Member spotlight: Elizabeth O’Callaghan OAM

"We need to be conscious of all the dimensions and needs of the child.”

Liz O’Callaghan directing 'Let’s Paint Our Rainbow' at Parramatta Stadium in 1988 for the Bicentennial Celebration

Elizabeth O’Callaghan was awarded an OAM for Services to Education in the 2024 Australia Day Honours List for her long career mentoring students, teachers and principals.

Starting her teaching career in 1969, O’Callaghan was one of the earliest graduates of the Catholic Teachers College (in the grounds of the University of Sydney, now part of the Faculty of Education) and went on to lecture there for many years.

Around the same time, she was involved in demonstrating the Initial Teaching Alphabet with the first primary school class ever to visit a university (Macquarie University School of Education) in the southern hemisphere.

A Blue Mountains resident, O’Callaghan has taught at various schools in the Parramatta Diocese, including St Michael’s Primary School Baulkham Hills, St Thomas Aquinas Primary School, Springwood, and St Mary MacKillop Primary School, South Penrith, where she was principal from 1995 to 2007.

O’Callaghan has frequently combined teaching with mentoring other teachers and principals. At one point, she was seconded to the Wilcannia-Forbes Diocese to assist principals as they implemented new educational policies for students in rural and remote areas of NSW.

“I’m a great believer in matching learner and learning, which means we need to be conscious of all the dimensions and needs of the child,” O’Callaghan said. “A prime consideration is how teachers form relationships with each child.”

Early in her career, O’Callaghan undertook consultancy work focused on children with higher needs or disadvantage. She aimed to ensure they were taught in a way that gave them the most opportunities.

When the Gonski Report was released in 2010, O’Callaghan helped schools move children closer to literacy benchmarks. The report, written by businessman David Gonski, was a Rudd government inquiry into school funding. Its aim was to create an equitable school funding system and thereby boost the performance of Australian students.

Acting skills to the fore

O’Callaghan also trained as an actor and director. She was a television anchor for Catholic Communications and has used these skills and qualifications to help students. She was a Creative Arts Advisor to the Parramatta Diocese from 1988-89. While a member of the NSW Board of Studies, O’Callaghan contributed to the creative arts curriculum, which welcomed dance back into the curriculum.

During the International Year of Peace in 1986, one of her students, Eamon Burke, wrote to the leader of the then Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, about world peace and expressing his fear of nuclear war. Later that year, Eamon was invited to visit Moscow to talk with students and political leaders.

Following extensive international news coverage, a Film Australia production crew visited St Michael’s Primary School to interview Eamon and some of his classmates. The film ‘Mum, how do you spell Gorbatrof?’ was released the following year.

In 1988, together with a skilled team, O’Callaghan was the artistic director and compere of “Let’s Paint Our Rainbow”, the Bicentenary event for the Parramatta Diocesan primary schools. About 20,000 students and teachers took part in this celebration.

From 2003, O’Callaghan was the Co-Executive Director of Restorative Practices and Listening Circles, described as “a non-punitive approach which accepts that we all make mistakes and have the ability to ‘fix’ the problem together and learn from our experiences”. It is about inclusivity and concerned with maintaining and building connectedness between students, parents, teachers and the community.

Maintaining healthy relationships

O’Callaghan was a trainer/facilitator, visiting schools to help develop and maintain healthy relationships between teachers and students. The aim was to help students with self-regulating and improve learning outcomes.

In 2003, St Mary MacKillop Catholic Primary School at South Penrith was the first school in Australia to integrate restorative practices into teaching and learning.

“It is not simply about teachers being able to deal with a difficult situation, but it is a way of being,” O’Callaghan said. “It is a change of culture so that relationships may be mended.”

Outside of education, O’Callaghan was a founding member of Springwood East Timor Support Group which has been active since 1996. She is also a supporter of the Western Sydney Jesuit Refugee Support Group.

“I’ve never wanted to be far from students,” she said.

Whatever she’s doing, whether teaching the teacher, opening up the world of literacy, the arts, or restorative practices for her students, O’Callaghan’s goal has always been to support staff and parents for the benefit of the student.

O’Callaghan was a proud member of the IEU for more than 30 years. She said it was important to be in the union and for all of the school’s staff to know she was a member.

Sue Osborne