Long-term member profile: Marg McHugh

Marg pictured with Branch President Jarvis Ryan and former Centralian Senior College principal Tony Collins

Marg McHugh reflects on the rewards of a long career in the central desert – as told to Melody O’Meara

Stretching back to 1973, Marg McHugh’s career is notable for the way it privileged the needs of others. Her selfless enthusiasm supported countless students to seek out rewarding experiences and achieve their potential. Education in the Territory is certainly the better for it and it was with gratitude and a little sadness that we bade her farewell following her retirement from Centralian Senior College last year.

Marg’s Territory story begins in the mid-1970s after a few years in in NSW at Maroubra Girls High. She took a chance on remote education, choosing Lajamanu over Borroloola based on the all-weather airstrip which allowed her to fly to Alice or Darwin during the wet season.

“The Warlpiri community made us very welcome. I was given a skin name Nampitjinpa by a student when we went hunting with the women.” She enjoyed bush trips out to the headwaters of the Victoria River then over to Wave Hill and cannot speak highly enough of the value of being immersed in a different culture.

A recent highlight harking back to this time was the unexpected opportunity to meet up with an ex-student, now teaching at Lajamanu School, at last year’s World Teachers Day festivities.

She spent a few years in post-cyclone Darwin but couldn’t say no when an offer of work at Yirara College (a boarding school for remote Indigenous students) came up in 1980. She loved reconnecting with past students from Lajamanu, Yuendumu, Papunya and Alekarenge whilst getting to know her new home group from Neutral Junction and Tennant Creek.

She has fond memories of going with the whole school to the Yuendumu sports weekend every year.

After maternity leave and several part-time jobs, she returned to full-time teaching at Braitling Primary in 1990 in a special education role. Marg notes that special education then had quite a big support team in the regional office, with speech and occupational therapists and three psychologists that she was fortunate enough to work alongside very closely.

Later, at Alice Springs High, Marg taught additional needs students and was also heavily invested in cross-curricular activities including debating and eisteddfods.

She enjoyed working with InCite Youth Arts as a board member for 10 years. She is proud that her involvement directly contributed to getting performing arts education into schools in the form of dance. Many of the students performed in the Desert Music Festival and other public events as a result.

I’ve always believed that you have to stand up for what you believe in and the union gave me that opportunity with the support of work colleagues. It was always a learning curve sharing ideas and what was going on in education around the Territory, I don’t think any other professional education organisation does that. I felt inspired at Conference last year by all the younger teachers who are so committed and articulate in getting their message out about what it is like teaching in bush community schools and also in town.
— Marg McHugh

Marg considers the impact of the middle school educational model as she reflects on the Alice Outcomes and Future Directions programs designed to support students into the workforce or those not wanting to go on and do Year 11 and 12. She adds that these programs “…started to change after 2000 with the emergence of the middle school philosophy and the transition to Centralian Middle School.” During this period, she also supported the Language Centre: “a wonderful asset to public education in Alice Springs.”

Marg hosted Indonesian exchange teachers for four years as well as a Japanese exchange student from Tokyo and found these times “a wonderful sharing of ideas, friendship, culture and language.” One of the teachers from Ambon even attended the AEU NT Branch Conference in Katherine in 2010 and found it a great experience.

The shift to senior secondary education from 2015 catapulted Marg into the world of LAPs, Performance Standards and the SACE curriculum, which she describes as “a steep learning curve” she made it through with the support of her special ed team.

Marg maintains that “the most rewarding part of special education is working very closely with parents and carers… it is very special seeing students change from Year 10 to Year 12 graduates and to see others transition into work.”

Not surprisingly, Marg has been interested in the Transitions to Work program, viewing it as a critical part of the program for students with additional needs.

Marg is one of the AEU NT’s longest-term members and sees the most important parts of her union role as “working for better conditions, salaries and funding for public schools.” She reminds us of how much many hard-won improvements are now taken for granted, such as release time for primary teachers that “took decades to achieve” along with school counsellors in secondary schools being “a relatively new achievement.”

Marg is a past Alice Springs Regional Council President, a valued sub-branch rep and has attended many conferences. We applaud all that she has done working for the betterment of public education in the Territory.

This is an expanded online version of an article prepared for the Semester 2, 2021 edition of the Territory Educator magazine.