engagement pedagogy for teachers in low socio-economic status schools. “I still use those research skills (learned in the project) every day,” she says.
WORDS BY DAMIEN MURPHY