TAFE & Adult Provision Leading your best life: TAFE teacher Mary Collins

Mary Collins. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Mary Collins says she followed the traditional, time-honoured pathway into the disability sector after leaving school in 1978. “I fell into it through volunteer work as an assistant in a classroom,” she says. “I can still remember my first day, thinking, ‘This is very strange,’ and within about two weeks, “No, this is just really very, very interesting’.”

She enjoyed learning from good teachers and support staff with great ideas who were very respectful of the kids they were working with. It sparked a lifelong passion for the job that she now imparts in her role as a TAFE teacher at RMIT. Mary started out there as a sessional in 1998, and she’s seen a lot of changes since then, both in the delivery of the Cert IV in Disability, and the sector more broadly. 

You need wage incentives and conditions and consistency for really skilled, direct support practitioners to stay.

“The NDIS is the biggest social change since Medibank, as it was back then,” Mary says. “It’s a great thing I’m very much in favour of, but there are, undoubtedly, issues with the rollout.”

It has created a raft of opportunities for people wanting to work with Australians with disability, but a funding shortfall has proved challenging. “You need well-trained, consistent staff as well as people coming and going with fresh ideas and fresh perspectives. And you need wage incentives and conditions and consistency for really skilled, direct support practitioners to stay doing that.

“People shouldn’t have to become managers and coordinators and CEOs in order to get a salary that will support buying their children school shoes, paying for dental appointments, mortgages and rent and all of these things.”

Introducing contestability within the sector led to challenges Mary says she saw coming a mile off. “It was a disaster waiting to happen, and one that unfolded just the way we predicted. Some fly-by-night schools were offering qualifications in four months, and you may not necessarily work with someone with a disability in that time.

“Meanwhile, back in TAFE, we were trying to persuade people that it was a good thing to take an academic year to do your Cert IV. To take time to learn, to practice, to reflect and to develop your skills, rather than gallop out the door with a piece of paper that may or may not mean much over time.”

Mary has been a union member from the outset. “I’ve been around long enough. I now say what I want to say. But it wasn’t always like that. I was a casual. I was new. I was insecure. I’ve always been a member of the union for that reason.”

It’s a question of human rights, people having the best and most interesting life they can.

With 40-plus years under her belt, Mary is just as energised by the job today as she was back in 1978. “I enjoy problem-solving. I enjoy the process of helping people become fluent communicators.”

She’s particularly focused on  encouraging workers in the sector on how best to work through the frustrations experienced by students with intellectual disabilities. “If we can get communication happening properly, we’ll get a lot less of that confusion and stress and some of the behaviours of concern happening.

“It’s usually because something’s not going right. If we can just investigate and nut out what that is and fix it up with them, then they’re going to have a better life. And actually, so will we as their support staff. It’s a mutual benefit.”

Everyone deserves that respect, Mary says. “It’s a question of human rights, people having the best and most interesting life they can.”

The results speak for themselves. While conducting a workplace observation assessment with students recently, she bumped into a man she had worked with more than three decades ago. “He’s now in his mid-40s and having a fantastic life. That’s what we want.”

And another thing…

The most important things to leave at home are… Fatigue and irritations.

The best advice I ever received was…  In our sector, it’s thinking, how would I want to be treated? How would I want my loved ones and friends to be treated? I try to bring that same respect for the experiences, knowledge and skills of the students I’m working with.

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be…  Take your time to learn, and enjoy the variety of the extraordinary things that you’ll get to see and do.

My favourite teacher at school was… Mrs Mankarious, my Grade 5 teacher. She came to work early and held classes for wee dunces in maths. I wasn’t very good at maths, but she was a terrific teacher.

The people I admire most are… Everyone flogging themselves working on this COVID thing. And my mum. She’s 102 and retains her interest in the world. And loves the footy. She’s that generation of women. Indomitable. 

The music or book that changed my life was… To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s that thought of standing in someone’s shoes and saying, ‘How’d this person experience life?’

In my other life, I am… Very good at sitting and doing nothing, when I get the chance. Devoted to it, in fact.

If I met the education minister, I’d tell him… There’s a West Wing episode for everything. [Rob Lowe’s character] Sam Seaborn, one of the president’s speechwriters, says, “Education is the silver bullet”. Public schools should be the best schools in the country, and teachers should be paid well.

The most important thing the union does for its members is… Advocates, defends, and offers a barrier between people who try to exploit workers and those who can’t speak up.

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