Whether in his role as school leader or as representative on the Board of Reconciliation Victoria, proud Noongar man Tom Cazaly brings boundless energy and a belief in the power of the collective.
The impact of a good teacher on someone’s life can be immeasurable. For Tom Cazaly, it was the honesty and kindness of Mr Lynch in Grade 4 that laid out education as Cazaly’s vocation. Later, in Year 7, the passion and drive of his English teacher Mrs Chuck had a similar impact.
“The great thing is, I saw Mrs Chuck 10 years after she’d been my teacher and she hadn’t changed at all,” recalls Cazaly, who grew up on a farm outside Glenrowan and went to the local Catholic schools in Wangaratta. “She still had that fire in her belly; she was so passionate about her subject and her students.”
Since studying education and politics at The University of Melbourne, Cazaly has primarily taught in secondary education, minus a couple of years early on when he worked as a political advisor and campaign manager. “It was interesting to learn about the cut and thrust of politics, but I missed the classroom and helping someone in that immediate way,” he says.
“I feel like peoples’ perception of what special schools are is a bit outdated. Our kids have the same expectations as kids in mainstream schools, as they should.”
Now, as assistant principal at Katandra School, Cazaly is cutting his teeth in leadership and special education for the first time – and loving both. “Seeing the dedication and drive that special ed teachers have has been incredible; I’ve learnt so much since being here.”
As assistant principal, Cazaly says he’s been given a lot of trust to manage his own portfolio and to drive projects himself, including embedding school-wide wellbeing programs and long-term strategic planning. He also makes time to get into classrooms as much as possible.
“It’s very easy to get caught up behind a desk, but I think it’s really important to see what the kids are doing,” he says. “I also cover classes regularly, so that means I don’t have to miss teaching too much.”
What the kids are doing has highlighted to Cazaly how much cross-over there is with mainstream schools. “I feel like peoples’ perception of what special schools are is a bit outdated. Our kids have the same expectations as kids in mainstream schools, as they should.”
“It felt really important for me to spend some time where my grandfather had grown up – to go out to this rural West Australian town with its dry and harsh landscape was really significant in helping me understand my family’s past.”
He feels there is increasing focus on inclusive education in Victoria – including students’ cultural backgrounds and abilities – and would like to see continued movement in that direction. “The Cultural Awareness Training under professional learning, for example, and practical tools like that, are great,” he says.
“The Andrews government has done a lot in that area and I hope the momentum can get to such an embedded place that it continues no matter who is in charge.”
Cazaly’s own Aboriginality has emerged gradually as he has grown up. “My mum was born in Western Australia, so there was a bit of a disconnect as we’d always been in Victoria.”
Four years spent teaching in Perth gave him the opportunity to connect with his Indigenous heritage. “It felt really important for me to spend some time where my grandfather had grown up – to go out to this rural West Australian town with its dry and harsh landscape was really significant in helping me understand my family’s past. Learning about the family and seeing my great-grandmother’s grave was very powerful for me.”
A year ago, Cazaly joined the Board of Reconciliation Victoria, which works with communities, organisations, local government and education to foster Indigenous knowledge, respect and reconciliation. “Reconciliation Victoria has been bounding along in terms of its growth and the work they do. We have a fantastic CEO, [Diana David], who’s one of the first Aboriginal women to be leading the organisation. She’s been driving some great change – especially in the education space,” says Cazaly. “I feel very excited and honoured to be part of it.”
It’s this passion for activism and change that also makes Cazaly a firm believer in supporting the AEU, which he has called on for information and advice over the years. “It’s very important to be a union member – I’m very proud of trade unionism,” he says. “We only have real power through the collective voice; that’s how real action happens.”
AND ANOTHER THING… 9 QUESTIONS FOR TOM CAZALY
The most important things I take into the classroom every day are… A growth mindset. As teachers, we need to constantly be learning and adapting. I try to always open my mind and be prepared for the kids to teach me something. Also, a calm demeanour. Students are very perceptive. If we are stressed or anxious, they pick up on that and it can often work against us.
The most important things to leave at home are… Grumpy moods.
The best advice I ever received was… Be yourself. Kids can pick a fraud or fake very quickly. We’re not perfect, we make mistakes. Students appreciate that honesty.
My favourite teachers at school were… Mrs Chuck and Mr Lynch. Both highly motivated and treated every student uniquely.
The people I admire most are… My mum and dad. They taught us to work hard and persevere. They also taught us to be kind to everyone and use our talents to help others.
The music or book that changed my life was… Quiet – The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain.
In my other life, I am… A lucky husband, avid reader and Chelsea FC supporter.
If I met the education minister, I’d tell him… The work our special ed teachers and ES staff do is incredible. I have been so impressed by how our special ed staff work to provide academically rigorous and engaging learning environments. All DET staff should visit a special school and see it for themselves.
The most important thing the union does for its members is… Listen. I have found the supports offered to members very helpful.