Chris celebrates 50 years in teaching

IEU President Christine Wilkinson was 16 years old when she had her first taste of teaching.

Chris’ service to teaching has just been commemorated by the Broken Bay Diocese and IEU Executive. She has spent most of her career (40 years) at one school – St Joseph’s Catholic College, East Gosford – where she was a founding teacher.

Chris joined the Graham Burrow School of Physical Education in 1966.

The Graham Burrow School was founded by Kathleen Burrow in 1926 and provided exercise and dance classes to children in Catholic schools. Initially Chris worked in Catholic schools in the Sydney area.

“I was thrown straight in the deep end, teaching boys to play football,” Chris said.

Her high school visits often required Chris to teach students the same age as herself. Chris then moved on to country schools.

This would entail staying in pubs and parents’ homes as she travelled between schools in the central coast, Newcastle and Tamworth regions.

The 16 year old would catch trains (often late at night) and taxis to move between schools and use teachers’ homes to shower and have breakfast before class. She started full time at St Joseph’s in 1978.

Chris always wanted to be a teacher, and her passion for track and field got her into physical education. She trained with Olympian Betty Cuthbert and performed at state level.

“I was lucky to be able to specialise in the field that I loved in my job,” she said.

Over time Chris combined her work with part time study to achieve a teaching degree.

Change of direction

A big change in her life happened when she was 40.

“I was pulling apart witches hats in the playground and something jarred in my back.”

Chris required spinal surgery and her PE days were over. The Catholic Education Office allowed her to retrain and she started teaching careers and vocational education, as well as history and geography.

“I think the injury was a blessing in disguise. It was time for me to change career, and it was great that I was able to move in a new direction.

“ I was getting older and continuing on in physical education may not have been the best, especially being outdoors all the time.”

Chris enjoys the variety that vocational education and careers work entails. She is often out of school visiting students on work placements and finds the industry and academic requirements of these courses quite rigorous.

Abiding passion

St Joseph’s has been an abiding passion. Chris loved working with the Josephite Sisters that founded the school.

“I did some fabulous work with the sisters who were principals. The Josephite charism is part of who I am.

“Our school motto is ‘Act Justly’ and I think I’ve always worked towards that.”

Chris has proudly watched the school grow from 360 students in three streams to a 900 strong Years 7-12 school. The change from a school run by sisters to one run by lay people is one of the biggest she has experienced during her career.

“I miss the Sisters because the school had a completely different feeling when they were there. But there are no Sisters coming through the system now.

“Myself and some of the older staff maintain the Josephite philosophy with the principal and the girls.”

Now teaching the daughters of students she has taught, Chris said if she can make a difference in one girl’s life once a year then it is all worthwhile.

“A little kid comes up to you and says ‘thank you Miss’. That’s what it’s all about – that’s all you need.”

Workers rights

Chris joined the IEU around 1982, when it was still called the Independent Teachers Association (ITA). Her parents had been staunch unionists that always “stuck up for the workers”.

She became a school Rep, Branch Secretary, member of Council, Executive member and Vice President, until she took up the President’s role about 15 years ago.

“I love the contact with the members and I have made some wonderful friends through the Union.

“I love fighting for what I believe in and having a common goal leading to better conditions for teachers.

“We’re moving into the unknown in education at the moment with all the changes.

“I worry about young teachers not staying in the profession. All the administration seems to be putting them off.

“They need to be determined and get over those first few years and then they will realise what a difference they can make to a child’s life.”

Chris plans to keep teaching for as long as she can, and continue in her role as IEU President.

“If I wake up one morning and feel like I don’t want to go to school then I’ll stop, but I don’t think that will be any time soon.

“At the 50 year ceremony the Bishop asked me if I had my time again would I do anything different and I said no. I’ve loved doing what I do and have no regrets.”

Sue Osborne