Schools Walking in giant footsteps

When Debbie Cottier – a Gunditjmara woman and principal of Springvale Rise Primary School – was growing up, her late Aboriginal grandmother, the respected Elder Auntie June, was a huge influence on her ambition to become a teacher. 

“She was a Koorie kindergarten education assistant who worked as a liaison between kinders, schools and community, so for me it wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky goal to become a teacher,” Debbie says. “It was genuinely attainable.”

Work experience with Auntie June solidified that goal, with Debbie becoming the first person in her family to attend university. Now, almost 35 years into her career, Debbie, who this year won a Marrung Award for Aboriginal Community Leadership, is a shining example of the truism: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’

“I feel that sense of responsibility,” Debbie says. “I think all mob does. I’m here because of all the work done by those who have come before me. And I’m lucky – therefore I have a moral imperative to support other mob. And not just mob. I work in a refugee context here, and to me, there are so many parallels there with trying to pay it forward.”

While there are no students who identify as Koorie currently enrolled at Springvale Rise, Debbie employs four staff who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander across the school’s two campuses.


“I’ve met more First Nations educators under the AEU umbrella in two years than I have over 34 years in the job, creating a real sense of connection.”

She’s also committed to helping bring about lasting change within the education sector. Creating culturally safe spaces within schools so First Nations teachers can thrive is essential, Debbie says. “You need to put structures and processes in place to make sure of that.”

Particularly now, as the increasingly heated conversation around the Voice to Parliament plays out. “It’s challenging,” she admits. “The extra cultural load is real at the moment. I feel for younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues who don’t have culturally safe workplaces or people around them to help navigate the complexity of these times.”

When the AEU first approached Debbie about supporting the union to develop and review First Nations-specific clauses in the latest Schools Agreement, she was a little sceptical. “I’d been a member for 30-plus years, and I thought, ‘Why now?’”

She now recognises that the intent was genuine. “The AEU has taken some big steps forward in the last couple of years by listening deeply to recommendations from First Nations members, agreeing and actioning a significant number already, including the employment of two First Nations organisers, which is awesome. They’ve made a commitment, so we need to continue to show up and be heard.”

AEU First Nations Forums have helped forge an invaluable network, Debbie says. “Truth be told, I’ve met more First Nations educators under the AEU umbrella in two years than I have over 34 years in the job, creating a real sense of connection.”

The Marrung Award was an honour, she says – a validation of a career dedicated to following in the footsteps of her ancestors. First Nations principals are scarce, Debbie notes. “There’s four or five of us in the state, and for a Koorie educator to stick around for 34 years is also rare.”

She dedicated the award to her grandmother, a Kerrup Jmara woman born on the Lake Condah Mission. “I have such a responsibility walking in her footsteps. The Awards help to amplify and highlight all the great work being done by Aboriginal educators and allies across the state. I’m hopeful that we’re in a good place to move forward, as an education system, into something even better in the future.”

And another thing…

The most important things I take into the classroom every day are… enthusiasm and a smile. 

The most important thing to leave at home is… negativity.

The best advice I ever received was… being a good leader is all about relationships. Relationships, relationships, relationships.

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be… being a good educator is also about building relationships. But it is equally as important to spend the time to really get to know your students, their family, and the extended school community. 

My favourite teacher at school was… a teacher by the name of Bert Shaw, who I had in Year 5 and Year 6. He was my all-time favourite teacher simply because he always provided me with work that was new and challenging. He was obviously keen for me to succeed at school.

The people I admire most are… the people who strive to make a difference in the world.

In my other life… I really wanted to be an archaeologist. It’s funny, because I was watching The First Inventors on Channel 10 – a show about Aboriginal inventors – but as a child, I didn’t know who employed an archaeologist. I didn’t think I’d ever get a job.

If I met the state education minister, I’d tell her… that our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators who work for the department would love to have the opportunity to spend some time with her in person. Our collective voices are ready to be heard. 

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