Graduation address given by Dr Phil Lambert

Dr Phil Lambert agve the occasional address at the Faculty of Education and Social Work graduation ceremony held in the Great Hall at 4.00pm on 15 April 2011.

Dr Lambert is Regional Director (Sydney), NSW Department of Education and Training.

Dr Lambert

Photo, copyright Memento Photography

Graduation address

I would like to start by acknowledging the Gadigal people as traditional custodians of this land. I pay my respect to their elders both past and present and to any Aboriginal people here at the ceremony today.

I would also like to thank the Faculty of Education and Social Work for inviting me to speak today at this very important occasion.

I understand that it is customary for the guest speaker at the Faculty’s graduation ceremonies to speak about one’s education and in particular, post-university career.

I’ll start at the beginning of my formal education at Birrong Public School in the Western Suburbs of Sydney with a story often told to me by my father – it relates to an encounter he had with my Year 6 teacher at the local Bowling Club. When asking about my progress (you could say this was a form of parent-teacher interview) my father was told quite bluntly by my teacher: “Phil is a nice boy but he will never amount to much”. With each of my career moves or highlights my father reminds me of the prophetic words of my Year 6 teacher and in his own blunt way provides a reminder of how some educators can underestimate the potential in their students – I suspect he would like to locate my teacher to press this point as well.

I was not a particularly strong performer in high school and at one point around the beginning of Year 10 I was looking to leave school to work in a factory – I was in a rock band (long hair and all… this might surprise you to look at me now but believe me, it was possible then) and many of my friends were already working and earning money.

I have to thank my mother for her intervention. She encouraged me to complete Year 12 by drawing on those areas that I enjoyed at school (art, sport and music) and she used various other “mother-like” strategies that eventually persuaded me to stay on and complete Year 12. In the end I did quite well and actually enjoyed senior high school.

On completing the HSC I wanted to be an art teacher but through some form of human resource policy at the time (apparently if one had not taken science in high school you could not become an art teacher) I was left with my second choice – primary teaching.

While my initial desire was art teaching it only took my first practicum at Chester Hill Public School to realise that in fact primary teaching was my calling – I loved it and never thought about transferring to art teaching even when that became possible.

I had fairly mixed results at teachers college. I must be honest and say I had a very shaky start. You see I was, after all, the only male from the Western Suburbs at the college in Paddington and had never mixed with peers from the Northern Beaches, the Eastern Suburbs and Southern Sydney. It was a whole new world for me and I must say I didn’t handle the distractions all that well. I eventually settled down, finishing with a Distinction in my final practicum and graduating with a distinguished record – a bit of a late bloomer you might say.

I commenced teaching in the outer Western Suburbs of Sydney before transferring to the Inner City where outside of my teaching responsibilities I started and completed a Bachelor of Education degree by correspondence through Adelaide University.
I then accepted executive and Principal positions once again moving between schools in the Inner City and Western Suburbs of Sydney with my last position being Principal of Marrickville Public School. This was a wonderful period in my career and my years at Marrickville remain as one of the highlights in what has been an extremely rewarding and enjoyable career.

My career then took an interesting turn with me being appointed as the first Inspector for Primary Education at the Board of Studies. This was an interesting time in curriculum development here and across the globe. I was given the opportunity to oversee the development of the primary syllabuses commencing with the revision of English K-6 followed by HSIE and Mathematics (where by the way I had the opportunity to work with the very talented Associate Professor Judy Anderson, now with this Faculty and with many of her students graduating here today – she was Dr Anderson then). I also had responsibility for special education and had the pleasure of overseeing the development of the groundbreaking New HSC Life Skills syllabuses.

While at the Board I commenced my Masters at the University of Sydney. This was the mid 1990s and in undertaking that course it was the first time I had actually walked into a university as a student. I must have done something right as I was encouraged to continue studying and followed the Masters with my Doctorate. Just standing here in the Great Hall I recall with great fondness my graduation here, like you.

The work at the Board was innovative and extremely satisfying. Some of the highlights at the Board for me included developing a new syllabus construct – a model still valued by teachers today; the reintroduction of Grammar in primary schools; incorporating
understandings about spirituality, various religions and Asia in the formal curriculum; and establishing an understanding of a shared Australian history for primary students by honouring Aboriginal history and the perspectives of Aboriginal people about colonisation. In addition to the curriculum work as a Board Inspector I also undertook the monitoring of non-government schools and homeschooling through the inspection and registration process. This provided me with tremendous insight into sectors of education for which I had previously no contact with or appreciation for in relation to its nature and diversity.

After a successful period at the Board I was appointed Executive Director Early Childhood, Primary Education and Rural Education at the Department of Education and Training. This opened a new range of experiences and opportunities for me that included
the delivery of satellite video-conference learning for isolated students and schools – essentially the forerunner of Connected Classrooms; expansion of government school preschools; and the class-size reduction program.

In just over a year I was promoted to Assistant Director-General – responsible for a third of the schools in NSW – Western NSW, as well as policy oversight of early childhood, primary education and rural education. This was a nine month appointment before a restructure of the Department and the reintroduction of regions. From this I was appointed Regional Director of Sydney and in 2004 with additional responsibility for managing the Review of Aboriginal Education in NSW.

The Review of Aboriginal Education was an amazing initiative, one that was quite unique in terms of the processes we employed, and the nature of the report and its findings. An example of this is that it was undertaken jointly with the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group with every word in the report negotiated. Another example is the sheer number of recommendations we developed – there were over seventy in total, quite uncommon when it comes to statewide review reports. These were far reaching in scope covering such areas as leadership and accountability to some that while symbolic in nature, were equally important in the eyes of the review team given the order of change that was needed. I must say it is very pleasing to now witness the implementation of the recommendations and see the difference that we are starting to make… of course there is still a long way to go, but many changes have certainly taken place.

And so now I stand before you as the very proud Regional Director of Sydney. We have achieved a great in the Region since it was formed in 2004. We have seen the turnaround in enrolments with our public schools achieving first choice status with many of schools having very long waiting lists; our academic results are way above State and National averages and we continue to meet our ambitious performance targets for Aboriginal students as well as for all students; and the quality of our programs and achievements in the performing arts and sport are the envy of others.

Throughout my career I have looked to challenge myself and model the importance of life long learning for everyone, including educators and bureaucrats. My current example of this is that I have been leaning Mandarin for just over a year now. And I love it… both the language and the challenge! I am pleased to acknowledge my very talented teacher, Ms Shelley Tian, who is here at the University of Sydney with us today.

I honour her as my teacher as I also honour you for your achievements as you graduate today.

I will conclude my address today by using four observations or lessons to summarise what I have gained from my various experiences and from the pathways I have taken, as mentioned in this address.

– Lesson 1: Look for the strengths in the children or young people you teach or the families with whom you engage.
– Lesson 2: Look for the strengths in yourself – utilise what you have and find the strengths that are waiting to be discovered.
– Lesson 3: Keep learning – challenge yourself and grow by having your assumptions about your capabilities and those of others constantly checked and tested.
– Lesson 4: Do what you love – expect each day to be a great day – this approach to life and work has managed to help me through even the most difficult of tasks and situations.

I want to conclude by congratulating you on reaching this important point in your careers and wish you all well for the future. I am sure your families and friends are very proud of what you have achieved.