AEU members Irene Palamaras and Paul Booth have dug deep into their own pockets to podcast their advice on empowering health & safety reps in schools.
Teachers Irene Palamaras and Paul Booth have been thick as thieves since they started working together at East Doncaster Secondary College in 1985. Or, almost. It took a little while for their paths to cross, with Paul, who teaches legal studies and business management, joking that his first year at work was a “very peaceful” one. Irene, an English, TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) and literacy teacher, chuckles at this running joke between them. She’s the first to admit she “sure can talk”.
Indeed, it’s their friendly banter and passion for all things health and safety that led the pair to create the podcast Teach Safe Work Smart, which has been delivering 10–15 minutes’ worth of ‘did-you-know?’ gold on the topic since November last year. The podcast, which also has a dedicated Facebook page, covers everything from mastering eduSafe to saying ‘no’ and managing stress in the workplace. Recent guests have included AEU OHS organiser Meaghan Flack, who joined them for a discussion about asbestos, occupational violence, and psychological health.
Irene was Health and Safety rep at Doncaster Secondary for many years, with Paul as her deputy. While Irene is currently on sick leave and Paul has transferred to Virtual Schools Victoria, they hope to continue hosting the podcast together if they can secure funding. They’re currently paying for studio time, an audio engineer and editing fees out of their own pockets. “We’re not great with technology,” Irene laughs. But as Paul sees it, their efforts are “a community service”.
A supportive assistant principal initially encouraged Irene to join the OH&S committee. “I didn’t even know what it was or that it was an elected position,” she says of those early days. “I got the job because nobody else nominated, basically.” Forty years on, she’s across the detail and fired up about encouraging everyone else to be, too. “At the beginning, it was pretty easy. Then, new management came through and something changed. I couldn’t work out why there was so much resistance, even around simple things.”
This quandary only increased Irene’s curiosity and determination. “So I started doing a few more courses, asking more questions. I realised that the OH&S Act really empowers employees. We always think about the agreement as the default, but the Act actually talks about things like systems of work. It talks about communication and consultation. These things weren’t happening [at our school].”
“I always say, ‘Get a couple of small wins’, because once you get that, you realise that change is possible.”
Paul’s background in legal studies helped. “I’d come in and say, ‘Under the Act, you are required to consult with us before you even have a plan,’ and they didn’t like that at all,” he says.
Right now, he is particularly worried about workload pressures, especially for new teachers, many of whom are burning out before they get started. “I’ve been teaching for so long, back when you had time to breathe,” he recalls. “These young ones coming in, they’re talking about quitting at the end of the year.”
Paul points to student tests and ever-more meetings as flashpoints. “I think: ‘Stand up for yourself; know and fight for your rights’. Very few people have read the Schools Agreement, let alone the OH&S Act. And that’s where the power is. That’s where our passion is – directing people to this information, because there’s a lot of misinformation from the department.”
The pair’s increasing knowledge and willingness to share it, aided by the power of the podcast platform, has encouraged others to follow in their footsteps – something Irene takes as a win. “We want to wake teachers up to the strength of HSRs. It’s a position that can feel thankless, but I always say, ‘Get a couple of small wins’, because once you get that, you soon realise that change is possible.”
Members can listen to all the past episodes of Teach Safe, Work Smart on Spotify.