Leon White: a lifetime of service

Leon outside the Yirrkala Homeland School 

Leon White’s commitment to Indigenous education and workforce development will be recognised with AEU Life Membership

A true legend and pioneer of remote education delivery, Leon recently retired after a career spanning five decades. He will be recognised at the AEU’s 2020 Federal Conference with Life Membership for his outstanding contribution to our union and public education in the Northern Territory.

Leon first came to the NT in 1970, to teach in Wadeye (Port Keats) as a lay missionary.

He was based there until August 1974, then accepted a job as a relief teacher at Yirrkala School for six weeks. At this point Leon joined the NTTF, the predecessor of the AEU, and remained a member almost continuously for the next 45 years.

From 1974 to 1978 he worked as a visiting teacher to homeland centres attached to Yirrkala School. He was part of the organising group for the 1976 NTTF Conference that started discussion around paraprofessional Aboriginal staff being able to join the NTTF.

Moving back to the NT in 1980 after a brief period of study leave and work as a prison educator in South Australia – and also getting married – Leon commenced work at Batchelor College as a senior lecturer to oversee moves to make the teacher education program more effective at the community level. He continued and deepened this work on his return to Yirrkala in 1986 as a Batchelor lecturer based at the school and was instrumental in the creation of a Remote Area Teacher Education (RATE) program providing for the needs of hub schools servicing homelands centres, addressing the learning needs of both participating students and visiting students.

Leon says his primary mission was to ensure that appropriate leaning for all teachers was in place to ensure quality learning for students

A study leave sabbatical in 1990 allowed Leon to complete a Master’s degree focusing on the inadequacies of secondary education delivery in the north-east Arnhem region. Upon his return in 1991 Leon became principal of Yirrkala Homeland School until late 1999. He then served as principal of Yirrkala School until “retirement” at the end of 2004.

Despite allegedly retiring, Leon continued in a variety of roles with Yolngu education and training remaining his passion. He commenced a PhD at Melbourne University, did another stint at Batchelor and worked as an attendance and engagement officer for Gove Peninsula schools. Fittingly, Leon concluded his full-time career with the Department by serving once again as principal of Yirrkala Homeland School from 2014 until the end of 2018. His final project was a review of homelands education provision.

Leon says his primary mission was to ensure that appropriate leaning for all teachers was in place to ensure quality learning for students: “Working in remote settings drove my commitment to using the available resources to guide our action and stop morale-sapping conversations about ‘they should’ or ‘we could’ without examination of what we can do! This doesn’t excuse successive governments and departments for under-resourcing remote education, but it is fundamental to the wellbeing of all involved educators.”

Yirrkala’s current principal Katrina Hudson said two attributes stood out about Leon: “Firstly, his insight and commitment to Yolngu teacher education – his belief that the Yolngu worldview and aspirations must be considered in all decisions that relate to educating Yolngu children. Secondly, his generosity in mentoring newly arrived staff to north-east Arnhem Land and raising awareness about culturally appropriate practices with respect to education.”

This article was first published in the Term 4, 2019 edition of the Territory Educator magazine